Wiley October 19, 2010
We rented the grand ballroom of the Sheraton-Biltmore, the biggest hotel in Providence. I hired the Rhode Island family band the Cowsills. Their international hits were still a couple of years off, but they were very popular locally. To cover dance expenses, we raised the cost from the usual three dollars to five dollars. Al lived up to his promise. Free spots ran all day long for a week promoting the Cupid Computer Dance. Peter and I were interviewed at a local TV station. When the reporter asked us how many people had signed up, on cue Peter dropped a four-inch-thick computer printout. It unfolded along the floor, revealing an endless list of respondents. We looked like the biggest event in town.
On the night of the dance 500 people were in attendance. In the upper lobby, we had a bulletin board titled "Who Is Your Date?" where we listed all the matches. Everyone wore a name tag. You found your match and off you went downstairs to the dance.
As the crowd around the bulletin board thinned
out, there were maybe 60 people still there, stuck
without dates. Peter and I surmised that what had
happened was that some people had seen their
Cupid match and hightailed it out of there or just
removed their name tags and got lost in the crowd.
Unfortunately, this had also happened to Peter. I
told him that his date had most likely never shown
up at all, but there was no way of knowing for sure
and no time for personal remorse because now we
had 60 very angry people on our hands. I climbed
on top of the table to address them. The last thing
I could tell them was the obvious, which was that
their dates had probably taken one look at them and
run for the exits.
"It's getting late and your dates haven't arrived. Why don't all of you just intermingle so the night won't be a total loss? The Cowsills are playing. The music is great."
. . .
When I arrived there, I knew I needed a job. I remembered reading that Bud Cowsill, the father of the Cowsills family singing group, had partnered with Paul Schwab and had purchased the Newport Beach Hotel. Their hope was to restore the place to its original grandeur and make some money in the process. I went over to the hotel and found Bud hanging out at the bar. He remembered me from my Cupid Computer Dance. I asked if he had any jobs. He thought about it for a few minutes.
"Sure, run the parking lot."
I knew he was just throwing me a bone from the bottom of the barrel, but who knows what running a parking lot can become? As soon as I saw the place, however, I knew I was in trouble. First, it wasn't really a parking lot. It was just a row of old cracked tennis courts full of rocks and accumulated debris. It was impossible for one car to park there, let alone several. So, I started cleaning it up, lugging rocks, picking up trash. Eventually, I was able to sweep the place out and I was pleased to see that it looked pretty clean.
The morning that I finished was one of those steamy New England summer days when it felt like you were living inside a sauna. I envied the people in their air-conditioned cars, lined up for the beach parking in the public lot across the street. I could see that the beach lot was a few cars away from being full, which gave me an idea.
I scrounged a piece of poster board from the inside of the hotel, found a magic marker, and went to work. "Beach Parking—$7.00," read my sign, and I affixed it to a tree near the entrance. Within minutes, cars started pulling in.
At the end of the day, I went inside the hotel and placed $245 on the table in front of Bud, who was talking to Paul.
"What's this for?" he asked.
"It's the money from the parking lot." I laughed, a little impressed with myself. "You told me to run the parking lot. So I did."
Paul looked at me like he was about to tear me apart with his bare hands.
"You charged our guests to park in their own parking spaces?" he screamed.
"Of course not," I said. "I just charged the beach-goers and left enough space for the guests. I'm not an idiot."
Bud cracked up and Paul no longer wanted to strangle me. When Paul reached for the money, Bud put up his hand to stop him.
"Let him keep it," he said.
Over the next few weeks, the hotel never paid me. They let me keep half of what the parking lot brought in each day.
Later that summer I moved into Halidon Hall. Bud Cowsill had dissolved his partnership with Paul Schwab, and in the process Paul got the hotel and Bud got Halidon Hall, a 29-room mansion overlooking the Newport Harbor. I worked for Bud and his family band, the Cowsills, through the rest of the summer.
The history of the Cowsills is like the history of rock 'n' roll itself - born into nearly instant success, followed by a period of excess and finally tragedy. The group began in the early 1960s, when Bud came home one night and gave his sons Bill and Bob, ages 7 and 8, respectively, a couple of guitars. Younger brothers Barry and John joined the group later in the spring of 1965. Soon they started playing clubs and became regulars at David Ray's Dorian's, a Newport lounge David made famous when he refused to let underage Mia Farrow in the door despite the fact that Frank Sinatra accompanied her.
One night a producer for NBC's Today show discovered them. That television appearance led to a contract with Mercury Records. Their big breakout single was "The Rain, the Park, & Other Things," co-written by the famous producer Artie Kornfeld. It was a dreamy, heavily orchestrated pop nugget and became a smash for MGM in 1967. The Cowsills were soon seen on the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows. They were billed as "America's First Family of Music." They would go on to host their own TV specials and had Bud Cowsill not been so arrogant, The Partridge Family TV show would have been The Cowsills.
Halidon Hall was this rambling collision of Gothic and Victorian architecture: towers, spires, and vaulted ceilings, all built out of stone. Many windowpanes were cracked or had no glass at all. The roof leaked and was in need of repair. The lawn, if you could call it that, was turning into a jungle of weeds and sumacs three feet high. Approaching the mansion, it looked more like you were entering the domicile of the Addams Family than that of America's First Family of Music. But as I was soon to discover, the appearance of the Cowsills' dwelling was the least of their problems.
Despite their musical and financial success, Bud was spending way more money than the band was making. His wife Barbara constantly tried to stop the outpouring of cash, but without success. Bud was a masterful salesman but had no idea how to run a business. He never paid anyone and owed just about every business in town. He owed the dry cleaners so much money that he was able to convince them that their only hope of being paid was if the band stayed successful, which meant a steady supply of clean clothes. It was like the famous saying from John Paul Getty: If you owe the bank $10,000, that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100,000,000, that's the bank's problem. In effect, many of the businesses in town became partners in the Cowsill Production Company.
Bud asked me if I could help him out by managing the creditors, taking their calls, and keeping them away from him. I drew up an expense plan with a weekly budget. I took all of their debt and created a schedule of payments. I did projections based on anticipated revenues. It wasn't rocket science, just common sense.
One day a bill collector showed up at the door. Bud was very cordial and invited the guy in for a beer. He escorted him into the billiard room, and as he lined up the cue ball Bud started speaking.
"Look, you know I'm not about to give you any money today, Ed, because quite frankly I don't have any money to give you. But you should be thanking me, because it means you'll have to come back here again, and next time I'll give you another beer. We'll play a little more pool. Not only is this a pleasant way to spend the day, but it gives you something to do, because without guys like me you wouldn't have a job."
They clinked their beer bottles together. That's pretty much how Bud dealt with his creditors - all charm but no business.
The following summer, I returned from my year abroad and continued where I left off. While I was in Switzerland, the Cowsills had become more famous and were making considerably more money. It didn't matter. The more money the Cowsills made, the more money Bud Cowsill spent—about 10 percent more. This was a mystery to me. Why not spend only 9O percent of what you earn so you can get ahead of your bills and build savings. Managing their debt was a good lesson for me. It seems obvious but it is probably one of the hardest things for people to do: to spend less than they are taking in, not more.
Bud had rented a huge warehouse in town from Mike Bove—it had been Bove Chevrolet's original showroom—for $2,000 a month, the equivalent of $5,000 a month in today's dollars. Bud's idea was to have a teenage nightclub where the Cowsills could play, and when they were on the road, other good bands could perform. The problem was that there simply weren't enough kids in town to make this kind of operation viable. Nightclubs make most of their money selling alcohol, which a teenage nightclub could not do. So, he was stuck with a lease on a big, empty warehouse. He put me in charge of running this sinking ship. My success with Le Club Shindig in Switzerland made me think I could make it work.
In the meantime, I continued to deal with the creditors. It was an experience that taught me valuable lessons that I would continue to apply throughout my ensuing years. The first thing I learned was that the best way to deal with creditors was to talk with them, meet with them if you have to, and acknowledge the debt. My negotiations mostly entailed convincing people to hang in there and continue to sell us our groceries and allow us to dry-clean our clothes. Eventually Bud repaid everyone in town.
The Cowsills received a million-dollar sponsorship deal with the American Dairy Association. It was important now that they maintain and project themselves as the all-American clean-cut family. When the kids entered their early teens, they had experienced a large amount of success. This exposed them to the dark side of the music business—namely, drugs and sex. I took it upon myself to become their personal confidant, counselor, part-time shrink, and general go-to guy. I even made sure they had clean shirts.
Near the end of the summer, my friend Paul Kusinitz agreed to partner with me to run Bambi's, Bud's teen nightclub. The Cowsills had just gone on a brief tour, so Paul stayed in the mansion with me. We were alone except for Jackie Marlo (not his real name), Bud's friend, a known drug addict. He would trash one room, and instead of cleaning it up, he'd just move to another room. Jackie, unbeknownst to me, was selling items from the house.
One night Paul and I were eating some pasta in the large kitchen, and we started throwing spoonfuls of food at each other. When Jackie walked in, the kitchen was a wreck. Jackie immediately went to the back room and called Bud to tell him that we were trashing the house. Two weeks later, the Cowsills returned, and despite the fact I had brought in a cleaning service, the house was indeed a mess compared to how it had been when the Cowsills had last seen it. Worse than the mess, there were antiques and furniture missing, the ultimate stab in the heart being Barbara Cowsill's favorite couch, which was nowhere to be found. I was immediately blamed for it all. In no uncertain terms I was asked to leave and never return.
Out on the street, very upset, Paul and I thought it was the least we could do to search the local antique shops and find Barbara's couch. We finally located the store that Jackie had sold it to. We bought it back and returned it to Barbara. She still didn't believe me. She thought I had made up the whole thing about finding it in the antique store and even thought I had created the store receipt myself. There was no reconciliation. Barbara has since passed away and I still regret not having set this straight with her.
On that last night I went by myself down to the nightclub and to my small office to get some of my belongings. I was possessed by the injustice of it all. Being banished by Bud and Barbara for something I hadn't done was bad enough, but that they would take the word of a certified junkie over mine added insult to injury. Plus they had gone on tour, basically abandoning me to stay back and deal with their problems. Most of all, I had come to love this family in spite of their failings. I kept asking myself: Was this my failure or theirs? Was there something I wasn't getting?
On the stage at a small local hotel where they were now playing, Barry, Bobby, and Susan, three of the Cowsill kids, were tuning up, getting ready for the evening's performance. We often had a problem with the speakers and I was the one who always fixed it. On this night, I just couldn't bring myself to go up there, because it would mean having to say good-bye again to the kids. I could hear the screaming of the speakers behind me as I walked out the back door.