Thursday, August 26, 2021

A Visit with Tony Belmont of the National Comedy Hall of Fame

This past week Gary Firstenberg sent me photos from his visit to the National Comedy Hall of Fame Museum in Holiday, Florida just outside Tampa. The stories that have been captured there are quite remarkable. Museums provide a great service to the public, preserving history and providing inspiration to future generations. They cover all manner of human experience from archeology and anthropology to crime, politics and nature. The longer you live the more you run into fascinating niche museums, such as the Spy Museum around the corner from Ford Theater in Washington D.C. 

The National Comedy Hall of Fame Museum addresses another fascinating niche of human experience: Comedy. The president of this enterprise, Tony Belmont, seems to be a walking archive of memories, stories and history and because of his occupation as a rock and roll promoter, his life very early on intersected with the world of comedy and its many legendary performers. 

EN: What prompted you to create a Comedy Hall of Fame? 

Tony Belmont: Here's a little background. In the early days of Rock n' Roll when many acts were on the bill to perform a comedian provided an excellent segway.  (See Attached), It worked well to have a comedian out there long enough to make the transition to the next act. This worked because all the comedian needed was a microphone so you could get him on and off quickly. Also, he could work in front of the curtain which allowed the bands to change over easily behind the curtain.  Most drummers wanted their own cymbals and foot pedal, guitar players wanted their own amp, etc. This created too much dead time during the changeover. 

To avoid the dead time and to keep the energy going I found using the comedian would keep the audience amused while the change-over took place out of view. I used this system effectively for many years. This allowed for concerts to move fluently through the evening and made for a great show! This also moved Rock n' Roll concerts to the next level, production rock. 

Tony Belmont. Photo Gary Firstenberg
It was with this background and exposure that in 1969 I was contacted by the Smithsonian Institute the most prestigious museum in the U.S. They were concerned because many of the great comedians especially the vaudevillians in the 19 century, were coming to the twilight of their lives and there was very little documentation about these people. They felt someone needed to document their stories before it was too late. Once they passed on, the wonderful stories about their lives and acts would be lost except for hearsay.  That part of history for accuracy would be lost forever. So ~~ they contacted me! I thought they were making a mistake and told them I was a rock n' roller but they convinced me I was the one for the mission. ( Let me amend that statement! They doubled the money and I was suddenly very interested in preserving history. I spent the next 4 years traveling the country in-between my Rock n' Roll shows interviewing at their homes over 400 of the greatest comedians of the century!

EN: Impressive!

Tony Belmont: Fast Forward to 1989. By that time I had become friends with many of the great comedians, and I was at the LA Friars Club in a conversation with a few of the members: Jan Murray, Morey Amsterdam, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and a few others when the topic came up about my past comedy interviews. Morey said, except for those interviews you did no one will remember any of us at this table. There needs to be a place that people can go and read about us in the future. A-----a building---like maybe a museum! That's it!  A national museum about comedy.

I said that's great as I burped on my ginger ale. Are you guys going to do it? At that moment they all looked at me together and like a fifty's singing group in Acapella harmony said, "No-n0-NO, you are!" (The official start date was July 25, 1991.)

So the answer to your question is: I didn't create the National Comedy Hall of Fame Museum, I was sucked in and drafted.

EN: There are so many great eras of comedy. What are some of the different kinds of comedy?

Tony Belmont: There are six major areas of comedy: although in the museum we break that down even further. Musical Comedian (e.g. Victor Borge), Dialect Comedian (e.g. Yakov Smirnoff), Impressionist (e.g. Rich Little), Dialogue (eg. Comedian Norm Crosby/Professor Irwin Corey/.Etc. etc.)

EN: How has comedy changed under the influence of changes in media?

Tony Belmont: Vaudeville, Radio, Television, Stand-up, Theater, Film.  

Example: I interviewed Art Carney at his home years ago. I told him I thought he was a great comedian. He politely corrected me and said, "I'm sorry young man but I'm not a comedian. I'm a comedic Actor. I don't stand in front of a mic and tell jokes. I need a script and then I will make it funny."

Different kinds of comedy are related to the act that the individual puts together. 


(a) Prop Comedy:  Carrot Top a relatively new comedian in the past 15 years uses a box full of props next to him and pulls them out one by one. Gallager does a similar act but ends by smashing a watermelon all over the audience.

(b) Professor Backwards murdered words; this was later done by Norm Crosby and others.

(c) Ventriloquists: Jeff Dunham who is very popular now,. But I managed the man who started it all the "Great Senor Wences," the father of ventriloquists. 
(d)  Magician Comedians: Elliott Smith. His magic is first class but it's used as a prop for his comedy. Or Penn & Teller

Comedy has evolved along with media. In radio, there were many sound effects to help create the humor: Jack Benny-Fibber McGee & Molly etc. With television, it was now more visual and required film-type acting skills. Sadly today we are too politically correct and that is difficult in comedy, as comedians like to talk about anything and everything. But now they are handicapped. Don Rickles told me a few years back he could not do the humor he started with years ago, he would get into a lot of trouble if he did. He wasn't talking about Blue Comedy, he was talking about the restrictions that prevent comedians from making fun of people or even themselves?

EN: Over the course of your career you’ve personally gotten to know many of the comedians we’ve become familiar with through television and film. Who were some of these and what were they like when not in the spotlight?

Tony Belmont. Photo Gary Firstenberg.
Tony Belmont: I met everyone that was at the top and still alive in 1970 and on. So I had many favorites. With me as opposed to being on the Johnny Carson Show or Larry King where they need to be entertaining they could relax and be themselves. George Carlin was laid back and a nice guy. Not the crazy guy you saw on stage. Red Skelton was exactly what you expected. He was just like the comedian he portrayed on TV. Henny Youngman Told one-liners every couple of minutes. George Burns was a wealth of knowledge. I said to George. "You've been around a long time George! You must know everything there is to know about show business." He smiled --took a puff on his cigar and said, "Yes -I do. The problem is at my age I can't remember any of it anymore." 

I asked Milton Berle a question and expected a different answer. I told him that I had interviewed his good friend Henny Youngman a year back and Henny told me that you (Milt) stole all of his jokes. I thought he would object to that, but instead, to my amazement he said, "Yes--I did!  But I told them better."

* * * 

National Comedy Hall of Fame

Address: 2435 US-19 Holiday, FL 34691


Related Links

National Comedy Hall of Fame Inductees

Another Side of Jonathan Winters

My Original August 4 Standup Routine: Eggplant Humor & More


Unknown said...

Tony sounds like a really interesting guy! A museum of comedy history is a very unique concept, and. by the looks of it, this concept is a winner—Tony seems like a really interesting character. Would love to read more about this place!

Unknown said...

Wow that was an amazing article. A breathe of fresh air. We need more of this type of history published when life was pure. How do i get to enjoy more of this reading/information plus?

Looking forward to seeing more :)

Please advise Tamara

Ed Newman said...

Yes, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. He's been around and seen a lot... and I look forward to sharing more sometime.
Thanks for the note.

Fran Capo said...

That was great! Loved Your intertwining the interview with his stories. As a stand up comedienne and Guinness book or worlds record holder as the fastest talking woman I just recently met Tony and he is every bit as funny and knowledgeable as you portrayed him. Thanks ! -Fran Capó

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