For Zollie Volchok, No Biz Was Like Show Biz

Some things, like deficits, taxes and Zollie Volchok seem to endure forever. It is unfair to lump Zalmon Marcola Volchok, a cheerful fellow, in with such durable miseries as deficits and taxes, but this looks like a bad day at the word cooker.

Let's try again.

Zollie has always been one of this burg's unfading rays of sunshine throughout many a gray, overcast day.

Such it was the other morning when I met Volchok for breakfast. We had no more uplifting mission in mind than to cut up some old touches.

``Tell me,'' I said, ``about how you and Jack Engerman were once tycoons in roller derbies.''

``Funny you should ask,'' he said, ``I was thinking of that just now. In the papers this morning was a story about local tycoons trying to come up with $50 million for a hockey franchise. Fifty million!

``Back in 1959 we got a franchise on the roller derby circuit for 48 pairs of skate and a derby track. The track cost us $5,000.''

Roller derbies, in case you are unfamiliar, are sort of manslaughter, or ladyslaughter, sanctioned by roller derby law. Mayhem on wheels. Competitors on a circular track would bang, kick, bite, slug and pull hair. Very uplifting stuff.

``We raced in Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, Vancouver and Spokane. Sometimes in Detroit. When we played in Seattle we were the Vikings. In Tacoma we were the Generals. Someplace else we were the Bombers or the Jets.''

``Do you know who our radio announcer was? It was Bob Robertson, the guy who brings you Cougar football.''

Zollie thought for a moment. ``There was never a competitor like Little Iodine. She was 6-2, and she was 200 pounds of non-serenity. She is now head of security in the Hawaiian Village in Honolulu.

``Every night I would bet $20 with my partner, Engerman, on whether the points would be odd or even. I always lost. It was only later that I learned the fix was in. Engerman arranged the outcome with the roller derby manager.''

Zollie Volchok is retired now, or as dangerously close as he ever gets to pure idleness. He was squiring his old friend, Victor Borge, around town, because Borge was here to do a benefit show for Variety Club International.

Volchok long has been active in Variety Club; over the years this organization has raised more than $600 million for children's charities.

When Zollie and Engerman owned Northwest Releasing, 1953-1969, it was the largest talent-booking agency in America. They dominated the theatrical scene throughout the West - north of Las Vegas to Minneapolis, Canada's western provinces, Alaska, Honolulu, Seattle, Portland and Spokane.

You name 'em, they booked 'em: Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Satchmo, Mary Martin, Jack Benny, George Burns, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and Elvis - to name just a few.

Later, after he and Engerman sold out, Zollie found a few spare moments of free time. Sam Schulman, who then owned the Seattle SuperSonics, asked Zollie to run the franchise.

``I don't know anything about basketball,'' Zollie said.

``Neither do my players,'' Schulman said.

But when Zollie took over the Supes, those of us who knew him also knew Sonic fortunes would catapult. That was because Zollie, the showman, knew that big-time sports are nothing but show biz.

Within a couple of seasons, Sonic attendance jumped from an average 6,000 per night to a jammed Coliseum. The Sonics later set attendance records in the Kingdome. Moreover, Volchok recodified their dismal image with attractions like Senior Nights, Kid Nights, Ladies Nights and a whole range of community involvements.

Engerman, who was killed in a plane crash shortly after his retirement, cashed out of Northwest Releasing with a comfortable fortune. So did Zollie. And when Schulman sold the Sonics to Barry Ackerley for $21 million, Volchok owned 5 percent of the team.

``Do you know where Victor Borge got his start?'' Zollie asked, rhetorically. ``Right here - at the old Metropolitan Theatre in the Olympic Hotel.''

In 1953, Zollie said, Borge rented the Metropolitan for two weeks to try out his act before a live audience.

``Borge and his agent figured if he flopped in Seattle, nobody would notice,'' Zollie said. ``But after the first night, the place was packed. Guys from Hollywood flew up here and before long he was booked on Broadway. He set a record in New York for the longest running single-performer show.''

In all, Zollie said, Northwest Releasing booked Borge 84 times. ``And every one of them was a sellout.''

In major league show biz, temperamental egos descend on you like killer bees. But Zollie, a master at neutralizing egos, made many close friends among the superstars, one of them the late Sammy Davis Jr.

``Not many people know this, but Sammy played the old Palomar Theater on Third Avenue on the night it closed. It was the last legitimate vaudeville house in the country.''

The life of an impresario may seem glamorous, but the risks are such that it's advisable to keep a pulmotor handy. He and Engerman once booked Liberace, who sprained his wrist in Portland. Result: 18 cities canceled.

The Ballet Russe, heading to Seattle by train, got snowbound in the Shastas - 7,000 refunds. Muhammad Ali came down with a hernia and had to cancel his bout with Sonny Liston. Zollie and Engerman had to cancel their closed circuit sellout in 11 cities.

They started from nothing, but they made history, not only in Seattle, but in all of show business. They were kings of talent gamblers, they were Billy Rose, Mike Todd, Charles Dillingham and George White rolled into two.

Early on, when they were small, the demands were imperious. A wire from a big entertainer would come: ``Having rehearsal at 3 p.m. Have your stage manager, wardrobe department, electricians and stage hands present.''

And Engerman would wire back: ``He will be there.''

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.