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Together Wherever They Go

Robert Strauss is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The last heppest cat and his tigress are back onstage at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, a sort of semitropical blond-wood La Scala, with pastel sport coats and stretch pants substituting for formal wear and gowns.

He is carrying a Dewar’s on the rocks, cradled close to his body, looking to the sky and saying, “Here’s to our greatest ally, Scotland.” She holds a Ketel One vodka and water elegantly at arm’s length. He wears a tuxedo as comfortably as a robe and pajamas. She has a silver shimmery fringed top and flowing black pants.

Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme have just sung all or part of 29 songs and are getting ready to chat with the 2,500-plus Florida snowbirds who have ventured $42.50 per to see them be Steve & Eydie. They will spend another hour or so with their audience, laughing at each other’s jokes, sipping their drinks, looking grand and singing songs like “Besame Mucho” and “Moonlight in Vermont,” songs that the Smashing Pumpkins crowd, or even the U2 crowd, may never know.

With Dean and Sammy gone and Frank no longer performing, Steve and Eydie, 60 and 63, are the last tux-and-gown act left from that Vegas-styling, pop-standard crowd. But because they don’t pretend to be anything but what they are, Steve & Eydie, at least in person, defy cliche. In fact, in many ways they are what is cool and hip and different in a homogenized musical world. They are not so far removed from the kids who hung out at the Brill Building on Tin Pan Alley in 1950s New York, waiting for a break.

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“I’m always waiting for our next break,” said Lawrence, relaxing in his dressing room later, a light sweater-shirt and jeans subbing for the tux. “I think that we’re still around is terrific. As long as there is an audience out there that appreciates what we do, as long as they come and support it, that’s OK with me.”

Nearly an hour after their curtain call, Lawrence hugs Gorme as they finish the last note of “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Above the din of the whistling and wildly clapping crowd, Lawrence whispers into his mike to Gorme, “Did you have a good time tonight?” She coos, her Bronx accent firmly evident, “Are you kiddin’? I had a great time!”

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They’ve been Steve & Eydie for so long that it’s hard to believe there was once a Steve. And an Eydie. Theirs was a romance out of a 1950s Broadway musical like “Guys and Dolls” or “Bye Bye Birdie"--long, tempestuous and, finally, successful, always with a song in the air.

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Stevie Liebowitz’s father was a cantor in Brooklyn’s Brownsville section, a bit disappointed that his son was cutting classes at Thomas Jefferson High School to hang out at the Brill Building on Broadway in Manhattan in hopes of cadging a job singing.

“I think in the recesses of his mind, he thought I would go on like ‘The Jazz Singer,’ ” said Lawrence, referring to the Al Jolson movie in which a cantor’s son becomes a stage star over the objections of his family. “After I started singing and knew this is really what I wanted to do, he was among my strongest supporters.”

When Lawrence met Gorme in the early 1950s at Hanson’s Drug Store, where the Brill Building regulars had nickel cups of coffee while waiting for their next break, she was already a moderate success. At 21, she was three years older than he and had come off a gig as the singer for the Tex Beneke Band.

Eydie Gormezano came from the other end of the world--the Bronx, East 168th Street, to be exact. Her parents were Sephardic Jews and tailors; her father, a Sicilian, and her mother, a Turk.

“My mother only wanted to know why I wasn’t singing in Spanish, Turkish, Greek and some other language,” Gorme said with the sincere, hearty laugh she gives to Lawrence onstage when he tells jokes she has no doubt heard a thousand times before. “Nine of them she spoke. I actually did a song in Turkish once. I did a couple of things like that and some cute little hits because they were like novelties.”

Lawrence had won a competition on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” the lineal ancestor of “Star Search.” But he was 16 and it was 1951, and TV was not the deal it is today. So it was back to the Brill Building.

“Early in my career,” Lawrence said, “I would make demos for publishers. I’d go in and they’d give me three dollars and I would do the song on acetate. They would present it to the record company and say, ‘Oh, this would be good for Crosby or Sinatra or Perry Como or Nat Cole.’ And I would also get free sheet music.”

Said Gorme: “After all, this was a point where everybody was out of work. Today, there are young stars who have already made it in a movie or something. They’ll go to some trendy toy-food restaurant in L.A. or New York or South Beach. But they can already afford to go there. This was a place and time when everybody would eat in a drugstore for 19 cents. If you were dining, it was Chock Full o’ Nuts, where we’d have date-nut bread and cream cheese.”

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“To this day, I can’t eat that stuff,” said Lawrence, always willing to deliver the punctuation to his wife’s stories.

In 1954, Steve Allen, who was hosting a local variety show on New York’s NBC affiliate, was given a national gig at 11:30 p.m. called “Tonight” by network executive Pat Weaver, who had successfully launched “Today.” The time period may have been strange for most of America, but it suited the nocturnal Lawrence and Gorme, who were independently selected by Allen (along with another unknown named Andy Williams) to be the show’s steady singers--and just about everything else.

“That show was about the best basic training in the world,” Lawrence said. “We were called upon on that show to do everything. I mean everything: sweep floors, do sketches, help write, help build the sets, move them around. There is no way you could do that today.”

The show had little money and even less rehearsal time, since it was 90 minutes of live entertainment every weeknight. But it did have director Dwight Hemion, who has more Emmys than anyone else, doing visual tricks live that are still not commonplace in the tape era. Gorme danced in miniature in a huge teacup. Lawrence sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” appearing like a cigarette lying in a monstrous ashtray.

“This was all with maybe an hour’s rehearsal, and then boom! Air. No chance to do it twice,” Gorme said. “The beauty was, if you screwed up, that’s what people loved. They only waited for the screw-up. But they loved you for it. We were creating new things.”

But not making a whole lot of cash. The “Tonight” gig paid $199 a week, of which Gorme claims, after taxes and agents’ fees, she got only $90. She was still living with her parents in the Bronx, who had no TV to watch her and the younger guy who was her off-and-on beau, Lawrence. Yet while they weren’t getting rich, they were getting a chance to record, alone and together.

“Steve was on a meteoric rise, actually, when he had his first hit records,” Gorme said. “But in those days, a meteoric rise wasn’t like it is today.”

“Actually, I had a hit in Pittsburgh,” said Lawrence (who did in fact have five Top 10 singles, including “Go Away Little Girl”), laughing at the thought. “They didn’t even know me in Harrisburg.”

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“Yeah, well, right. And you didn’t go from there to a movie like today,” she said, continuing the rat-a-tat finishing-each-other’s-sentences patter they thrive on.

“If we had hits now. Whew! Unbelievable! We’d be Madonna, Madonna, Madonna, Madonna,” said Gorme, pointing with each “Madonna” to imaginary estates around the world.

Even after three years on network television, Gorme believed herself an unknown. She was excited when Jerry Lewis, who had just broken up with Dean Martin, chose her as part of his bill when he opened the Palace Theater on Broadway, on Feb. 8, 1957.

“He had heard one of my records, ‘Too Close for Comfort.’ Unbeknownst to me, he had gone to California and went to every single disc jockey plugging this record.”

Her agents and managers told her she wasn’t ready to play the Palace, but at 24, she figured she had to give it a try. They dropped her. She had a Broadway designer make her three costumes on credit and crossed her fingers.

“Well, I was a smash!” Gorme said. The New York Times wrote that she had “a talent for caressing a song or belting it to the rafters.” The Daily News was simpler: “A Star Is Born!”

Joe E. Lewis, who had just been immortalized in the movie about his life, “The Joker Is Wild,” with Frank Sinatra playing him as a comic beset by mob run-ins and alcoholism, asked Gorme to open for him in Vegas.

“Everybody came. Cary Grant, Jack Benny,” she said. “It was the most magical time. And the idea of being there so long. No one-night stand. In those days, you played six, eight weeks. So then Stevie and I got married right there in Vegas.”

The visitor list in the cramped Lawrence-Gorme dressing room at the Broward Center is quite eclectic. There’s Lawrence’s high school teacher Lionel Kaplan, who never misses a Steve & Eydie Florida tour. Corbett Monica, the comic who has opened for the singers for years, brings with him Joy Abbott, the widow of legendary Broadway director George Abbott, who died last year at 107.

“George always wanted you for ‘Flora the Red Menace,’ ” Abbott said to Gorme. “Kander & Ebb kept wanting Liza Minnelli. But George always wanted you.”

Songwriter George Barry was there with his wife, as were a group of friends of Phyllis McGuire from Las Vegas. Lucho Gatica, whom Lawrence introduces as the “Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Nat King Cole all in one of South America,” sings a few bars in Spanish with Gorme, who has recorded a dozen albums in Spanish, most recently with Julio Iglesias.

Judy Tannen, who has been the singers’ personal manager for 38 years, shepherds the guests in and out, each of whom takes what seems to be a mandatory snapshot with Steve & Eydie, no matter how noted they may be themselves.

“What has been the nature of their success?” said Steve Allen, their first boss and matchmaker, in a phone conversation from his Los Angeles office. “First, the fact that they are a couple has something to do with it. Secondly, they are damned good singers. And thirdly--this has both hurt and helped them--they concentrated for the most part on good music. This lost them the youthful audience, who prefer crap to Cole Porter’s music. But it endeared them to people with sophisticated taste.”

Said Lawrence: “The music business, the entertainment business, in fact all business has become so narrow-channeled. Eydie and I have done very well in a narrow channel because we have never deserted that. You come to a Steve & Eydie concert and you know you’re not going to hear music that the Grateful Dead are going to do, or U2. That’s as it should be.

“Same thing with the dress. We’re probably two of the last people still walking out onstage in a tuxedo and gown,” he said with a giggle, and acknowledging the kitsch of it all: “So it’s hurt the fashion business too. The sequin business is down.”

Gorme wears three different costumes during the Broward Center concert, each more showy than the last, the topper being a snow-white gown with pink and white feathers flowing down from every angle. When she walks out, arms spread like a proud peacock, Lawrence cracks, “I didn’t know the Home Shopping Network was open.”

They kid back and forth throughout the show about their weight, his Dick Clark-youthful looks, even their sex life. One thing they definitely don’t kid about is the song that has become the centerpiece of their show, Gorme’s 1966 Grammy-winning song “If He Walked Into My Life.”

Though it is never mentioned to the audience, she has dedicated the song to their younger son, Michael, who died 10 years ago at 23 with a heart problem. (Their older son, David, 35, is a composer in Los Angeles.) The two stopped performing for a year after Michael’s death, and Gorme acknowledged having contemplated suicide. The 10th anniversary of his death was two days before the Feb. 8 Broward concert, and Gorme’s closed-eyed, sometimes trembling performance (“Did he need a stronger hand? Did he need a lighter touch?”) caused a standing ovation.

“It’s always hard, thinking about it,” Gorme said. “But you can’t forget either.”

For those who may want to dismiss them as caricatures of a bygone era, it is stunning to hear how well Lawrence and Gorme sing in person, with the 32-piece orchestra behind them. His intonations are rounded, and when he goes into lower notes, his voice sounds like a melodious bassoon. Gorme, who had a Top 10 rock hit in 1963 with “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” is the brass to his woodwind.

She calls him, in a compliment, “a saloon singer.” And while most would acknowledge Gorme the more distinctive of the two, Lawrence has his admirers in some quite highbrow places.

“We were in the Army orchestra together,” said Larry Grika, a violinist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, who served with Lawrence in Virginia in the 1950s. “The guy was amazing. He’d come in for sessions, sing 10 songs in a row and not come close to missing a note.”

In October 1960, looking for something new, Lawrence and Gorme booked themselves at the Lotus, a Chinese supper club in Washington. They had never sung together in concert before.

“And it just clicked,” Lawrence said. “Whatever it is that Eydie and I do, that’s what it was. And it has only gotten better over the years.”

Lawrence won a Drama Desk Award for “What Makes Sammy Run?” on Broadway in 1964, and the two appeared in another Broadway musical, “Golden Rainbow,” in 1968.

Lawrence even got to be the first person to play craps legally in Atlantic City, N.J.

“The guys who owned Resorts International were very big Steve & Eydie fans,” Lawrence said. “I had the governor and senator on either side of me, and I literally opened gambling. I threw out the first dice.”

“It was very corny,” Gorme chimed in. “They cut the ribbon and opened the doors. The people flooded in.”

“Like Macy’s basement,” said Lawrence, finishing her sentence.

The two have gotten comfortable with the casino-city culture and this winter moved their home base from Beverly Hills to Las Vegas permanently, building a house alongside the Las Vegas Country Club.

“We have a lot of friends there,” Lawrence said. “The locker room at the club is filled with doctors and lawyers who we’ve known for 30 years. I just like the place.”

They’re trying to branch out a bit too, starting a couple of little businesses. Wearever, the cookware company, has let them design a line called the Gorme Collection, for which they have done an infomercial, and she has written a cookbook, with celebrity anecdotes, titled “The Easy Gorme,” which has yet to be published.

“It could lead to a lot of other things,” Lawrence said, chuckling. “I think she could be the Lillian Vernon of the Bronx.”

He plays with his pinky ring, looks at her like a honeymooner, which they both do so often onstage that you’ve got to believe it’s real, and says: “But you know what’s best--and I’ve had a great life--it’s best when you live with your favorite singer.”


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