The Murder of Roy Radin: How Vaudeville Died its Second (Or Third or Fourth) Death

I wish I had known the amazing story of Roy Radin (1949-1983), beginning, middle, and end, when I was writing my book No Applause, as I definitely would have incorporated it into the last chapter. It’s a story of a man who began producing entertainment professionally as a teenager, was still creating vaudeville shows (of a kind) into the 1980s, and was murdered during his involvement with a famous Hollywood movie.

Roy was the son of Alexander “Broadway Al” Radin (1901-1973), a Russian Jew from the Lower East Side who promoted Broadway shows, operated a chain of speakeasies, and produced scores of touring vaudeville and nightclub revues up and down the East Coast, dividing his time between the Catskills and NYC as his base of operations. When he was 16 (1957) Roy quit school and learned the publicity ropes working at the Clyde Beatty Circus. He’d only been at it for a year when he decided to start producing the same kind of shows his father had. His first bill, in 1958 included George Jessel and the Today Show chimp J. Fred Muggs. Over the years The Roy Radin Vaudeville Revue presented such acts as Milton Berle, Donald O’Connor, Morey Amsterdam, Joey Bishop, Dennis Day, Cab Calloway, Allan Jones, Allen and Rossi, Godfrey Cambridge, Billy Barty, Dickie Haymes, Gloria De Haven, Paul Winchell, Frankie Fontaine, Tessie O’Shea, George Gobel, Frank GorshinJack Carter, Jackie Vernon, Shecky Greene, Pat Paulsen, and (as you see on the poster above) Jan Murray, Johnny Brown, Tiny Tim, the Harmonica Rascals, Pinky Lee, Zippy the Chimp, Laugh-In comedian Jud Strunk, and John Carradine (the latter sounds odd only if you don’t know vaudeville — my guess is that he recited poems, Shakespeare, and so forth as an act). Bills were rounded out with magicians, jugglers, fire eaters, sword swallowers, acrobats, and even performing kangaroos. The venues ranged from concert halls to Masonic temples and high school auditoriums. By the ’70s, his nostalgia packages also included faded pop acts of the 1940s and ’50s, like The Ink Spots, Eddie Fisher, the Drifters, the Ronettes, Barbra McNair, the Shirelles, Johnnie Ray, and Danny and the Juniors. And there also oddments like boxer Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Demond Wilson from Sanford and Son, Eddie Mekka from Laverne and Shirley, Telly Savalas’s brother George, and Pat Suzuki from Flower Drum Song.

Many of the reviews were unfortunately terrible, and the performers delighted in badmouthing Radin (who’s been described as a “carnival barker combined with a Broadway tout”) and his shows anywhere and everywhere they could, from tv talk shows to their published memoirs. “The Second Ziegfeld he’s not”, said Joey Bishop.

I’d had a vague idea about this part of the story, for some friends and acquaintances had seen these shows. I wasn’t aware of the climax until last year, when I watched the Netflix docuseries The Sons of Sam: A Descent Into Darkness (2021). The show does rather a tenuous job connecting Radin’s death to David Berkowitz’s killing spree, but is a fascinating cul de sac nonetheless.

Roy Radin was, obviously, quite the wheeler-dealer. He claimed to have been a millionaire by the time he was 20, but you know how it is. It’s hard to sort out how much dough show biz promoters and producers actually have. Generally it LOOKS like a lot. They raise money for shows, and a certain amount of it supports a flashy looking lifestyle. The money is sometimes shady, leading to criminal associations. This was true in the Jazz Age, and it’s true now. Think of the nightclub business in places like Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Miami and New York. As the ’70s rolled on, Radin became a familiar sight at places like Studio 54, sporting expensive suits, capes and fedoras, hatching plans for Broadway shows and circus extravaganzas to anyone who would listen.

In 1980, Radin made the papers when actress Melonia Haller, who played recurring character Angie Grabowski on Welcome Back Kotter, was discovered naked and bloody on a New York subway car. She claimed she had been raped, beaten and intimidated at a coke-fueled party at Radin’s beachside Southampton mansion “Ocean Castle”. The events had been videotaped. Radin claimed that it was all a consensual SM game (by all accounts, there was good deal of leather, whipping and so forth at the party, in which Haller, a former Playboy model, did indeed participate). Radin was charged with criminal weapons possession (a handgun) and drug possession (reportedly there had been Quaadludes, mescaline, amyl nitrate, cocaine and LSD at the party). Another person in attendance, businessman Robert McKeage IV (technically, her date) was charged with the assault. The videotape had been wiped; the only evidence was the testimony of Haller and other witnesses. Radin and McKeage walked away with relatively mild sentences.

Lurid accounts of these goings on were naturally printed in the tabloids, which naturally wouldn’t be ideal for someone booking wholesome variety shows, and so Radin began to explore expansion into other areas of show business. One of them was movie producing. And now the story ascends (or descends) to a whole new level. It turns out that the 1984 movie The Cotton Club was originally Radin’s baby. Which makes perfect sense, doesn’t it, that he would champion a project like that, immortalizing the famous Jazz Age venue? Radin was partnering with hit-making producer Robert Evans to get the film made. Evans, responsible for some of the biggest Hollywood films of the late ’60s and ’70s, was in a bad patch, having been arrested on cocaine charges in 1980. The two men were introduced at a Beverly Hills party by a major drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs (real name Karen Greenberger). Jacobs was to get a cut of the film for introducing the two men. As the project proceeded, it looked like Evans and Radin were shutting Jacobs out, and giving her a smaller percentage of the film than she felt she deserved. Enraged about the situation, she had a hit put out on Radin. His corpse was found in the desert outside Los Angeles in 1983. He was 33 at the time of his death. Amazingly, The Cotton Club made it to movie screens in spite of all. (A mixed blessing).

There is a 2021 podcast series about this leg of Radin’s story, featuring Juliette Lewis, Rainn Wilson and Christian Slater. It’s called Killing Hollywood: The Cotton Club Murder. I’d bet the farm that this’ll be a movie itself at some point. Somehow, some way, whether it should or no, it always comes back to show business.

And for more on vaudeville and show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,