TALK ABOUT TOUGH ROOMS. IN FRONT of some 40 residents of the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, Calif., former stand-up comic Marty Ingels is doing his darnedest to get the audience warmed up for the bingo game. He has danced the hora. He led the seniors in a round of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Now it's time for the big finish. Ingels whips out a photo of Oscar winner (Elmer Gantry) and Partridge Family mom Shirley Jones. "Does anyone know my wife?" he demands. "Shirley's the best gentile in the world! Opposites attract. If I met someone like me, it would've been in the insane asylum!"

Maybe so. It seems pretty crazy, for instance, that Ingels, 57, is relegated to doing shtick for old-timers. After all, he has inhabited the fringes of showbiz for three decades, beginning with his costarring stint (with John Astin) on the 1962 sitcom I'm Dickens—He's Fenster. And for the last 17 years he has been the irrepressible—okay, there are those who would say obnoxious—force behind Ingels, Inc., his successful commercial celebrity talent-brokerage firm. But on this senior-center booking, Ingels doesn't have much choice: He was ordered by the Ventura County Court to perform 120 hours of community service, on the nursing-home circuit, after he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of making hundreds of annoying phone calls to his client, Depends spokeswoman June Allyson, 75. (Ingels claims the star owes his firm $10,000 in commissions for her lucrative adult-incontinence diapers endorsement. For her part, Ally-son has declined to talk to PEOPLE about the contract dispute.) "I thought going to prison would be tough," Ingels jokes, "but being with 300 Jewish mothers is like going to the gallows."

Coincidentally, his troubles began with a phone call. In 1985, Kimberly-Clark contacted Ingels, Inc., to find an appropriate spokesperson for Depends. Ingels sold them on Allyson. For the first five years of the deal, Ingels received Allyson's fees, took his 10 percent commission and sent the six-figure remainder on to her. "I made that lady a millionaire," he claims. However, according to Ingels, in 1990 the actress amended the contract to stipulate that the checks be sent directly to her. By late last year, says Ingels, she still hadn't paid his 1992-93 fee.

But despite Ingels's claim that he is owed money, the exact date that his commission is due remains unclear. In any event, rather than sue the star of Little Women and The Glenn Miller Story, Ingels—on the advice of his lawyer—called her. When she refused to speak to him, Ingels phoned again—and again and again, often getting her husband, dentist David Ashrow, 72. Finally, the Ashrows contacted Ventura authorities. They conducted a wiretap and found that last Oct. 29, during one six-hour period alone, Ingels made 138 calls to the couple. He claims his automatic dialer was on the fritz but does admit, "I lost it and sometimes called too much." Nevertheless, he insists he didn't mean to annoy.

When first told last December that he was being charged with a misdemeanor, Ingels tried to joke. "Sergeant," he recalls saying, "if annoying phone calls were a crime, my mother would be in Alcatraz." But Deanne Bianco, a deputy D.A. of Ventura County, was not amused. She pressed for a sentence that could have carried a jail term of up to a year. "For an insecure, childlike, neurotic comic who still doesn't think he's worthy of anything joyful," says Ingels, "this was like death."

The serene Jones, 59, Ingels's wife of 16 years, stood by her man. "We complement each other," she says of her mercurial husband (and stepfather to her three children, Shaun, 34, Patrick, 31, and Ryan, 27, by the late actor Jack Cassidy). Jones admires Ingels's principle, if not his method. Says she: "I don't really blame him—he simply wanted to talk to the responsible party." She rejoiced when, in March, a plea bargain was struck, resulting in community service. "Knowing Marty," says Jones, "I had a feeling he'd turn it into something positive."

Indeed, the Brooklyn-bred Ingels, who is still contemplating a civil suit to get the money he claims he is owed, now views the brouhaha as a bit of divine intervention that bumped him out of his $3 million, five-bedroom Beverly Hills home and back into real life. "We're all gonna be there," he says, reflecting on the Jewish Home and the elder-care facility in Riverdale, N.Y., where he recently placed his 94-year-old mother, Minnie Ingerman.

Back in Reseda, the women don't seem to care what brought him. By show's end, some of them are even feigning disappointment when they find out Ingels is married. Says Lillian Hirshon, 88: "I thought I had a chance!"

Everybody's a comedian.

DEVON JACKSON
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • John Griffiths.