Almost Famous

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A lot of Angelenos can speak with some authority on Hollywood luminaries, if not with actual knowledge then certainly with distinct opinions. Take Skip E. Lowe. Mention Judy Garland, Steve McQueen, or even Madonna, and Lowe will have a thing or three to say. But unlike most, the 71-year-old Lowe has had a ringside seat to Hollywood's happenings for more than six decades.

He's been an entertainer since escaping a rough childhood, first as a child actor and later a vaudevillian, and for the past 23 years has hosted "Skip E. Lowe Looks at Hollywood," an oddly popular public-access talk show in which he interviews the famous, once famous and almost famous.

Here is Lowe's take on James Dean: "Well, darling, he loved life. Men, women, the 42nd Street scene, the night life, the whores, the food, the movies. Everything!"

On Montgomery Clift: "Tragic. Lonely. Sweet. Monty was in the closet, but when he got drunk he let himself out. Almost every night he'd get blasted and stagger around Manhattan trying to find his way back to his apartment."

And Shelley Winters: "Listen, honey, she's bold, courageous, and caring. This is a very strong lady who's filled with compassion for everyone in the world. Comparable, really, to Eleanor Roosevelt--only Shelley can act."

After a life on the fringes of show business, Lowe's phone book of celebrity friends and acquaintances all but bulges. His own recognition, however, only began to build with the popularity of his cable show. "When I walk up Sunset Boulevard, people are honking horns and screaming, 'Skip E., we love you!' I don't have a billboard, but I feel like I'm Angelyne," Lowe gushes in a pitched voice that is immediately recognizable to late-night public access viewers in Los Angeles, where his show is carried by Adelphia and AT&T; cable providers, as well as in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The show has earned a cult following of viewers of all ages.

It's the kind of recognition Lowe seems to have been courting all his life. His journey toward celebrity can be read in his new autobiography, "The Boy With the Betty Grable Legs," publishing this month from Carillon Press. "I spent years showcasing other people," Lowe says, leading the way to his chaotic living room, which doubles as his office. "Now it's time to let them know the real me."

The 200-page memoir is chock-full of show-biz stories and photos with a cast of characters that includes strippers, mobsters, mega-stars and fringe players. Lowe spent nine years writing it because "every time I thought it was finished, there was something else to add." It's a campy and sometimes poignant book that's not afraid to dish.

Lowe's survivor status is apparent in his West Hollywood apartment, which has the feel of a small, cluttered museum. He coaxes his guest to take a seat next to a lamp once owned by Rudolph Valentino. He points out an ashtray given to him by Lana Turner, a painting by Cornel Wilde and a map of Paris that, he says, once hung in James Dean's New York apartment.

That done, he turns his attention to the dozens of framed photographs of dear friends. "There's the singer Dick Roman, who thought up my name. Here's me at some event with Rip Taylor. And there's Frank Sinatra. See the picture of me and Sylvester Stallone? One day his mother, Jacqueline, took me to his house for Thanksgiving dinner, and guess what? There was no turkey left. Sly made us sandwiches for Thanksgiving dinner!"

Lowe is short, rubbery and jaunty. He has bright eyes, craggy pink skin and a shock of white hair that he has touched up to platinum. Still, there is an elfin quality about him. He could be 9, he could be 100. His energy is boundless. When he is speaking, which seems to be every waking moment, his voice alternates between a dainty whine and a brusque scream, as if he's trying to catch the attention of someone across the room, rather than the person next to him. It's easy to see why comics like Martin Short have taken to parodying Lowe.

"Robert Morse told me he borrowed some of my mannerisms while working on the character of Truman Capote for Broadway," Lowe chirps. Whatever Lowe says he says with enormous zeal, as if everything in his life has been an amazing, madcap adventure. Helping a young Christian Brando find a job, his trip to the 7-Eleven this afternoon to buy lottery tickets, and being tied to the bedpost and robbed in Tunisia are all relayed with the same gushing enthusiasm.

He Found His Niche Reintroducing Stars

Public access was in its infancy in 1978, in need of personalities to fill the time slots, when Lowe was approached about doing a talk show. Molly Ballantine, then a college student interested in television, became Lowe's first producer. "Everyone loved him because he was one of the most real interviewers out there," recalls Ballantine, who now works in publishing. "He got straight to the heart of both regular people and celebrities." His first guest was tough-guy actor Aldo Ray, and with that Lowe had found his niche: reintroducing stars who hadn't been seen for a time.

Today, more than 6,000 shows later, there still is no studio audience, no snappy band to liven things up, no sweeping camera angles. What Lowe does with guests on his show is talk, with close-ups so tight that host and guest seem to be directly in the viewer's face.

While public access reaches as many homes as have cable, there is no Nielsen ratings equivalent to gauge a show's success. Popularity is based instead on public opinion in the form of e-mail, letters and recognition of a show's host.

Yvette Sotelo, the public access coordinator at West Hollywood Public Access--one of the two studios where Lowe tapes--says Lowe is one of her most popular and asked about performers. "The mystery of his appeal is that audiences seem to relate to something in his character," Sotelo says. "He's such a real person. There's something in his technique, maybe it's his lack of pretension, that always manages to unearth something intimate from his guests."

"I'm like the grandfather of the current crop of serious interview shows," Lowe says. "I've seen myself copied, redone, revamped. Charlie Rose is my favorite, but, honey, you have to understand, I was doing it way before him. Of course, he's much more intelligent than I am, and he does his homework more than I do."

Yet it is for his unprepared chatter that Lowe is known. His style of interviewing is a casual, spontaneous kind of conversation. While chatting, Lowe often becomes befuddled, mixes up names and allows the conversation to drift into a sublime kookiness. "Now, Marilyn Monroe went back with Joe DiMaggio after she committed suicide, didn't she?" he recently questioned one guest author. "After she committed suicide?" the confused guest asked. "Oh, you know what I mean," Lowe burbled. "After all, she tried to do it so many times." And with that recovery the conversation was safely steered back to a discussion of Monroe's love life.

For several years Martin Short has been making appearances as a pudgy, oddball talk show host named Jiminy Glick, mispronouncing names of guests and confusing the facts while interviewing celebrities in a self-assured, lisping tone. In a recent appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman," Short allowed that the Glick character was "a little bit of Skip E. Lowe," explaining that he "talks to people, but he gets confused with tremendous enthusiasm."

Short will bring the character's loopy persona to "Primetime Glick" on Comedy Central later this month, an imitation Lowe takes in stride. "Yes, I make mistakes," Lowe confides, settling back to sip red wine out of a goblet given to him by actress Alexis Smith. "But my audience likes that I'm not so perfect. The thing is, I'm genuinely interested in what my guests are saying. I listen to their comments. I look into their eyes. Sometimes I touch them. People want to be listened to. I'm like a psychiatrist who sits there across the table."

Obviously, people want to be listened to by him. Such celebrities as Bette Davis, Tony Curtis, Orson Welles and innumerable others have allowed themselves to be probed by Lowe's off-center questions and unflinching camera for the half-hour segments, resulting in a glimpse that goes beyond the Hollywood magic and makeup.

Actress Sally Kirkland returns to his show again and again. "He has a tremendous respect for talent, no matter what the package it comes in," she says. "And he gives voice to people who can't get on 'Letterman' and 'Leno' every night. His show isn't about giving a sound bite promoting some current project. Skip gives me license to talk about whatever is important to me."

Dom DeLuise, who has done his fair share of talk shows, describes what makes doing Lowe's show like no other. "I always felt like I was being interviewed by a pixie, some magical person," he says. "His face looks like it was drawn lovingly by Walt Disney. It's a pleasure to watch him thinking because he has the most animated face."

Entertained Other Kids in His Backyard

Skip E. Lowe was born Sammy Labella and grew up in Rockford, Ill. From the beginning he felt "peculiar" and "isolated." At an early age he escaped into the fantasy world of Hollywood movies. Like many lonely youths, he developed a yearning to be noticed, to excel. He loved to perform and, borrowing clothes and makeup from his mother, he would entertain neighborhood children in his backyard with imitations of the stars, alternating among Carmen Miranda, Jimmy Durante and his favorite, Betty Grable.

Although the kids enjoyed his performances, they still treated the young Sammy as an outcast. He liked to wear short pants and show off his legs, much to his father's chagrin. "Kids come in two styles," Lowe explains, "boys and girls. I wasn't either, so I became the brunt of terrible jokes."

The ostracism took a violent turn when, at age 9, four of the neighborhood ruffians beat and raped him. It became a scandal in Rockford and, rather than have Sammy face the neighborhood's scorn (and his father's rage), his mother fled with him to Hollywood in the hopes of turning him into a child star. Although he never became one, he did land bit roles in "Best Foot Forward," "Song of the Open Road" and a number of the "Dead End Kids" films. He hasn't been out of show business since.

He tells of his time in vaudeville after his stint as a child actor. His mother decided to return to Illinois and shipped him off to live with his aunt, who performed in clubs in Manhattan's Bowery. "She was a Sophie Tucker type, and she really taught me how to sell a song," Lowe says.

From there he honed his comedic talents as an emcee in the tough burlesque houses of the 1940s. "I went to Chicago and I got involved with the Mafia working as a master of ceremonies in strip joints. I learned about show business by doing everything: singing, dancing, emceeing, comedy. Dangerous as anything, but I loved it!" Eventually, as a comedian, he toured the world, appearing in a USO show in Vietnam alongside Bob Hope and Martha Raye.

Back in Hollywood, Lowe had roles in the Gene Wilder film "The World's Greatest Lover" and "Black Shampoo," an exploitation film that spoofed Warren Beatty's "Shampoo," but mostly he made his living as an emcee for talent shows.

It was all good experience for his current role. "There's nobody who loves this business and cares about its people more," says actor Morse. "He has a special affinityfor many of the greats who still have so much to talk about."

Stacks of Videotapes Crowd His Living Room

In his apartment the phone rings and Lowe tells someone from "E! True Hollywood Story" he'll have to call her back. "They probably want to use clips from one of my shows," he explains, negotiating his way back to the couch. The floors of his apartment are stacked with videotapes of past shows: interviews with Lynn Redgrave, Pat Boone, Eartha Kitt. Most of the boxes are undated. "Well, that's the whole thing about Skip E. Lowe," he sighs. "I'm very confusing. I don't keep anything in order."

Amid the disorder are piles of faxed and mailed invitations. Theater openings, movie premieres, press parties. Lowe is invited to things partly because he is a recognizable personality who adds color and partly because there is a chance that an interview might be set up.

Lively as ever, Lowe still tapes two shows a week, which he does without pay. He continues to earn his living with his talent showcases for up-and-coming entertainers, most recently at Cafe Roma in Beverly Hills. He stays in contact with his younger viewers through Internet chat room discussions and his Web site (http://www.skipelowe.com).

He also continues to attend glitzy functions, often on the arm of Mamie Van Doren, the 1950s sex siren. Platinum, satiny, ageless, Van Doren is the perfect companion for Lowe. She understands glamour. "Underneath his facade there really is a sharp, sensitive person who knows exactly what people are thinking," she observes. "He's so much fun to be with because he has the guts to say what I keep in my mind while I stand around and smile."

In spite of the nutty image he sometimes projects, there is a tremendous feeling of genuine warmth and affection from the people he surrounds himself with. "He's a one-of-a-kind original," Shelley Winters says fondly. When any of Lowe's friends talk about him, it's like a verbal hug, as if they want to protect the 9-year-old boy who still resides within him.

His greatest pastime is playing the lottery and the Daily Three numbers. He can spend hours each day deciding which numbers to play and then, invariably, loses. "Could you believe 978 came in?" he'll exclaim. "I was going to play that!" He then faithfully records the winning numbers on his calendar to help with the next day's picks.

"Darling, listen," he declares, "I'm having more fun than I ever had in my life! I'm active, I have wonderful friends, and I still get a kick out of everything." And when asked what type of man the boy with the Betty Grable legs has grown into, he mulls it over for only an instant. "Are you kidding?" he deadpans, "I walk all over town. I may not wear the short pants anymore, but I still have the Betty Grable legs." And then he cackles devilishly.

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