The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories
The Ernie Butler Show
When James characterized me in his biography of my uncle, Saul Bellow, as a “minor legend of Montreal’s underground scene”, choosing to trivialize me out of envy, he had enough to be envious about. He never chose to interview me personally, preferring to rely on published documentation despite the fact that I lived ten minutes away from him by taxi, in the heart of Manhattan.
The facts of my life are vastly too rich for a petty metrosexual New York writer to successfully process: how I was operating a leather boutique, Deans, on Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal at the exact time that Bellow, who was born in that city, won his Nobel Prize for literature in 1976. It’s galling for petty social strivers to be trumped so easily by an artist who is completely insouciant of their values. What the fuck did I care about Saul Bellow or the Nobel Prize? On top of which, Bellow’s most notable book, “The Adventures of Augie March”, had recounted the entire story of my birth as its dénouement, making it impossible to consider me to be anything less than a really central element of American twentieth century culture. That’s what’s so funny!
That boutique, Deans Boutique de Cuir, featured countercultural leather fashions entirely conceived and executed by me. Biker fashions for the Outlaws, Popeyes and Hell’s Angels; stripper fashions for the girls who shook their booties at the Supersexe Club; rockstar fashions for Montreal area bands, and, naturally, fashions for people who wanted to look like all of the above.
For the first, formative years of my adult life, I made a decent living for a young person, paid my expenses and taxes without ever having to afford recognition to the larger conformist culture. I was a little bit like a kind of rock musician who was able to thrive by poking a finger in the eye of the conventional establishment. The circumstances were such that you couldn’t do that today.
The most hysterical part of the whole arrangement is that all this lunacy had been financed by the U.S. government, which had, in 1971, put me on display as part of an exhibition, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Department of Commerce, entitled “A Festival of American Folk Art” in the geodesic dome designed by R. Buckminster Fuller at the Terre des Hommes exhibition site on Ile Ste. Hélène on the St. Lawrence River. All this despite the fact that I had an arrest warrant out for me in the States for draft evasion ha-ha!
I raked it in that summer. I was being paid by the U.S. government. I was selling hand-crafted items right out of my exhibition space at the top level of the geodesic dome, I was selling handicrafts out of the official boutique on a lower level and I was handing out business cards, promising customers a better price if they visited my newly opened boutique on Ste. Catherine Street, which I paid for out of exhibit money I was making at the dome.
Oh, it was a draft dodger’s dream! People in the States were killing each other, engaging in riots and bombing, pulling their hair out, gnashing their teeth and rending their clothes over the Vietnam War, and I was smoking dope and raking in cash in the geodesic dome! Hey, don’t blame me for being clever. I didn’t cause the Nixon government to collapse, all his cabinet officers to be sent to jail for felonies and American society to melt down. I just got out of the way! A lot of moralistic pricks are going to hate this narration, and a lot more people are going to claim it is all fiction – except I have got the documentation to prove it. To those persons, I say, “Fuck off!”
Anyway, I was able to establish a countercultural leather boutique on Montreal’s main thoroughfare and keep it operating for a dozen years on Uncle Sam’s dime. A large part of the job was entertaining the diverse elements who came in the door and wanted to talk. I developed into a good listener. In this I was aided by the naturally liberal nature of Montrealers, who are very comprehensive people. Deans Boutique de Cuir could never have thrived in the United States, a fact that was driven home to me each summer with the influx of American tourists to Montreal, whom I found illiberal and parochial.
I did a lot of listening, and I heard a lot of wild stories, which would form the basis of a whole other book. Man, I heard it all! The reason I am now bringing up Ernie Butler is because he is representing overlapping stories of what happened to me over the course of several years on Ste. Catherine Street.
Ernie Butler was a regular visitor to my boutique for many years. Why, I don’t know, I suppose because I was a happening place. He had no interest in leather vests or extravagant jeans belts and he never smoked dope, which was a mania for me. No, Ernie just liked to come in and talk. Ernie talked and I listened. Blah blah blah.
Ernie was rotund and conventional with a moustache. He was a business major at McGill University, which reaffirmed to me the value of never pursuing a college degree. All Ernie ever seemed to want to express was how he would get his business degree and then go on to make a pile of money. Ho-hum, give me a break! Why should I care about this guy’s megalomaniac ravings in an era of personal liberation and social upheaval?
Meanwhile, the years wore on. Life happened. In the winter I sewed leather pants and jackets. In the summer I made hippie sandals and little accessory items like hats and belts. The 1976 Olympics came and I did pretty good on that, owing to the fact that my boutique was situated right on Ste. Catherine Street, right across from the Montreal Forum, where the boxing and gymnastic competitions were held. Good luck for me.
In 1977, I was dating a very charming girl from the U.K. named Gillian. I took her to the Yakkety Yak Club, which was located in the La Salle Hotel on Drummond Street. By now, I had been on Ste. Catherine Street for several years and I was becoming pretty well-known by the downtown crowd, and everybody had a kind word for me. The club manager, Jack Booth, who was later to die in a car crash, suggested to me that I return on Wednesday night, when the club would hold its weekly “Greaser Night”, a fifties-period costume contest.
That Wednesday we returned. I wore some stupid “greaser” accessories that I had imagined and I came in first place, the prize being a bottle of Canadian champagne. Back in those days I would have drunk lighter fluid if you had presented it to me, whatever…
A few days later I received a call from Jack Booth. “The Montreal Star is sending down a reporter and photographer to the club. Why don’t you wear what you wore last week? Maybe you can get in the papers”. I showed up, got my picture taken and made a big splash in the papers. Suddenly, I was known all over town. It started to dawn on me that I had a bit of star quality. The Montreal press had not gotten enough of the Yakkety Yak Club, the fifties greaser culture or of me. I repeatedly kept showing up in the press.
||I started to develop the notion that I was destined to evolve into something larger than the proprietor of a leather boutique. Obviously, I needed to develop some kind of a stage act, but since I couldn’t play the guitar my prospects were extremely limited. I found a lady named Lorraine who was willing to give me voice lessons, and that progressed extremely well, to the point where Lorraine suggested that I perform at the Cock n’ Bull Pub for amateur night, and she would accompany me on the piano.
This went too well. While I was performing an Elvis song, a drunken French blonde named Diane, whom I had already had it off with on several dozen occasions, rushed the stage and tried to rape me right there on the stage. I had to hold her off with one hand as I sang into the microphone. Of course, Lorraine couldn’t have known that I already knew Diane. After my act, Diane and I groped each other in the booth right across from Lorraine. What happened after that, the reader can well imagine, and if not I would be happy to recount a blow-by-blow description.
The next day, Lorraine dropped by my boutique and issued me an ultimatum – no more live performances. I, however, after getting my brains sucked out through my penis as the result of one song, was not in any mood to obstruct the principle of artistic expression. “No way, baby”, I told Lorraine, “You can’t expect to stand in the way of the creative process”.
“Well, in that case, I can’t give you any more singing lessons”, she said. And that, sadly, was the end of my singing career. Right about this time, I noticed an item in the paper that a comedy club was opening on Crescent Street, and they were soliciting comedians. I naturally had always been a fan of Lenny Bruce, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper et cetera et cetera. Hell, if they could do it, I could do it, especially since there was no guitar playing required.
|Look, I had always been interested in learning to play guitar. I had a guitar once, and I had taught myself to respectably play and sing “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals, but I determined to put the guitar down and not pick it up again, because I was doing fine with the leather designing and had no desire to end up uselessly strumming music when I could be making money. Seriously, knowing my own nature, which is not one of reasonable moderation, guitar picking would have been the end of me.
When I called the number listed in the paper, it was freakin Ernie Butler. “Dean, it’s Ernie!” he exclaimed. Nothing shocked me anymore, but I couldn’t imagine what a college man like Ernie Butler was doing opening a comedy club. I would have imagined that with a business degree from McGill, Ernie would by this time be working for a bank or an insurance company. Put bluntly, you don’t need any kind of university diploma to be a bar manager. It just goes to show you, everybody wants to be in showbusiness. At least I can myself claim that my progression into showbusiness – as far as it went – was organic. If you examine the circumstances, it was a natural progression and not driven so much by ego. In my mind, it was totally evolutionary. I had a design boutique that needed more customers and a natural talent for generating free publicity. I suppose you could say that in the case of Ernie Butler, not having any talent, he determined to break into the management end.
My thinking about freakin Ernie Butler was not as evolved then as it now is in retrospect. He had never made any impact on me at all, except as an extremely materialistic (in those days materialism was not as highly regarded as it is today), roly-poly little dude of no interest whatsoever. I knew I had to deal with the guy, but I wasn’t prepared for such a voracious ego with no ability to back it up. Ernie’s comedy club, called “Stitches”, was located on Crescent Street, the ground zero of Montreal’s night club district. I don’t know who owned the liquor license for the place, but it certainly wasn’t Ernie. The way these things occurred, Ernie would approach the owners with an entertainment concept and he would manage the entertainment policy. The club would sell drinks, and Ernie would get a portion of the take if the club was successful.
You can’t take it away from ol’ Ernie: he caught onto a trend that was already hot in the rest of North America, but Montreal, being 80% French, the second largest French-speaking agglomeration in the world after Paris, is like an ingrown toenail. A lot of American trends never get there at all, and the ones that do are frequently far behind. The same goes for French trends, which are already tired and stale by the time they arrive there. On the day-to-day level, Montreal used to remind me of a large frozen icebox. Millions of people live there their entire lives and nothing happens for them. The fact of things happening for me had more to do with my own personal qualities asserting themselves.
I didn’t just all of a sudden decide to be a comic. It was an organic process. The leather fashions got me publicity in the clubs. Since I didn’t play music the only other outlet was a comedy club, and Ernie Butler had the only comedy club. At that time, everybody seemed to be looking for the next Woody Allen, or that’s how it seemed to me. Comics were expected to be Jewish and dorky. That obviously wasn’t going to work for me. I had this bright orange three piece polyester suit that looked real wild. In the used bookstore down the street, I found a copy of “The Anatomy of the Dirty Joke” by G. Legman, published by Grove Press. There. I had an act, a super-dirty XXX-rated, fast talking comic in a lounge suit, sort of a rancid, white Richard Pryor. I found some jokes and practiced them endlessly on people who came into my boutique (not the paying customers, the nut jobs), and in a few days I was Ready For My Close-up, Mr. DeMille.
It was obvious from the start that I wasn’t going to fit in at Stitches. The audience was some kind of milk-and-cookies peanut gallery, like a suburban fern bar in Westchester County, and the other comics on the bill would not have been out of place entertaining the senior citizens center. So what! Stitches was the only comedy bar in the whole city, and I needed the exposure. “Just Screw It”! Half the time, my delivery was so fast that the dorky people couldn’t understand what I was saying anyway. Look, it wasn’t that fast, OK? I thought of it as a kind of performing art, although that phrase hadn’t been invented yet. Basically, I thought of it as my version of Richard Pryor, whom I had seen in “Live on the Sunset Strip”. There, you see? It wasn’t even that original –just a dirty-mouth fast-talking comedian in a red suit. What was I gonna be, a repressed midget like Woody Allen? A moralistic wooden stool comedian like George Carlin? Fuck that! I was looking for some action!
The reaction was entirely negative. Ernie said, “Why don’t you slow down your delivery? People can’t follow what you’re saying”.
“Maybe we’re better off”, I laughed.
“But why do you have to be so dirty?”
“Ernie, you know me. I’m not a freakin CEGEP student living at home with my parents in Chomedy. I live on Ste. Catherine Street during the day and in the clubs at night. All I’m doing is being myself”.
Ernie started liking me less and less. And then I started writing him into my act, putting him in my jokes, which he liked even less. I wasn’t being malicious, I thought it was funny, but when I would glance over to him, it was a stone face like in the museum. How can you manage a comedy bar with no sense of humor? I suppose that’s stoopid reasoning. Just because you manage a strip bar doesn’t mean you need to know how to dance on a pole. Most people in entertainment management might as well be selling lamps. Ernie conceived the idea of signing some of his more compliant comics to an exclusive management contract guaranteeing him a 50% cut, for expenses. His idea was to load them into a minibus and have little shows in clubs around the province of Quebec, with him being the impresario. Great idea, except that nobody in those places spoke English.
By this time, Ernie had soured on me completely. I had known him for too long to be impressed by his big-shot act. Being a comedy club manager on Crescent Street had reinforced a self-important attitude that he had always had, and now the only way you could talk to him at all was from a subordinate approach, which, to me, he was an ignorant hick from the suburbs of Montreal with only a few weeks of experience. In short, a boring little twit.
When an article came out about the club and gave me a mention as “an x-rated comic with a rapid-fire delivery”, Ernie decided he had had enough of having me around at all. As part of his management program he had hired some very rough dudes to be his enforcers, and when I showed up at the club one night, they let me know that if I came around again they would bust me up. I guessed me and Ernie Butler were on the outs, but I didn’t have anything against him personally except for the fact of him being a fat, dull-witted moron with a God complex, and there are certainly enough of those.
Fast forward to a year later: Mark Breslin, the owner of a popular Toronto club called Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret decided to open a Montreal branch a couple of blocks away from Stitches. I got on over there immediately. In the meantime, something had metamorphosed in me and I found I could write and perform elaborate monologues which owed something to the magical realism of Frank Zappa. In the space of one week I wrote and perfected a commercial for a sperm bank, complete with “easy-insert applicator”, and a sermon from a character I named Yussel Rotten, the Punk Rock Rabbi. In addition I strung together some nasty jokes about a mean biker dude called Harley, The Baddest Biker in the World. Now I really was getting into the realm of performance art, but there was no name of reference for it, so Mark Breslin didn’t take it seriously enough. Sigh, that’s the story of my life in a nutshell!
The first night I performed this act at Yuk Yuk’s, there was a reporter in the room from The Montreal Star, and that weekend I ended up having a half-page picture of myself spread across the first page of the entertainment section. That must have sent freakin Ernie Butler ballistic. A few days later, I walked into Yuk Yuk’s and the whole place was buzzing about how Ernie had sent over a couple of his thugs to threaten Mark Breslin with violence if he didn’t close down the club and get out of town. Ernie was progressing from a garden variety jerk into a full-scale gangster. Is that what they teach you at McGill Business School?
The pen is mightier than the brass knuckles. I wrote a note to Bruce Taylor, who wrote the nightlife column at the Montreal Gazette, describing Ernie’s power play against Yuk Yuk’s. Instead of publishing the item, Bruce Taylor went right to the club’s owners with the story. Maybe he wanted to get a quote from them before going to press with the piece. Instead, the owners immediately fired Ernie and shut the place down. Ha-ha, Ernie probably never imagined that it came from me, or I probably would have received a bomb in the mail, which has been known to happen in Montreal.
Anyway, I had my own problems. The economy was sinking like a rock. I could definitely envision having to shut down my boutique somewhere down the line. Anyway, I had been in that store for ten years. What was I going to do, spend the rest of my life in there like Giappetto, the little, bent-over old shoe cobbler in Pinocchio? It’s cute to have a little boutique when you’re 20-30 years old, less cute when you get older. “Time Waits For No Man And It Won’t Wait For Me”, the Stones used to sing, and I took that seriously. Ultimately, I was going to have to bust the move into industrial production, and it wasn’t yet clear to me how I would make the transition.
I approached Mark Breslin with an idea for me to throw a Halloween comedy fashion show of my pieces, and using strippers from the Supersexe Club as models. Maybe I could drum up some business, or at least put together a cool portfolio to get my foot in the door in the New York fashion industry.
The show went off fine, and it got me a lot of good radio publicity, but there were elements of the Montreal Gazette, which was by that time the city’s only English newspaper, who really didn’t like me. The reporters for that one-horse provincial rag were reminiscent of the gang of Pee Wee Herman-type misfits in the Chinese restaurant scene in the old Cheech and Chong stoner movie. A bunch of dorks, like a whole gang of Ernie Butler losers. I really stuck in their craw! The Gazette really set out to ruin my day. Its review of my show was a steaming shit stew of lies and insults, with the goal of humiliating me and putting me in my place, if you will.
The most incendiary part of the review was the lie that I had stolen the concept of the show from a French designer named Georges Lévésque, who had shown a few weeks previously. This dig, which had to be the result of really fierce loathing and jealousy on the part of the useless, bovine reporter who composed it, an obese, pachyderm named Beverly Mitchell, really set me off! See, in the modern age you can go on the Internet and fight back, but back in those days these press morons controlled mass communications, and they exercised that power however they felt like it. Like Ernie Butler, they were already pissed off that I was trying to parlay my boutique into some kind of stage career, so The Gazette decided to put a brutal end to it. That review was like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat, which is what they intended.
I fought back the only way I could, with a series of insulting letters and an official complaint to the Quebec Press Commission, a provincial authority which was established to correct press abuses. The Gazette was forced to reply to that, and it had to take back some of the insults they had published about me. The Gazette was then obliged to publish the decision of the Press Council. As a result, The Gazette refused to review any more of Yuk Yuk’s shows. Mark Breslin personally went down to the newspaper’s building to plead for some press coverage, but all he got from them was a great stone face like Mt. Rushmore, the kind of placid audience rejection that used to greet comic Fred Stoller used to get when he tried to inflict his routine of dead monkey jokes.
As a result of not getting any more press exposure, Mark Breslin was forced to close Yuk Yuk’s and retreat to his Toronto club. This was the second comedy club that had to close because of me ha-ha! Who are you gonna blame, me? All I wanted to do was perform my act! I knew this comic who used to go by the name of Uncle Dirty, a philosophical wooden stool-type comedian, who recounted to me some incidents of another comic who caused trouble every time he opened his mouth. Not trouble for himself, but for everybody around him (in retrospect, maybe he was giving me a veiled dig about myself). The guy was like a kind of walking plague. What are you gonna do, blame Typhoid Mary for all the dead victims she left in her wake?
Anyway, by this time of early 1982, the financial depression had hit Montreal four-square, and shops were being boarded up all up and down Ste. Catherine Street, which had been so vibrant all the past years of the 1970’s, exciting years of the Olympic games and almost yearly Stanley Cup celebrations for the world-dominant Montreal Canadiens hockey team, mine included. Fortunately, I had a beautiful portfolio of photos from my fashion show, which I was confident would lead to a job in New York’s then-thriving fashion industry, and it did. I managed to get my foot in the door, and it led to a secure job for the next 15 years, an Upper East Side apartment, yearly business trips to Paris and Milan, vacations in Miami Beach and the Caribbean, membership in NYC’s best gym, etc. It only ended when the New York fashion industry collapsed under a tsunami of cheap Chinese imports.
Shortly after I left Montreal, Ernie Butler opened another comedy club, Ernie Butler’s Comedy Nest, on Bishop Street, which he later moved to Ste. Catherine Street, in a spot directly facing the location of my former boutique. Ernie was not a reflective person, but somewhere, deep inside the impenetrable recesses of his reptilian brain, there must have at least once in a while flashed synaptic impulses of his former association with me when he glanced across the street.
Not that he could ever connect the dots. I was the cause of his first club crashing, but by destroying Yuk Yuk’s as a result of my lunatic behavior, I cleared the way for him to eventually become the King of Ste. Catherine Street. Ernie died a few years ago of stomach cancer. Maybe all the personality stresses of being a big-shot ate him up inside. The farthest he ever got in life was where I started out.
More life moments
© Dean Borok May 2012