Interview with LA Times Journalist and Author: Bill Knoedelseder

Posted: 08/02/2010 in Uncategorized
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Bill Knoedelseder burst on the Los Angeles scene as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times where he built a reputation as a fearless, intrepid investigative reporter, especially in regard to the entertainment industry. His first book, Stiffed, A True Story of MCA, the Music Business and the Mafia, remains a highly regarded classic. His last book on the “comedy wars” of the late 1970’s is a delicious read. We met up with him over a delicious cheese repast in June, 2010.

TREVOR: Why did you write I’m Dying Up Here?

WK:  It was a story that I covered when I was just starting out at the L.A. Times.  The core incident was a story I covered thirty years ago when I was a cub reporter at the Times, and it remained really close to my heart over the years because it was a very affecting story. I had just arrived in Los Angeles so I was a new Angelino, and my editor called me into his office and  said that the thought that there was something happening in the comedy scene in L.A. that had the feeling of Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, and he thought something was really gonna happen.  There were all these young people arriving in town and they were gonna change things.  He wanted to know if I would be interested in covering that as a beat. I had always loved stand up comics and comedy, I’d grown up watching Johnny Carson and all the comics on there.  So it was like “Oh, my God.”  I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

When I took the assignment to take on the beat, what I quickly found out was that all the funniest people of my generation were leaving their homes all across America and moving to Los Angeles because Johnny Carson had just moved the show to Los Angeles.  Back then there were no videotapes that you could send around.  There was no cable television.  If you wanted to get on the Carson show, you had to be performing in a place where the Carson scouts actually went after work.  There was only one place.  You had to be on stage at the Comedy Store, so that’s why they all started appearing at the Comedy Store, and after a couple years of this invisible migration of funny people, I realized that there were a couple hundred of them, young people, 25 years old, college educated, the funniest people of my generation, all living in cheap apartments all around the Comedy Store. There was this very finite, wonderful world going on.  It was Paris in the 20’s for young stand up comics, and it was amazing.  I had a front row seat to the stage performances and the hi-jinks that were going on.  The staying up all night long, partying and making each other laugh.

In the middle of this good time, this Camelot story, something dramatic and in fact tragic happened.  That is the main plot point of the book.  Thirty years later, I’m reading in the L.A. Times … I’ve gone on, in my career, done other things, and I saw that one of the comics who was involved in this incident and very involved in the scene back then, who had been David Letterman’s best friend at the time, died, George Miller, and it said there was gonna be a public service for him at the Laugh Factory.  So I thought, “I wonder if all those guys will come back?,” because he was really popular, he was Dave’s best friend.  So I went, and sure enough, a lot of them did, and when they got up to eulogize their friend, to a person, everyone who got up, all their reminiscences were about this four-year period, 1975 to 1979, when the incident happened, and it was clearly the time of their life.  That’s what they looked back on.  This was the greatest time.  It never got any better than that.  I walked out of that thing on a Sunday afternoon and I thought, “Geez, I just gotta write a book about this because it’s a better story now than when it happened, because they didn’t really appreciate what was going on, the bullets were flying.

TREVOR: How long did it take you to write it?

WK: When I finally got rid of all the other jobs I had to do and actually wrote it, it probably took less than a year to write, but given that I was doing it in part time, it took a few years.

TREVOR: Who did you interview?

WK: Everyone, Letterman, Leno, Richard Lewis. Robin Williams didn’t talk, that’s okay.  I interviewed them all at the time, “back in the day.”  I knew them.

TREVOR: What do you mean, Robin Williams didn’t talk?

WK: I couldn’t get an interview with him. I never got through.  It didn’t matter.  He wasn’t the key to the story.  He was the biggest, hottest young act in town at the time, but I didn’t really expect to get much from Robin anyway because he performs in an interview.  You wouldn’t get a lot of reflection I don’t think.  I knew who the main players were in the story who were actually the movers and shakers in the strike which is what took place.  These comics worked at the Comedy Store, between ’75 and ’79 actually ’72 and ‘79 and they worked for free.

That was the deal.  You worked for free in exchange for being seen by the professionals and your career will break from there.  But the woman who was running the Store got rich, and she wasn’t paying the people who were bringing in the customers, so they went on strike and that’s the gist of the story, but most people don’t even know that that happened.  They’re not aware that there ever was a strike by comics.  “What are you talkin’ about?”   In fact it was an historic event that didn’t get a whole lot of coverage, and I’m not sure why.

TREVOR: The other place in town was the Improvisation.  When did that start?

WK: That started in, in late ’76 or ’77, but it was not as big a success or as big a draw as the Comedy Store was, so it’s not the place they chose to strike.

TREVOR: Was Budd Freedman paying?

WK: No. If the Comedy Store didn’t pay, nobody paid.  If you went to clubs around the country, they paid, but not the showcase clubs. There was one in New York, the Improv — Freedman had pioneered the concept of the showcase club where performers didn’t get paid.  In the beginning it made sense for everybody because it did work in the beginning.  He didn’t make any money.  He was broke.  He had this little club where all the actors and people who would perform, so they would all come in and do stuff for free because you’re an actor in New York, you go in and play the piano and perform, and comics.  It was a great idea when it started, and he wasn’t making millions.  He was barely getting by, so no one really ever said, “Hey, how come you’re not paying us?”

Mitzi Shore turned it into a really big viable retail comedy establishment, and started making a lot of money, and they started resenting it.  And it’s okay not to pay people for their work as long as they don’t mind, and the minute they mind and say, “Hey, wait a minute,” then you’re talking slavery.  You couldn’t go anywhere else. There wasn’t any other club.  Or, if there was a club, the Tonight Show guys weren’t sitting there watching you and putting you on for that, so you were captive.  You had to either perform for free or not have a career.

TREVOR: So what actually happened?

WK: They asked her, they started talking about it.  They had some seditious meetings where they discussed it and they went to Mitzi Shore, the owner, with a select group of comics and asked to be paid and she said, “No,” and they asked again, and she said, “No,” and they kept trying to come up with formulas for her paying.  Her idea was, “This is a workshop.  This is a college.  I’m not your employer.  I’m just giving you the opportunity,” and that wasn’t her vision of how it worked.  After a while, you can’t just keep threatening, “You gotta pay us,” they were forced to go on strike.  That’s how they saw it, so they did.  They formed a quasi-union, threw up a picket line and shut the place down for six weeks.

TREVOR: Did they really shut it down?

WK: Yeah. You could go in if you wanted to cross the picket line, but there were only a half a dozen comics that were working and they weren’t the best ones.

TREVOR: Did the audience stay away?

WK: Oh, yeah, they killed her business, and what really hurt was when the Teamsters backed the picket line so they wouldn’t deliver the liquor across the line.  They would just put it on the sidewalk, so they’d have to lug it in themselves. She had a dozen loyalists who were like in the bunker, but they had put the lines up 24 hours a day for six weeks, and she finally capitulated.  She buckled and agreed to pay them, and there was celebration for a while until they realized that it was a Pyrrhic victory because she, in starting up her operations again, excluded a lot of them from the stage, and they thought it was retaliatory and even though the contract she signed with the Comedians For Compensation, which was the group that was formed, said that there’d be no retaliation.  It was hard to prove what was retaliation.  She just didn’t put some people back on the stage.  It wasn’t Letterman and Leno because she wasn’t about to do that because they were big draws here in town.  They weren’t stars nationally but she picked some of the strike leaders. One of them was Richard Lewis’s best friend; they’d been friends since back in New York.  His name was Steve Lubetkin.

He’d been struggling, never made it big, been out here for a couple years, and he’d been a favorite of Mitzi’s for awhile, and he was just about to break through, he thought, when the strike came and he sided with the strikers, and after the strike was settled, she didn’t put him back on again.  He was convinced his career was over, and had a weird idea — he had some emotional problems, too which was evident in the end — that if he did this certain thing it would help bring about fairness.  So he went up on the top floor of the Continental Hyatt House right next to the Comedy Store 6 o’clock on a Friday evening, June 1st, 1979, and jumped, dove actually, and died, right on the ramp to the parking lot right there as  you are coming into the Comedy Store while they’re all getting ready to go on.  If you say to everybody who was present back then, all the comics who were my age and around that, “What was the first line of Steve Lubekin’s suicide note?,” they’ll be able to repeat it for you.  It said, “My name is Steve Lubekin.  I used to work at the Comedy Store,” and then it said goodbye to a bunch of people.  That was such a horrific thing to happen.  No one ever figured that something like that would happen.

A lot of the people, like Letterman and Richard Lewis, never went back to the Comedy Store.  They just couldn’t bring themselves to go back in and perform.  I think Letterman went back a couple times, but it was the proverbial car crash on prom night or graduation night.  It was like “Oh, God, geez – this isn’t about being funny, somebody died, “Steve killed himself.  We weren’t paying attention.”

TREVOR: Did the Comedy Store ever regain its cachet?

WK: It did in a way.  Actually it had even better years.  It made more money. The free comedy disappeared just in time for the huge comedy boom of the 1980’s where they realized that comedy is really cheap.  You just need a microphone and some chairs and a comic, somebody who’s funny.  It doesn’t cost, not like making a record, certainly not like making a movie.  From five comedy clubs between New York and L.A., all of a sudden there were nine in Los Angeles and then a 100 around the country or 200.  It was huge!  There were 12, 13 Improv franchises all over the place, and people made good money.

Had Mitzi been able to force the no pay thing it might, that might not have been as lucrative — not all of them — but Letterman, Leno, they all became fabulously wealthy, had big careers, lived huge lives, and there was a circuit where all kinds of people — you would never know their name — made a good living for the next ten years traveling around, working in these comedy clubs.  They worked 200 nights a year and made 50, 60, 70, 80,000 dollars.  You’d never know who they were but they were they’re out there and that’s what a comedy career was if you didn’t go really to the top.

TREVOR: Where’s the Comedy Store at now?

WK: It’s gone down now.

TREVOR: She passed away?

WK: No, she’s still alive.  She’s got Parkinson’s or something, she’s not physically well.  She’s aged.  The years were not kind but it’s still running.  It’s a shadow of its former self, but after this period that I wrote about, Jim Carrey, Sam Kinison, Rosanne Barr, and Jerry Seinfeld, although he didn’t really like the Comedy Store, passed through there and were born there.   Sam Kinison was the last major star to be born at the Comedy Store. You still go there on the weekends, but it doesn’t represent what it used to represent.  It used to be Mecca.  It used to be the place.  She had a monopoly.

TREVOR: Is the Improv in better shape?

WK: It might be because it’s more of a restaurant hangout, it always was.  Some people preferred the atmosphere at the Improv because it was more of a place where you could hang out at the bar, whereas at the Comedy Store, if you wanted to hang out, you had to hang out in the parking lot because they didn’t have a bar there; it was in the back, you couldn’t sit at the bar.  There was no place to hang out and talk.  It was a show.  You were at a table.  It was a different, different sort of feel all together.  I always preferred the Improv as a place to go.

TREVOR: Can you generalize about comics? One hears sometimes that they’re all miserable people.

WK: There is that.  They bring a lot of baggage. They’re really saying “Love me!”  They’re not playing somebody else.  They were sort of a tortured lot, not the happiest bunch of people.  Once I got to be known as “The Guy” on the comedy beat, I’d get calls all the time, I’d get calls in the middle of the night.  The night that Steve Lubekin died I fielded lots of calls.  After the whole thing was over, after he died and I did the story about him and the funeral, and the strike was over — I’d been on the beat for a year, a year and a half — I remember going to  Irv Letovsky, the Calendar editor, and saying, “It’s time for me to get off this beat.  Can I get something a little lighter than this?” I went to organized crime and it was kind of a relief, so they are sort of a sad lot in a lot of ways.

TREVOR: Was it hard to write the book?

WK: No, it was an easy one to write.  The other one here was much harder, and the other one before that was harder, and the new one’ll probably be hardest but this one was easy because I knew this story. I lived the story.  I had the notes from thirty years ago. The beauty was I know what they thought at 27, I had talked to them and I could talk to them at 57. It was very rich because when it was all going on, they’d tell you certain things.  Like I said, the bullets were going on.  They knew what was going on then, but they had no perspective on what this meant to their life, because you couldn’t know.  Thirty years later they look back and they know what it meant to their life, because they know how it changed the way they looked at things and how they behaved, and it was a much better story.

TREVOR: So how many victims were there who didn’t work again, dozens?

WK: A lot of them didn’t succeed, but I’m not sure it’s because Mitzi Shore didn’t put them on.  The strike proved that she wasn’t all powerful, that after the strike, you could make it without going on at the Comedy Store.   I don’t think Lubetkin’s suicide didn’t affect anything other than it marked the end of all their innocence.

TREVOR: In a way they had nothing to lose because they weren’t getting paid anyway.

WK: Exactly, right.

TREVOR: What’s your take on Mitzi Shore?

WK: She was at the right place at the right time.  Very smart woman.  Had a really good idea.  She was very driven, she really made her way in a man’s world that’s for sure.  A lot of admirable things about her, but she really had a controlling side where she wanted to be completely acknowledged that … she actually said to me one time: “Richard Pryor, he got his big break for ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ from right after performing on my stage,” making the point that if not for her and this little club, Hollywood would have never noticed Richard Pryor’s talent?  Come on.  It’s just a place.  Richard Pryor was not going to be denied because that club wasn’t there.  But she had it in her mind that she was responsible.

TREVOR: Did she give you an interview for the book?

WK: Yeah.

TREVOR: Is she bitter?

WK: Yeah, she’s never gotten over it, because she feels like a mother betrayed.  They turned on her.  They didn’t appreciate what, what she was doing for them and they went out on their own, but again, the reason the story was so rich is what Mitzi said back at the time.  She said, “Look, you guys, if you make this about money it’s not gonna work out for you because it’s not about money.  Don’t make this about money.”  In truth it shouldn’t have been about money in a way, because what they’ll tell you now is, and I think you’ll hear the same thing, if you went and interviewed, Dylan and Ian Tyson and all the people who were in Greenwich Village, the singer/songwriters, that whole thing in ’64, ’63, they will all tell you, “Yeah, we went on.  We had hits, we became more comfortable, we bought our ranches, but it never got any better than when we were poor and trying to find our voices and knocking around and hanging out in each other’s apartments and trying to impress each other with our songs and feeding off one another, and nobody had any money.  That was the best it ever got.”  They wouldn’t wanna stay there forever but they remember that as when they became who and what they are.

So she was right about that.  She was wrong in the sense that she tried to control them and make sure that, that all whatever they got, she got a piece of it because that’s not how it works.  If you talk to Mitzi, you realize that that she gained this reputation as this big comedy expert, but I sat and talked to Mitzi and, and I said to her, “Okay, you’re the person that an entire generation of funny people had to come in front of you and perform their hearts out to get on their stage,” and so we went through naming the people, and Mitzi really couldn’t talk about that comedy and humor.  She could talk about the Store.  She could talk about the club that she owned.  That’s what she saw.  That was her thing.  She was a shopkeeper in a way.  I mean brilliant and really captured something, and knew how to do it, but …

TREVOR: But she also booked the talent.

WK: Oh, she knew what was funny.  She knew what made her laugh, and she also knew what made comics tick because she had been married to one.  She knew the life.  Her idea of painting the whole place black and having just a spotlight on comics so when you walked in the room that’s all you saw is actually a pretty good idea.  Before that you’d walk in, you’d see the audience, you’d see the bar, you’d see everything else, but you go into the Comedy Store and, man, there was a spotlight and there’s a comic.  That’s all you see.  The tables are painted black.  The table cloths, everything’s black.  The outside of the building is black.  So that was kind of genius.  She was a tough personality, boy. I remember when I interviewed her, she’s (imitates shaking) but she was all there.  She was very gracious. My articles probably hurt her over the years, as there was some tough coverage, but there she was.

I told her, “That’s the last line of the book,” when she said it.  I asked her, after all this time, thirty years, “You’ve seen all these people,” and she really alienated all these people.  They never came back and honored Mitzi every year like they could have.  “Is there anything that you had to do it over again, you would do differently?”  And she said, “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing,” she said. “The Comedy Store was the light.  And if they couldn’t see that the Store was the light, then fuck ‘em.”  This is coming out of this little 80-year-old woman.  “Well fuck ‘em!”  Thirty years later and I thought “Whoa, okay, that’s where she is!”

They’ve all gotten past their anger at her and they realize that they, like Letterman said, “wouldn’t be where I am without that woman.”  He broke with her.  He went on strike with them and supported the strike and broke her heart and broke her spirit when Dave went over to the other side.  It was a dramatic scene.  Dave hadn’t sided for a couple weeks and he hadn’t showed up because he was preparing for his first guest host performance on the Tonight Show.   It was the night of the Oscars, and the reason he was, he was picked as guest host is that was Carson was doing the Oscars.  So Dave was on and Tom Dreesen was on the show, his other best friend with George.  And after the show, David made a commitment to go walk on the picket line for the first time.

All the comics knew that Dave was subbing for Carson that night.  It was a big deal.  It meant a lot.  They all knew exactly what that meant, it was such hope.  “This is all good for all of us.”  Nobody had ever really come from where they work out of nowhere.  David had only been on the show twice.  Six months before he was a complete unknown.  Now he was absolutely sitting in for Johnny Carson.  Nobody knew who he was but he was on the show.  They were so excited.  After the show, Dave came back with Tom and all the picket lines are out there, picketers are out in front of the club, and Dave drove an old red truck.  He pulled up in the truck and as he came down the ramp to join them, they all cheered and started doing the Tonight Show Theme.  “Da, da, da, da, da,” As he came down, of course Mitzi is watching out the window and she sees Dave and that’s when she knew it was all over.  You lose Letterman, because he was the biggest deal there at the time. I think that’s when she realized that she’s not gonna win this.

TREVOR: Were there any well-known comedians who crossed the line?

WK: The only one who’s really well known now who made it in a big way was Gary Shandling.  He crossed and they bear a grudge to him this day.  A lot of them won’t talk to him because of it, thirty years later.

TREVOR: Did you talk to Shandling about it?

WK: He wouldn’t talk, but I know his story.

TREVOR: Why didn’t he?

WK: He had been trying to get on the stage for a long time.  He didn’t share in their struggling experience.  He wasn’t part of that because he had been a very successful writer, was making a lot of money, but he wanted to be a performer, so he was trying to break in, and he wasn’t part of their thing.  He was living in a different Hollywood.  He wasn’t a struggling comic living in a shitty place like the rest of them, and he grew up in a family that owned manufacturing stuff and it was definitely not a union family.  His whole upbringing was that unions were the problem so he wasn’t about to join a union. Everybody who didn’t join had, came to it with their own stuff, their own education.  Yakov Smirnoff didn’t join either.  He’d just come from the Soviet Union, and Mitzi was his patron.  He was living free rent, he had a job and he had just come to this country from Russia, so he was very grateful for her support and he wasn’t about to go do that. August Hamilton was having an affair with her.  He was in love with her.  He wasn’t about to go against her. When you’re 27 years old and you’ve never been involved in that, you don’t really realize that if you go against your brothers in a strike, that’s always going to be bad for you.  They’re never gonna get over that, that’s one thing you don’t ever do.  Unless you just don’t give a shit.

TREVOR: Did you feel that you missed anything in writing the book because you couldn’t get to somebody or you’re pretty happy with the way it turned out?

WK: I would have like to have gotten more from Gary Shandling and maybe Robin, but I did get the perspective of the strike breaker from Mike Binder, who was another guy who went on to pretty good success. He’s now quite a good film director, and he crossed, he was like a kid.  He was 18 years old at the time, and Mitzi was his surrogate mom, and he felt he owed her, so he crossed the picket line.  He functioned as Jay Leno’s little brother, and Leno was very active in the strike, so the night Mike crossed the picket line — and they hung out together all the time — Leno said, “I’m not talking to you anymore.  Don’t come by my house.  We’re done.”  It broke his heart, it broke both their hearts actually.  When I talked to Binder thirty years later, he still felt bad. He’s in recovery, so he had gone to Tom Dreesen and met him someplace and made his amends to the leader of the strike, saying, “I was wrong.  I was just a kid.  I was going out and get fucked up every night.  I was loaded all the time, I shoulda been with you guys.  I shouldn’t have done that.”  And Dreesen forgave him.  And if Dreesen forgave him then everybody forgave him.  But not so with Shandling.

TREVOR: Did he reconcile with Leno?

WK: When I talked to him, he hadn’t.  So many years had passed.  What are you gonna do?  Pick it up after thirty years?

TREVOR: What’s the reaction been to the book by the people who were involved in it?

WK: I haven’t had a bad reaction at all.  Some people thought I was unfair to a character in there.  I can’t remember his name now.  He was one of the Mitzi’s guys, but when I talked to him, the guy was a complete asshole so that was the only one. No one really took dispute, even the people who were on the other side of the strike.  The Comedy Store has been really supportive. I think because it draws attention to the Comedy Store.  The people who run the Comedy Store now say, “That’s really what it was.”  They don’t really necessarily think that Mitzi did the right thing, and they do recognize that that those were the glory days of the Comedy Store and I got it right.  It’s accurate.  There’s just no doubt about it.  I know that I really captured the feel of it.  If you lived through it, you’ll recognize it all.

TREVOR: It was well-reviewed?

WK:  Yes, except for, except for the Los Angeles Times, (laughs), who have never given a book of mine a good review.  I don’t know what that is.  They assigned some freelancer to it and basically, he complained, after telling the whole story of the book as if he was telling the story, which means he used everything in the book for his own review. Then he took issue with the book and he did what reviewers do – “If I’d written the book, here’s how it would have been much better.”  He criticized the book because it didn’t have more about Saturday Night Live, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Steve Martin.

Saturday Night is not standup comedy.  It was in New York.  Woody Allen never worked the club scene in L.A., nor did Steve Martin, except for a little bit, and Bill Cosby wasn’t part of the story.  He missed the whole story. The story is about Los Angeles club scene in the 1970’s, and he was criticizing the book because it didn’t have stuff from the 60’s.

TREVOR: What’s happening with the book now?

WK: Sold the film rights to Jim Carrey.  I’m told that he wants to produce it as a film.  Independent, outside the studio system film using his own money.

TREVOR: Is it out in paperback yet?

WK: It’s just coming out at the end of July (2010).  And Carrey, I don’t think he’s planning on being in it because I don’t think there’s a role in there for him since he went through the Comedy Store some years later and he was he was waiting in the wings when this all took place.  He knows the scene so I’m sure he felt an affinity for the material.

TREVOR: You published in 1993, Stiffed, A True Story Of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia. What is that book about?

WK: How the music business operated, or was operating at its absolute peak at the period of time that I was writing about, and it was a case history of mob infiltration of the music business, how it happens classically, and the way the record industry at the time treated its artists in terms of their royalties and things like that.  I just happened just completely stumble into this bizarre story that I tried to figure out, “What the heck is goin’ on here?”  And it turned out to be just an accidental thing that turned into the biggest scandal that had been in the music business up until that point.

TREVOR: You were working at the L.A. Times then?

WK: I was working at the L.A. Times and I was doing a story on what they call cutouts, which is the underbelly of the business.  It’s what happens with the actual vinyl albums back in the time after they’ve been sitting on a shelf for a long time and they were back in the warehouses and they hadn’t sold em.  What do they do with them?  I would go to the bins, because I was a record collector, find all these records on sale for 99 cents, when there was one over there for, $4.99 or $10.99, or whatever it was, and I wanted to know how that happened.  In doing so, I ended up talking to a guy who was the most notorious, convicted counterfeiter.  He’d been to prison for counterfeiting.  One of the few people that that had ever happened to, and I had gone to talk to him in his warehouse in Philadelphia to get tales of the underbelly of the record business, and he told me, “You ought a look into this deal I just got in.”  Then he says “There’s a guy named Sal Pisello, who’s a Mafia guy for sure, who’s in the middle of this deal at MCA and he shouldn’t be there.  You should check into that.”  He said which I took to be “Pacello.” He mispronounced the name.  It was “Pisello.” So I went back to Los Angeles and I started trying to find out through all my law enforcement sources, who’s Salvatore Pisello?  Nobody knew him.  Nobody knew anything at all.  A couple months passed.  Maybe a month I guess, and then unbeknownst to me, the organized crime strike force was about to prosecute the guy that he was actually talking about who’s name was Piscello, and there was some sort of report that was put in, in terms of the filings that laid out all his dealings, and there it was, that he was involved in some sort of deal at MCA and it was like a public record. We had people at the court at the L.A. Times, they would pull all these things when they were filed, so I looked at it and I went “Oh, my God. Here’s the guy that John was talking about and he was in the middle of this deal.  One thing led to another and this was a guy who shouldn’t be involved with MCA Records.  No good explanation for why this guy who was a Gambino family soldier from the East Coast who’s got all kinds of suspicions of being a heroin trafficker and all this stuff, would be having meetings in the executive suite at MCA Records.  So I set out to try and figure out what that was all about, and it produced probably forty or fifty stories over the next couple years, and it ended up four or five grand jury investigations and eventually twenty Mafia guys got indicted and convicted, but nobody at MCA was ever touched — the people who let him in the door and, and did business with him, the record company guys.  It was only the Italians that went down and that was bizarre, too, but that’s because they had friends in high places, MCA did.  And they got the investigation into MCA shut down and got the prosecutor fired.

TREVOR: Were you ever threatened in writing that book?

WK:  No.  Not by the Mafia. I only got nervous the day that I answered my front door and I was served a subpoena to testify by Morris Levy who was the Jewish godfather, the mob’s man in the record business, and he wanted me to, after the story broke, he wanted me to identify a confidential FBI source, so they subpoenaed me to testify in court.  I never did testify.  I wouldn’t have, it’s one of those things where it would have been my opportunity to go to jail in Newark, which I wasn’t looking forward to, but it never happened.  But, that story never dies.  I still hear about this and that.

“It’s really FBI, or there was the CIA involvement,” endless speculation about what that was all about, and I don’t know if the mystery will ever be solved. I don’t know what’s true but I know that a day or two after all the mobsters go indicted, I received a letter in the mail at the L.A. Times.  It was postmarked the day that everybody got indicted, and it was like six sentences, six clear statements explaining how it all worked. We had never been able to figure out why this all happened.  All these things that didn’t seem connected.  It just seemed all so crazy.  It didn’t seem like it made any sense.  But if this was an acetate overlay and you put it over all those questions, it connected every dot, and made everything absolutely understandable. The L.A. Times put that letter in a safe and I never saw it again.

TREVOR: Did MCA try and stop your…

WK: Stop the book from coming out?  No.  They tried to get me fired at the L.A. Times.  By the time the book came out, I was long gone from the L.A. Times.

TREVOR: How did they try and get you fired?

WK:  Just constantly complaining that I was being unfair, “You’re just repeating the same stuff over and over again,” constant pressure on my bosses, constantly meeting with them, so that it got harder and harder for me to get news stories in the paper.  Not that I was never told “No.” They just made it more difficult for…

TREVOR: What was the reaction to your book from the public and, generally?

WK:  The book was really well reviewed.  The sales were not huge.  It’s a very complicated story.   You really got to wan to know about the record business, because I was obsessed with (wanting) to explain to people how the record business really operates.  It’s a lot to ask of them. Hitmen was a much simpler story, much more anecdotal.  He sold, I don’t know, ten times what I sold.  He also had a better title…

TREVOR: Frederick Dannen (author of Hitmen).

WK:  Yeah.  His book went through the roof…

TREVOR: Nobody wanted to pick up the movie rights for Stiffed?

WK: Well, (laughs) actually somebody did.  Not then, but there’s a script written right now.  They’re trying’ to make a movie of it right now.  Whether they ever will, but they’ve paid me several times now on the option, so I’ve been making money on it the last couple years.  Not enough to retire on but…

TREVOR: What are you working on now?

WK: A book, the working title is Bitter Brew and it’s about the rise and fall of Anheuser Busch and the family that founded it and ran it until two years ago when it passed into the hands of some Brazilian billionaires.

TREVOR: Why are you saying that it’s fallen?

WK: Because it’s now not American owned.  It’s the last of the great family dynasties in American commerce.  As Anheuser Busch went, so did America.  This is a company that came into existence three days after Lincoln was inaugurated and passed into foreign hands the week that Obama was elected.  And in between is the story of America.  Everything that this company went through is American.  This is a company that was founded by immigrants who came here from Germany and made into a colossus.  They turned this country into a beer-drinking country.  It hadn’t been before.  They didn’t drink beer.  The Germans brought it in, and these guys are the most successful.  The company weathered two world wars, a depression, and prohibition, and survived and blossomed and provided amazing lives for a lot of people.  It became, it was the backbone of St. Louis.  During all of prohibition, they didn’t lay off any employees.  They kept people working, and so it’s this great saga.  At the same time the family stories are just outrageous.  They were so rich, and all the stuff that goes with that.  Untimely deaths, scandal, sex, murders, shootings, but then after all that, after operating in three centuries, in the end they’re undone by globalization and the case I’ll make is moral degradation.  So it’s a story of America.  It’s what’s happened to us.  And you can tell it through a beer company that everybody understands.  This is what we are, this is where we were, this is all about opportunity and excellence and, and then blowing it.  And that’s what happened.

TREVOR: You’re getting cooperation from family members?

WK: Some, not all, but enough. I know the story, I know what it is and I grew up in St. Louis so I was steeped in the Anheuser Busch lore.  You can’t not know about Anheuser Busch.  It’s like living in the neighborhood of the Rockefellers.

TREVOR: When do you think the book will come out?

WK: I’ve got to turn it in a year from now in June 2011, so probably Spring of 2012 would be my guess.

TREVOR: Have you written any other books?

WK:  I wrote a book called In Eddie’s Name that came out in 2000 that was about a murder that took place in Philadelphia in 1994, and it was a teenager who was beaten to death by a gang of teenagers with baseball bats on the steps of a church where he’d been an alter boy, so it was like this horrific murder that took place, but it became something other than a murder story.  It was really a story about the family that went through this and and it became this big crazy cause célèbre in Philadelphia because as I found out when I was working on it, he wouldn’t have died had there not been an utter failure of the Philadelphia 911 system that night, because people were calling in about this band of kids that were marauding all over the place.  But the 911 operators were hanging up on them ’cause they didn’t know enough to say, “Man with a gun.”  Because they, if you said, “man with a gun” the cops would have showed up.  Because they didn’t have guns, they didn’t show.  They just had baseball bats and they were beating people to death so the kid died. It became a big national story because I sued the city.  I was running a  television news show, Enquiring News Tonight, which was in partnership with the Philadelphia Enquirer, and I was new to Philadelphia, and we were talking about the crime one night in an editorial meeting and I said, “It said in the paper that some nun called in the 911 thing, let’s get the 911 tapes.”  Everyone in the room looked at me and said, “What do you mean, get the 911 tapes? Those aren’t public record.”  I said, “What do you mean, those aren’t public record?  In Los Angeles they are. Are you kidding me?  They charge every citizen here a dollar a month for the 911 system.  How can they not be…?”   “Oh, the police consider that investigation,”   And I said, “Well, then lets fucking sue them and we will win.”  We did and won and they had to release the tapes, and it showed exactly what happened, and they played them on every newscast, because it was appalling.  Hanging up on people.  Not taking the calls. It was a good, very gut-wrenching book.

For more information about Bill Knoedelseder go to:

  1. woot, thank you! I’ve finally came across a website where the owner knows what they’re talking about. You know how many results are in Google when I check.. too many! It’s so annoying having to go from page after page after page, wasting my day away with tons of owners just copying eachother’s articles… ugh. Anyway, thankyou for the information anyway, much appreciated.

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