Hi Gang, and greetings from Hollywood!
Let’s face it…the film business was founded by Jews. Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Sam Goldwyn….men who were so Jewish they went through a room from left to right. At M-G-M, the studio, where I began my career, even the chicken soup was Mayer’s mother’s recipe.
I think back in the sixties there were more Jews at Metro than there were in Tel Aviv. Problem was, most of them were closeted. Bernie Schwartz changed his name to Tony Curtis, George Birnbaum became George Burns. We proliferated an industry, but in order to be in front of the camera, we had to cloak our Judaism in an Anglicized mantle. Okay, you’re probably thinking, this is all ancient history; things that happened eighty years ago, or so. Not true. It happened to me in nineteen seventy-three!
I hadn’t thought much about the ‘goyification’ of our people in the business because I was only six years old when I began my career as a contract player at M-G-M in nineteen sixty-one. And all I knew is that I was going to be in movies, which delighted me. But by nineteen seventy, when Kirk Kerkorian bought Metro, slaughtered the lion, and sold off the viscera to pay for his Las Vegas Hotel. The Contract player policy ended, and I was cut loose. After a few years getting by on the odd television appearance, and touring in dinner theater, I decided to try my hand at stand-up comedy. My primary inspiration came from my mentor, Jack E. Leonard, who had taken me under his wing, and begun teaching me the craft of insult comedy for the last three years of his life. Hanging out with him at the Hollywood Friar’s Club amidst the crème de la crème of comedians, I became so ‘Kosher’ I made Lou Jacobi sound Swedish.
Just before Jack died, he introduced me to an agent who loved launching new talent. I was in the process of putting together an act to audition for the agent when Jack died, so I never got a chance to try it out on Jack before the audition. I wasn’t too worried because it was a time when ethnic comedians were abundant. Bill Cosby, Freddie Prince, Redd Foxx, all had acts rich with their heritage. So, you can imagine my shock when after the audition, the agent looked at me and said, “Too Jewish”.
I thought I was hearing things. “Excuse me?” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong, kid.” He said. “Your material is funny as hell, but your persona is too Jewish.”
He agreed to represent me as long as I did exactly as he said. Needing the work, I agreed. Thus began a year of my Anglicization. I studied with a dialectician to lose my accent, a French woman who had used to own a finishing school to learn how to carry myself ‘more Gentile”, and hours of make-up tests to make me look more like David Cassidy than David Brenner.
When I made my stage debut in nineteen seventy-five, I looked like every other middle-class American schlub out there trying to get noticed. My shag hairstyle and beige Johnny Carson leisure suit actually convinced everyone that I was the boy next door, provided you didn’t live in Queens. I was making a respectable living, but as the song goes, “All in all I was just another brick in the wall.”
Finally, in nineteen seventy-seven, while working a club in Brooklyn, I had my ‘big break’. Two people who would be instrumental in my career taking off were in the audience, both looking for talent. Jack Eglash, the entertainment director of The Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, and Tanya Grossinger, daughter of the founder of Grossinger’s, the crown jewel of the borscht belt. Both loved my act and wanted me to come work their clubs. But I had to follow my heart. I told Jack I’d be in touch, and I made plans to have luncheon with Tanya the following day.
Tanya was a sweetheart. Part Fran Drescher, part Sophie Tucker, she looked my square in the eye and said, “Who did this to you? This misheggas with the hair and the facacta Sears Roebuck shmatte?”
Then she leaned forward. “Listen, bubbie. Here’s what you should do. I want you to revamp your whole act to what you think is you! Forget these alta kuckers who want everyone to be Johnny Carson. Carson is fine if you’re from Nebraska. But judging from what’s left of your accent, I’d say you’re a Queens-borough boy, am I right?”
“Close,” I grinned. “I’m from Beverly Hills.”
Tanya frowned. “You’re not from New York?”
Tanya waved a dismissive hand. “Well, close enough. Sweetheart, the greatest comedians in history have worked my family’s hotel. You can’t walk through the Friar’s Club without bumping into someone who’d been on Grossingers’ stage.”
“I remember Jack E. Leonard telling me about Grossingers.” I mentioned.
“You knew Fat Jack?” Tanya squealed.
“I was kind of his protégé.” I told her.
“Oy, Bubbie, Jack should be rolling in his grave to see what they’ve done to you!”
We talked for about another hour, with Tanya giving me ideas how to change my act back, then she had to leave. But not before kissing me warmly on the cheek and saying, “…And if I were you, I’d fire that meeskayt agent of yours! He’s ruining you!”
Well, to make a long story short, (since I’m only being paid for a short story anyway,) I took Tanya’s advice. I gave the Johnny Carson leisure suit to my brother and started wearing the sort of jewelry and costumes that earned me the title, “The Godfather of Glitz”. Meanwhile, when I did get hold of Jack Eglash and auditioned for him, he loved the new image so much they signed me to a three-year contract. And I owe it all to Tanya Grossinger. The Hotel may be gone, but it lives in the heart of every one of us who’s heritage was validated by it.
The Gantseh Megillah
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