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Travis Edmonson Remembers
Great First Nights

New York may have had Broadway, and Los Angeles the film industry, but when it came to folk music and comedy, San Francisco was definitely the crucible from which the purest gold emerged.

Travis Edmonson was there at the beginning, and recalls one very special night of genuine alchemy at the city's celebrated hungry i.

He himself was not yet a star, being an original member of the pathfinder group, The Gateway Singers.  That legendary quartet was just beginning their own ascent to fame, and were then holding the opening spot as resident folk act at the folk club.

Early one evening, circa 1957, before the show had started, a young man showed up, saying that he wanted to  apply for a job.  Travis Edmonson states, “none of us recognized him - who he was or what he did.  And we ushered him, as he asked, in to talk with Enrico.”

Just what transpired between Enrico Banducci and the pleasant newcomer was unknown, but after they had talked for about a half hour, the young man came out and went into the show room, where Mort Saul was just beginning his act.

“He sat in the back, and we thought, disappointedly, that he didn't get the job.”  All the artists had the same feeling, “too bad, he seemed like a nice young fellow.” He'd made a favourable impression on everyone who had met him.

Travis Edmonson remembers, “he stayed till the show was over, and Mort, of course, brought down the house.  There were accolades on top of accolades.”

The stranger came out of the show room with everyone else after the performances, but didn't leave with the rest of the audience.

Lou Gottlieb, at that time leader of the Gateway Singers approached him then, probably out of fellow feeling for a struggling entertainer.

“He couldn't say enough about Mort - how he thought that Mort was really great, and finally Lou said, `well, what's your name?'  And he answered, `Lenny Bruce.”' Lou said, `Lenny Bruce, the same Lenny Bruce who does comedy?'”  There'd been exciting  rumors about this new talent, but no one had seen him yet.

Lenny Bruce

“And he replied `Yes, as a matter of fact,  I'm going to be appearing here in about a month.'  And Lou just about died!  He just about came unglued.” A spot on the hungry I bill had been secured after all.

The young comedian stayed around for the following show, and after Mort Saul finished his next set, Lenny Bruce  went on, and gave a little preview of coming attractions.

The evening was electrifying, and Travis Edmonson  recollects the details with ease. “Of course, everybody was just so excited about Mort.  But Lenny topped him.  He absolutely delighted his audience.”

He goes on to declare, “and it ended up with all of the people  - all the acts who worked at the hungry I -  at the back of the room just really appreciating him and enjoying it.  Mort was there too, by the way, and he really admired him.  When Lenny came off, we finally all  shook his hand and thanked him and so forth.  That was a night I will never forget! It was such a great one for me.”

There was always a special warm relationship between the folk artists and comedians who shared the stage with them. Travis Edmonson   affirms, “Mort, when he was there, tied us into what he was doing, and  announced for us, and said `stick around and see the Gateway Singers.'  And so did Lenny.  Same thing."

The integration of comedians and folk singers reached the point of synthesis with another act whose outstanding debut Travis Edmonson also witnessed an played  a role in.

The artists were Dick and Tom Smothers, and the two had been staying with the
Edmonsons in San Francisco.  They'd approached him about how to get into show business, and had been to hear all the great acts at the Purple Onion and the hungry i.

Tom and Dick Smothers

The singer explains, “I sat down with them, and told them of my theories on comedy, which they thoroughly agreed with.”

This included the concept of platform comedy, “when you have a subject and a known object.  You know what the line is that you want to end up with, and in between is a blank.  You fill it in with `made up  stuff, stuff off the top of your head.”

On the dual-sided pleasures of such improvisation, he comments,  “and when you finally arrive at being able to tie it all up and complete it,  it really makes more sense - and it's fun!  And it's funny!”

“You know why people laugh?” he poses. “ Tension.  You create that tension, and then you break it.  That's one form of comedy.  It happens to be mine.”

It also suited the Smothers Brothers, and they certainly took the ball, and ran with it, always crediting Travis Edmonson as a mentor.

“After I had this session of talking with them,” (the discussions had gone on for several days) “we went down, and they appeared at the Purple Onion in the show - just impromptu -  and it was delightful!  It was a sense of the Smothers Brothers that you hear today.  That was the first time I'd heard them on stage,” he admits.

It was those consultations in San Francisco from which  evolved and gelled the formula the Smothers Brothers were after to present their talents.  

Describing the occasion, Travis Edmonson emphasizes, “that night, they were eminently successful.  I'll never forget it.  They got a standing ovation at the Purple Onion, which is rare.”  Afterwards, all went to a restaurant in Chinatown to celebrate the auspicious debut of an act which is still entertaining audiences today.



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