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Alan Sues: The Laugh-In Star who was Armand Ellroy’s Last Showbiz Connection

October 12, 2019

James Ellroy’s father Armand had many connections in Hollywood. Armand Ellroy was Rita Hayworth’s business manager from 1948-1952. As a non-certified accountant he filed tax returns for actors such as Glenn Ford. He was also friends with Mickey Rooney and producer Sam Stiefel.

By the late 1950s though, Armand Ellroy was out of work. He had lost nearly all of his Hollywood connections. After the murder of his ex-wife Jean Ellroy in 1958, Armand raised their son Lee Earle (James Ellroy’s birth name) alone.

Armand threw himself into various get-rich-quick schemes. None of them worked and the Ellroys sank deeper into poverty. But at least one of his business ideas had potential and it resulted in a friendship which would prove quite valuable to Armand. Armand befriended a young comic named Alan Sues.

Alan Sues

Alan Sues was a comic actor and writer who achieved his greatest fame as a regular on the smash hit sketch show Laugh-In. Sues died in 2011. In 2017, the biography Alan Sues: A Funny Man by Michael Gregg Michaud was published.

Early on in his biography of Sues, Michaud proffers this observation about the acting life: ‘Performers often create and propagate mythologies about their lives. Alan was a master of personal reinvention. “The truth just isn’t funny,” he’d say.’

Sues was a master raconteur, and his stories were often so funny that it seems wrong to quibble about how true they were. One amusing anecdote Sues liked to tell related to when he was drafted into the segregated US army during World War II. An administrative error led him to being assigned to an all-black barracks. Sues was the only white guy, surrounded by black soldiers, for his first eight weeks of basic training. Finally, an army doctor said to him:

“I suppose you’re told this a lot, but you don’t look at all Negro.”

“What?” Alan asked. “This may come as a shock to you, but I’m really not a Negro.”

The officer then accused him of being ashamed of his race. “He said, now, listen, that’s a wonderful race. And you’re going to be very unhappy if you keep putting it down. It’s unfortunate that you don’t look Negro, but you are a Negro. I said, wait a minute, I’d know if I was Negro for crying out loud!” They argued for a moment, and then the officer instructed Alan to come to his office as soon as he returned from leave.

Sues was quietly reassigned.

After the war Sues pursued his dream of being a performer. In LA, Sues and his wife Phyllis performed at the Cabaret Concert Theater in The Holiday Show in 1957.

In My Dark Places, James Ellroy describes how his father ‘managed a stage show at the Cabaret Concert Theater. The show featured young comedians and singers. My father got tight with a comic named Alan Sues.’ The Cabaret Concert Theater was a small cellar cafe that opened in Silverlake, LA in 1950. Comedians and singers would perform there, often unpaid, in the hope of being spotted by an agent or producer. It must have suited Armand well, as he could put on a show with virtually no budget. However, ‘the show bombed’. Before it closed, the show did get some good notices. The LA Times review was very positive, ‘Its wit is sharp and it is fresh and stimulating, a very cleverly put together show. It is a recounting of the old glorious days of vaudeville, and is chock full of fun and memories.’

Sues association with the theater did not end there. He also appeared in the show Tantrums at Nine in 1959. Once again, it was favourably reviewed but less successful commercially. The Cabaret Concert Theater closed in 1961. The venue was transformed into the flamenco club El Cid.

The Hat Shop

Undeterred by the failure of their theatrical venture, Armand Ellroy and Alan Sues ‘opened a hat shop. Sues designed the hats. My father kept the books and flogged the hats by mail order.’ Sadly, this business also failed: ‘The venture went bust quicksville.’

James Ellroy devotes just a few lines to the hat shop business in My Dark Places. However, Michaud examines it in-depth, and it is clear that Sues had a gift for design and the business had the potential to be very successful.

The business began when Sues opened a retail store on Santa Monica Boulevard called Gazebo: ‘Alan designed several hats, and was surprised when customers snatched them up.’ The business took off fast. Sues soon had a wholesale order for three hundred hats and was selling them to ‘Macy’s, Gimble’s, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf and Henri Bendel, and Bullock’s and Robinson’s department stores in Los Angeles.’ Sues only had Phyllis to help him make the hats, so he hired his actor and designer friends to cope with the heavy demand.

Sues was forced to close the Gazebo which was getting too expensive to maintain, but continued to make hats at home for his wholesale buyers. The business peaked in June, 1959 when ‘TV Guide printed a three-page colour pictorial featuring Alan and several females modelling his hats’

The TV Guide feature on Alan Sues’s hat designs

However, Sues grew tired of the hat design business as it took up a huge amount of his time and it was beginning to impinge on his performing career. He lacked a sound business mind, and he was finding that the high cost of materials was eating into his profits. Sues’s brother John identified the real problem with the hat business:

‘I went over,’ John explained, ‘and I went in the back, and around a table were all these men and women singing and playing the bongo drums. I told him, ‘I think I’ve found your problem.’ All his employees were out-of-work show business friends and they did virtually nothing.’

Armand Ellroy, aging and unwell at this point, could have easily fallen into this category of Hollywood chancers with more enthusiasm than experience who just didn’t have the drive and concentration to help Sues make the business work.

Michaud never mentions Armand Ellroy in his biography. I contacted Michaud by email, and he said that in the forty years he knew Alan Sues, he never mentioned knowing anyone in the Ellroy family. Nor is there any mention of Armand Ellroy in Sues’s archive. Perhaps the friendship was never that important to Sues, or maybe their various failed businesses were something he preferred to forget. Michaud names Don Sheffy as the producer of The Holiday Show, and Sues produced Tantrums at Nine himself. Armand may have exaggerated his role as a producer at the Cabaret Concert Theater.

Fairfax High School

There is one further mention of Sues in My Dark Places that is worth investigating. Lee Ellroy was due to attend Los Angeles High School, but Armand didn’t want him to go there as it was full of tough neighbourhood kids and he ‘figured they’d kill me the first time I opened my mouth’. Armand thought Fairfax High School would be good school for Lee to attend. It was located in the plush Melrose Avenue area of LA, a Zip code far beyond Armand’s budget. Alan Sues ‘lived a few blocks from Fairfax. The old man borrowed Alan’s address and plopped his Nazi son down in the heart of the West LA shtetl.’

Michaud confirms that Sues lived in Fairfax at the time, so Armand’s little scheme would have worked. Lee’s adolescent obsession with Nazism peaked when he was at Fairfax. It would have got him into trouble at any school, but was especially offensive at Fairfax as it had a predominantly Jewish student body. Lee Ellroy was eventually expelled from Fairfax High. Thus, he squandered the only real effort Armand had made in getting him a good education.

It’s not clear whether Alan Sues knew how Armand had used his address to gain Lee the place at Fairfax. Perhaps he wouldn’t have minded if Lee had been a fairly well adjusted teenager. Maybe he did find out and was angered at Armand exploiting his living arrangements.

Laugh-In

Sues’s greatest success would come a few years later. He joined the cast of Laugh-In in 1968. Michaud gives great insight into how this groundbreaking comedy show was produced, and the rivalries and clashing egos that lay behind it. Sues was angry that the hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin seemed to take all the credit and only had to put in a few hours a week, whereas he and the other cast members worked round the clock. Furthermore, he became increasingly troubled at the homophobic tone of the show. His character Big Al was required to be outrageously camp, and Sues felt it may have been stigmatising the gay community.

Sues was gay. His marriage to Phyllis lasted only a few years, although they stayed friends. Towards the end of his life Sues felt both proud and vindicated about the role he played in Laugh-In. One of his last public appearances was at an autograph collector’s show in Burbank:

Many gay men stood in line to meet him that day. They told him he was one of the few gay men they saw on television when they were young, and his gay visibility, though myopic in style, made a difference to them. Alan was shocked, and genuinely overcome.

Alan Sues never made Armand Ellroy a fortune with his cabaret shows or hat shop, but he was still a good choice of friend. With a bit more luck, their ‘get-rich-quick’ business ventures as James Ellroy describes them, may well have succeeded.

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2019 2:57 pm

    Very interesting piece. Sometime, countless years ago when I was working on an Ellroy sort-of omnibus that I never completed (including a master character guide that was current through CST), I actually spoke with Sues a couple of times on the phone about the Ellroys. Once he was in the midst of a very loud party at his place, I recall. Somewhere, there is a cassette recording of the calls, if I could just lay hands on that (or the manuscript for the dropped project) lurking somewhere around here…

    • October 13, 2019 4:36 pm

      Thanks Craig. This is very intriguing. Any recollection of what Sues might have said, above the din of that house party? Did you call him after you read My Dark Places or did Ellroy mention him to you?

      I’d love to take a look at that manuscript or tapes if you can find them…

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