Some Lessons Learned from the Golden Years of Hollywood – An Interview with the Great Sammy Petrillo

This article was transcribed and edited from a phone interview in ~2008 with SammyPetrillo by the founder of Break Diving, Inc., Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA.

Living through the golden years of Hollywood was absolutely the apex of my life; it was the most marvelous thing to rub shoulders with the biggest stars of the time—the stars who I looked up to as a kid when I used to go the movie theaters.

At the time, movie theaters charged only 25 cents or 35 cents a show, and motion pictures enveloped my life because they were my escape.  These movies were one of my greatest escapes. They were double features and I would go from one show to the other to escape from the poverty I was living through.  At the time, my dad was in the service, and my mom was pregnant through part of this time.  They were both trying just to make ends meet.

Well…

[editor’s note: drum roll please!]

it was the biggest thrill and biggest accomplishment of my life to see people on screen as a kid, and years later, to discover that they had become my friends!

People like Eddie Cantor, who was a classic in those days; Jimmy Durante; and Lou Costello.  Milton Berle most of all who became almost a grandfather to me.

I grew up watching these screen legends in the local 25 cent theaters, and then years later—it was amazing—I found myself actually working with them or friends with them!  Even Jimmie Durante became a friend of mine.  He was a very close friend of my comedy partner Duke Mitchell, and he became a friend of mine as well.

And Step ‘n Fetchit—he is historical.  Look him up.  You’ll see what I’m talking about.  He and I did a review together.  A two-man review.  This was years later, in the 60s or 70s, we did a two-man review, just he and I, and we traveled around Pittsburgh and we’d drive away in an old jalopy car.  Step looked so young; no one believed that he was allowed to drive.  One time, he and I were actually kicked out of a club because Step looked so young; the club owner said, “This guy can’t be Step; he’s far too young!”  They thought we were impersonators!

Probably the biggest lesson I learned over the years is that your childhood dreams most certainly can come true.  I am still in awe: I actually fulfilled my childhood dreams!  To have gone from poverty row and childhood dreaming in these theaters to years later actually appearing in those very theaters—how amazing.  I learned that success doesn’t necessarily mean money, or being the biggest success in the world, or even sustaining it.  For me, just GETTING there has made it all worth it.  I can’t believe that my dreams became a reality.

Another lesson I learned from all this (and what I always tell those in the arts) (and this is a popular philosophy among my Hollywood friends) is that you don’t have to become a wealthy international star in order to be considered a success.  To me, each show is a success; every show where you entertain an audience is a huge success that you should be hugely proud of.  If you have done this—if you have brought entertainment to an audience, no matter how big of an audience—then you should be very proud of yourself; you have become a success.  Even if you don’t go any further, you have already become a success because you have successfully entertained people.  If you set a higher goal for yourself (money, fame, etc), that’s great, but to me, the highest pinnacle is having brought entertainment to others, even if you remain an amateur.

Now, if someone does want to become a rich and famous, [the formula] is simple: exposure, exposure, exposure and persistence, persistence, persistence.  You need to be more persistent than anyone else in getting as much exposure as you can: get any type of legitimate type of entertainment job; get people in the business to know you and want to use you and work with you; go to auditions; enter amateur shows; get publicity; do anything for exposure and experience.  NOTHING replaces exposure and experience.

Today, unlike the golden days of Hollywood, young people want fame over money, and I think that’s smart.  Years ago, I was ridiculed for pursuing fame over money by some of my peers, but it was this self-promotion and publicity that helped me to get my role in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.  This is why I think my friend Monroe is on the right track—he is always promoting himself and his projects, and I know it will serve him well.  In fact, that’s how I ended up as a guest on this show, and I am certainly proud to be a part of it.

Well, that brand name recognition that you create for yourself is what is going to lead to your monetary fame.  That was why I made some clunker films over the years that people ridiculed; I did it to get experience; to learn how to produce; to direct; to learn the business end; to get more people to know who I was—I wanted to learn every end of the business so I would have some control over my professional career.  I wanted people to know who I was—and it worked.

To become a success, you need exposure.  Exposure.  Exposure.  Exposure.  Never give up.  Learn to take rejection, toss it over your shoulder, and keep going.  It’s all sales.  It’s a numbers game; 1 out of 40.  You get a million rejections, but it’s the one that you GET that matters.  All the rejection will all be worth it for that one job you get.

In conclusion, if you want to make it to the top, you must accept all rejections and be prepared for them because you’re digging for that one piece of gold.  Every knock is a boost and every knock is a stepping stone to the top.  Anybody who has been a little success or a big success will tell you the same thing: you need the exposure, and you need the persistence.

***

A NOTE FROM MONROE:  This interview was recorded as a part of the internet celebrity talk show that I produced and hosted called Before the Big Break, which discovered and shared the stories of celebrities before they became successful.  This was before I was a lawyer, before I had my MBA, before I produced “You Can’t Kill Stephen King”, before I moved to China, and before I had the words PhD after my name.  But Sammy believed in me even then, and it makes me smile just thinking of the warmth he felt for me.  

I actually just found this article again today (August 12, 2017) while on the phone with radio host Dave Abramson, who is currently writing the definitive biography of Sammy Petrillo, called, “Your Time is Now: The Sammy Petrillo Story”.  

You see, Dave is interviewing anyone who has crossed paths with Sammy, from the great Jerry Lee Lewis to the future great Monroe Mann (haha–Sammy would have laughed at that stupid joke for sure!) This may be the first time this interview is seeing the light of day in fact, because I don’t recall whether we actually ever launched the “Before the Big Break” blog.

Of all the memories I shared with Dave about Sammy, the one that makes me smile the most is how much Sammy wanted to help me succeed in showbiz, and how much he wanted to see others succeed too.  Well, I first told Dave that I would email him the interview with Sammy, but then a light bulb went off in my head!  I realized that Sammy wouldn’t want me to do just that.  He would have wanted me to give Dave the interview and to share it with you right here and now!  He wouldn’t want you to wait for Dave’s upcoming bestseller to be inspired by his story–he’d want you to get a boost from it right here and now!  

And so I have posted it here, on the Break Diving blog, which is precisely where it should be, of course, since it originated from Sammy’s interview on Before the Big Break, a project with a nearly identical mission of inspiration!  While Dave may end up sharing this article in his book (and I hope he does), I wanted you all to get a sneak peak into the awesome showbiz legend Sammy Petrillo right now! 😀 <—and yes, that IS Sammy’s trademarked big grin smile!  

I miss you Sammy!  Thank you for your belief in me!  I know one day I will too be following in your footsteps, sharing my before the big break story with the world!

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