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Leno to honor his earliest booster

Sogoloff helped launch his career

Jay Leno embraces Lennie Sogoloff, who helped launch his career in 1972, some 30 years after their first encounter. Jay Leno embraces Lennie Sogoloff, who helped launch his career in 1972, some 30 years after their first encounter. (File photos/The Boston Globe/1966,1971)
By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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One day in 1972, Lennie Sogoloff asked his wife, Barbara, what she thought of a young comedian from Andover who appeared at his Route 1 nightclub, Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike.

"She said to me," Sogoloff, now 85, recalled with pride, " 'This young man has got talent.' "

Jay Leno, America's funnyman, did stand-up at Lennie's before sit-downs on "The Tonight Show." Now he's returning to the North Shore, in a special appearance April 6 at Salem State College, celebrating Lennie Sogoloff and his late wife.

"Lennie was terrific to me," Leno said in a telephone interview from California. "Barbara was a great person. When you knew Lennie and Barbara, they treated you like family."

"An Evening With Jay Leno" will raise money for the Barbara Ann Sogoloff Scholarship, which provides financial aid for adult women who enroll in college full time. The benefit, which is sold out, comes just weeks before Leno leaves "The Tonight Show" after 17 years.

"Most people, if they have achieved anything in their life, never forget the kindness someone bestowed on you when you were starting out," said Leno, 58. "I always wanted to pay Lennie back."

Hollywood was a distant dream when a 21-year-old Leno auditioned at Lennie's.

"When I met him, nobody knew who the hell he was," Sogoloff said in his gravelly voice. "I was the first person in the business to see Jay Leno."

Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike was a marquee name in jazz circles. The club had opened in 1951 on Route 1 in Peabody, which then was called the Newburyport Turnpike.A fire in 1972 forced a move up the road to the Village Green in Danvers.

Leno had been knocking around Boston, trying to find work, and he discovered the dark side of comedy. "There weren't many comedy clubs back in the day," Leno said. "I would perform at strip clubs and get ripped off. I just had some horrible experiences. . . . After about eight months of that, I went out to see Lennie at the Village Green."

He auditioned for Lennie in his office. "I said to him, 'Make me laugh,' " said Sogoloff. "He proceeded in five minutes to crack us up. I said, 'Come back on Saturday night.' "

And the laughs kept coming.

"Not only did he kill the audience, he killed my staff," Sogoloff said with a big smile. "People were asking, 'Where did this guy come from?' "

The guy came from Andover. He had gone to Emerson College and had a job driving sports cars from Boston to Chicago. Lennie made him his house comic, earning $25 per night. "Now, $25 in 1971-'72, that was like $100 today," Leno said. "I never thought I'd make that kind of money."

He performed at the club from January to September in 1972, opening for Buddy Rich, America, Kris Kristofferson, and others. The Lennie's gig was a turning point in his career, Leno said.

"It gave me the credibility, that, after a year or so, I could go to other places a bit more confident," Leno said.

Lennie and Barbara thought he might one day hit it big. "He had a continuity in his delivery that you don't always see," said Sogoloff, who speaks to Leno several times per year.

Sogoloff called Barbara his "eye in the sky," always looking for new talent to book at the club. "She discovered Bette Midler for me," he said of the singer-actress who performed at Lennie's in 1972. His wife had worked as a waitress at the Stables jazz club in Copley Square and knew the big names, he said.

Barbara Anne Raby was 22, lovely and blonde, when she first visited his club. Lennie spotted her from across the bar. "When I looked at her, she had such a gorgeous face," Sogoloff recalled of that night 53 years ago. "It was love at first sight."

Barbara Sogoloff, who died 16 years ago, was her husband's life partner. The couple, who were married for 37 years, raised their family in Marblehead.

"Barbara did a magnificent job with the kids. . . . Of course, I contributed. But let's not assume I could make the impact she did. . . . My kids today are all good citizens."

Their daughter Leanne Desjardins, is a special education teacher in Vermont, and another, Karen Gilman, is a home designer who lives in Andover. Son Adam Sogoloff, who lives in Marblehead, works as a manager for a liquor wholesaler. Among them, they have five children ranging in age from 5 to 22.

Desjardins remembers her mother inviting performers to dinner at their home. On Sundays, she would take the children to matinee performances at the club. "That was my mom's way of including us with what was going on with our dad," said Desjardins, 51, the couple's eldest child. "She wanted us to know that the club was important to our family."

While raising her children, Barbara went to college, earning degrees from North Shore Community College and the University of Massachusetts at Boston. She worked as a special needs preschool educator for United Cerebral Palsy in Lynn. She was also active in social issues, such as affordable housing.

Now Leno will help relive Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike. "It's going to be very exciting," said Sogoloff, who lives in Swampscott. "I'm going to introduce him. . . . Our whole family will be there."

Barbara will be close to his heart. Their first date came on a Saturday afternoon. She was staying with her sister in Georgetown. He was due at the club by early evening.

"So I gave her a call and asked, 'Do you mind if I come over?' " Sogoloff said. "So I went over to this big country house. We put on some music. And we danced."

"An Evening With Jay Leno" is sold out. But fans of Lennie's can still support the Barbara Ann Sogoloff Scholarship with checks sent to the Salem State College Foundation, 352 Lafayette St., Salem, MA 01970, marked for the scholarship.

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com.

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