Friday, September 14, 2012

From My Forthcoming Book, "It Was Pure Hell: The Story Of A Show Biz Partnership In The Shadows Of Fame"

From 1957 through 1974, Richard "Fitz" Fitzgerald and Walter "Krome" Krominski spent an average of 200 nights a year on the road. Performing as Fitz and Krome, the two men --who had met as students at Northwestern University-- were both talented singers, dancers, and comedians, and their family-friendly variety show was a popular staple at theaters, nightclubs, and auditoriums all over America.

An alternate title for my oral history of the Fitz and Krome odyssey might well have been "Close But No Cigar," as there is no question that the duo spent their career largely in the shadows of other similar shows and more famous performing duos (Martin and Lewis, most obviously, but there was scads of other competition during their heyday). There were numerous close calls with genuine celebrity: an early movie for Paramount --They Went That Away!-- was a flop, and two television pilots (for NBC and CBS) were ultimately rejected. Walter Krominsky insisted to the end of his days that he and Fitz had developed and pitched the original idea for Laugh-In (their working title, he told me, had been Laugh It Off), only to be passed over in the end for Rowan and Martin. Finally, near the end of their careers, Fitz and Krome hosted an afternoon game show, Whaddaya Know?, on ABC, but the program was cancelled after one season.

I saw Fitz and Krome twice during my childhood. My hometown had an annual "Artist Series," a subscription-based calendar of programming that brought in national and regional touring acts to perform in the high school auditorium. Most of these performers (The Fred Waring Singers, Ferrante and Teicher, Al Hirt) were grim fare for a pre-adolescent boy with extreme attention deficit disorder, but I found Fitz and Krome entertaining and fascinating on multiple levels. The last time I saw them --this, I've surmised, would have been very near the end of their partnership-- there was a palpably desperate energy to their show, something manic and scattershot that in the intervening years I've come to recognize as a precursor to much of the entertainment that I have loved as an adult. "At the end," Walter Krominski told me, "it was pretty clear the writing was on the wall, and I think there was a Katie-bar-the-door approach. We had a good cast of young people --probably the best, most eager we ever had-- and we were just trying to toss off everything we had left."

The following is from more than 100 hours of interviews I conducted with Krominski, who was then living in Scottsdale, Arizona. He died in 2011 at the age of 84.

I traveled with that sorry son of a bitch for more than fifteen years, and every time we came back --right from the beginning-- I'd tell anybody who would listen that I was done.

The problem was that neither of us could make a fucking dime on our own; if both of our names weren't on the marquee they couldn't sell a dozen tickets. Together, right to the end, we still put the keisters in the seats.

I always resented it more than he did. I mean, I wrote 80 percent of the material. At least. Granted, Dick was a better dancer and I didn't have the pipes he did, but he'd already learned that he wasn't quite good enough or handsome enough to make it on his own in Hollywood or on Broadway. He would have been a regional dinner theater headliner, at best. He needed that contrast and friction we had. I knew what he brought to the table, and what my role was, and I played up that difference by being deliberately worse than I was. Because I was actually no slouch myself. You think it's easy to sing flat or sharp on purpose? Or to always be a half or quarter step behind on the dance numbers? It isn't. It wasn't. It was even harder when I was always shooting him those panicked glances for comic effect, or pretending to be out of breath. That shit took a lot of work, a lot of practice, and a lot of concentration. Dick couldn't have done it, and he wouldn't have done it. Too proud.

He was, of course, famous for botching lines; crowds thought it was side-splittingly funny, but I can assure you it was never deliberate.

Dick was a genuine drip. I mean, seriously, the real deal. As flaky as they come. Whenever anybody wrote about Fitz and Krome, Dick was always portrayed as the nicest, most sincere guy in the world. And maybe he was, but he was a simpleton. I can't say he was ever mean or spiteful, but that much niceness gets to be manipulative. Still, I guess what you saw was very much what you got with Dick.

I had an edge to me, I don't deny it. I still do. I had to be the bad cop. I was always the negotiator, of course, and it was up to me to make sure we got paid. Even now I'll occasionally stumble across some interview with Dick --invariably one of those "Where Are They Now?" things-- and he never fails to tell whoever the hell he's talking to that he was always having so much fun that he would have done it for free, and I don't doubt that he would have; his wife came from money, and Dick was one of those guys who just lived for attention. Nobody could ever laugh hard enough or clap loud enough for me, but it was enough for Dick to have a roomful of people staring at him.

When we were traveling the man never stopped talking. Never. Stopped. Talking. He would talk to anyone. We missed planes because he couldn't stop talking. And he was one of those fussy guys who just had to be difficult, but he didn't ever think he was being difficult and he could get away with it because he was such a nice guy. You can go ahead and note that I put air quotes around that last phrase.

Here's one favorite Dick Fitzgerald story: We're someplace in the Midwest --Rockford, I think-- and we go into this Chinese restaurant near our hotel. Dick spends fifteen minutes studying the goddamn menu and asking questions, and then he asks if he can get the curry shrimp, but with pork instead of shrimp, and teriyaki sauce instead of curry. Teriyaki! That's fucking Japanese, for Christ's sake! The menu's got like 500 things on there, but Dick can't find one thing that is fine as is. And the damn thing is, they made it for him!

Why the hell would you order curry shrimp if you didn't want curry shrimp? After they brought our food I kept asking him, 'How's your curry shrimp, buddy?' And he just kept shoveling it into his face and saying, 'Oh, it's delicious!' He didn't even know I was giving him a hard time.

The bottom line is really this: the guy was the dimmest 1000-watt bulb you'd ever meet.

1 comment:

  1. This has to be a book! I love it! Love!