Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Chicago: The Roberts Show Club and Playboy

GREGORY: And so, I didn't hear profanity, so I never had to use it on the stage emulating somebody. And then what saved my life, as a comic, was Billy Eckstine.

BOND: Really?

GREGORY: Some days, I just had to go and sit and get me a bottle of [water] and go to his grave. And I ain't been to my momma's grave. Just go to his grave and say, "Thank you, Billy. ‘Cause if it had not been for you there wouldn't have been a Dick Gregory." I used to look at Jack Paar. Jack Paar is the inventor of The Tonight Show as we know it. And nobody in the history of television was as powerful as this man. It couldn't happen today, but back then -- and I worked -- I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Jack Paar was on five nights a week but he did reruns on Friday. So for five years a night never passed that I didn't look at Jack Paar. And when he come off, get off, I'd be in the mirror ‘til five o'clock saying, "What I'm going to do when I get on the Jack Paar show." And one day me and Billy Eckstine was sitting in Roberts Show Club in Chicago drinking and he cussed out Jack Paar, and I almost hit him. I said, "Wait a minute, that's my man." He says, "Man, Jack Paar would never let a Negro sit on the couch." And man, I didn't know that. I was so intrigued it never dawned on me that if you was black, you could come do your act --

BOND: But you couldn't come over there and sit down.

GREGORY: No. And I didn't know that. And I said, "Oh, my God -- " Well, you know in my heart I knew I would be on the Jack Paar -- but I mean I didn't have no evidence, I hadn't made it. I walked home that night, cried all the way home, cried for two reasons. One, I didn't know that a Negro hadn't sit down, but two, I'd watched that show for five years and didn't notice it. It was almost like -- it was just so happy that a Negro was there. You know [Clayton] 'Peg Leg' Bates. I used to laugh at him on the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan Show no act has been on and I said, "Well, that's Negro." Ain't no white man with one leg gonna be rated as a big time tap dancer. That's just -- if you've got a peg leg, put a patch over his eye and put him in a pirate movie. So I walked home and I was so humiliated, man. I didn't even share it with my wife. I just never -- she just knew how I felt about Jack Paar. And it was almost like personally, you know, "How could I be this wrong?" And then one day Hugh Hefner brought me into the Playboy Club --

BOND: Where did he see you? How did he know about you?

GREGORY: Well, here it is important. I was working at Roberts Show Club, that was the largest modern show club -- black -- in the world. Because it was new, they had the same type of stage they had on Vegas. The button would go down?

BOND: Yes, I've been to Robert's.

GREGORY: And then the orchestra would come up?

BOND: Yeah.

GREGORY: So I worked there for like -- I think it was $15 a night, and now you had a lot of Negro entertainers that was working white clubs. See, at that time in America, you were not permitted to stand in front of a white audience and talk. So you could just be a dancer or a singer or a musician, but you couldn't talk to white folks. And so there was nobody comic, that had ever worked a white nightclub.

So Hugh Hefner came out because these black folks knew Herman Roberts so they come to give him some plate. So Sammy Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Joe Williams, and Nipsey Russell came in. Well, white folks bought up all the tickets for the first show first night, first show second night. Black folk came to the second show. I did three shows. Important Negroes ended up doing three shows. So Herman came and told me, said, "You got this weekend off ‘cause we bringing in a comic from New York named Nipsey. Boy, is he funny." I said, "I'll get to see how funny he is since he won't be so long." He said, "No, you know he's just going to be here -- " I said, "No, no, no, if he's taking my job, then I don't want him, you keep him." He said, "Well, wait a minute, wait, wait." I said, "No, no, no, no." So he said, "Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. There's a lot people -- "

See I was bringing in white folks in by -- the white folks from Northwestern University, from the University of Chicago. They wanted to hear this social satirist right? So they would come by, so he didn't want to lose me. So he says "Okay, I'll let you emcee." That's why, to this day, I have never emceed a show. All over the world, people bring me to the NAACP convention and say, "Can you emcee?" "No, no -- " People want to pay me. "No, no, I don't emcee."

So I said, "Yep." And the old man at Roberts -- old dude used to always be in the back, man, just always there -- he said, "What's wrong, young boy?" And I told him. And he says, "Let me tell you something." He said, "You got five hours to do a show or five seconds. You're a genius, son. You have to do in five seconds what you've been doing in two hours. You can do it." And I heard him.

So in between the acts -- I cannot be disrespectful, you go out and do my acts -- in between the acts I'd drop a little funny, boomp. Well, on the front row was Irv Kupcinet, all the big-time-money white folks, all the mob, and there is Hugh Hefner. And he heard me, he heard me sounding like stuff he'd heard before. Not no rhythm or joning, no rhythm or rapping. And so one day Irv and Corey, a white comic that said he wasn't going to work seven days. So they called me, my manager was white, and he got in touch with me and he said, "$50!" Now I don't believe there was that much?" I added $50 times seven and realized that if I was working seven days what I would make.

So, I never knew what the Playboy was, ‘cause I just don't hang out with white folks. I mean I got that from St. Louis. So even now, there's few times you'll ever see me hanging out with white folks. It's got nothing to do with them, I mean, it's just something to do with me, I just say, "Man, I'm just -- " You know, so. So I had one quarter left and it was a blizzard that night. And I get on the bus to go to he Playboy and I get off at the wrong stop. Now I have never, ever wore the same outfit on stage that I wear in the street. I just never done that, that's just the respect I have for the audience. And so what happened was, I got my suit bag with my outfit on and I got off at the wrong stop ‘cause I didn't know downtown Chicago. And I'm running and praying ‘cause that whole thing about "black folk can't be on time" and I got to go on at eight o'clock.

I don't trust black folk now if they're on time. I just don't know why you want to be validated by white racist systems. I don't believe in paying my bills on time, or being on time. I got my oldest daughter, man, I just -- I don't get along with her, not negatively, because she too disciplined. I don't like to be around disciplined people. But the super rich people ain't disciplined, and they ain't never on time.

And so I'm running and so, "God, please don't let me be late, don't -- oh, God!" All the things that you'd been taught that you have to do to make white folk like you was coming out, and I'm running. I slipped and I fell and I got up, and as I get up, about eight blocks down I see this big sign that said "Playboy" and this relief -- now meanwhile I don't know that Vic Lownes, who is Hefner's partner in -- had found out that this room, the Carousel Room, had been rented out that night to a group of Southerners that was in Chicago for a frozen food convention. So when Hef and them found that out, they said, "Well, just tell him he don't have to go on. So they tried to call me, and so I get there and I walk up the door and say "Where's the casting room?" and they say, "Second floor to the right."

Now Vic Lownes is standing in the middle of the floor to stop me. I don't know Vic Lownes -- just another white boy -- I push him out the way. I run in. I don't have time to change clothes, it's eight o'clock on the head. I run up on stage and I started doing my thing, doing my thing. And then started asking them, "Who are you?" They say, "We from the -- I'm from Alabama." "From what part?" I said. "Alabama. Oh Birmingham. Oh, I spent twenty years in Birmingham one day." And it was just one thing after another, after another. And I was just due for a half hour. At midnight I'm still on stage. At 12:30 they woke Hefner up. At one o'clock he was there, and I was still talking and that's when he decided he would bring me in for my own.

At that point [The New York] Times Magazine reviewed my act, and it hit the front page of Times and Jack Parr -- you know the New York Times [Magazine] comes out on Sunday -- Jack Paar saw it and went out of his mind. And so, that's the sad part. It gets back to my wife. The phone rings on Monday morning, "The Jack Paar show," and Lil -- I never told her -- she was like God had reached down and kissed her. She said, "It's the Jack Paar show, Jack Paar show!" So I go, "Hello?" "Dick Gregory, yes?" "This is so and so, producer for Mr. Paar," and he said, "Paar just loved this interview in the Times Magazine and wanted to know if we could get you on, fly you up for the show tonight?"

I said "Nope, I don't work the Jack Paar show." So then I started crying and I told my wife what had happened. The phone rings again. It's Jack Paar on the line. "Dick, Mr. Paar -- " I'm Dick. He's Mr. Paar. "How come you don't want to work the show?" I said, "Because the Negroes never sit down on the show." "That's not true." Well, in my head I could believe, because I'd watched him for five years and didn't realize it. And maybe he was saying he thought I said a Negro had never the worked the show. I was saying "never sit down on the couch."

He said "Oh, come on in. You can sit on the couch." And so I was the first Negro to sit on -- and let me tell you something I didn't know. If you don't sit on the couch and you become part of that family, your salary don't change. If I sit on that couch my family -- my salary jumped the next day from $250 a week, seven days, to $5,000 a night.

BOND: Really, that's what Jack Paar could do for you?

GREGORY: If you sit --

BOND: On the couch.

GREGORY: On the couch. Now let me tell you. Thousands of letters came in --