Sunday, February 26, 2017

For The Love Of Mel Brooks

(Caveat: I published this item in 2007. It is reprinted here by request).

I am going to tell you about my fun-filled first meeting with Mel Brooks which occurred in the earliest days of my life in Greenwich Village. In 1958, I lived in a one-room basement apartment in a building which still exists. I know: I paid a brief nostalgia call to the address recently.

My neighbor, Charles Morgan Harris, a sweet, starving illustrator, lived in the identical cramped unit beside mine. We learned quickly that we shared a love of jazz and our friendship lasted until his untimely death. Our small building contained six other tiny apartments, one of them the second-floor residence off the elderly, cob-webby Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb who shared her digs with a tortoise shell tabby.

Our flats faced an indoor courtyard, an area which dampened street noises considerably and provided my Siamese cat ample opportunity to pay Courtesy Calls on the very tolerant neighbors who left windows open. The building, which fronts West 15th Street, was also the home and office of a woman who provided secretarial services. One of her clients was Mel Brooks.

On a balmy spring night, Charles and I were sitting in the courtyard as we always did when I came home from my secretarial job uptown, sipping our adult beverages, and listening to our favorite Miles Davis recordings.  We recognized Mr. Brooks as he strolled jaunty-jolly toward us, smiled and pulled up a chair. We knew who he was from his occasional television appearances with his best pal Carl Reiner. He politely asked about our lives, what kind of employment we had, did we like living in that place, etc.  We exchanged this sort of light chatter which included describing our 85-year old neighbor, Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb.  Mel seemed interested that she was fragile but feisty in nature. *

Mel was not as well-known to the general public then as he is today, but I was aware of his background and experience as one of the writers for a favorite television variety show of  mine called "Your Show Of Shows" which was a live 90-minute program starring comedy legends Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.  It was broadcast on Saturday nights from 1950 to 1954. I was usually glued to the television screen.

The show employed an amazing staff of writers, among them: Mel Tolkin ("All In The Family"), Carl Reiner ("The Dick Van Dyke Show" and others), Mel Brooks, Michael Stewart ("Bye Bye Birdie", "Hello Dolly"), Joseph Stein ("Fiddler On The Roof"), a diminutive woman named Lucille Kallen who took notes and managed to contribute more than her share of funny lines, brothers Danny ("The Carol Burnett Show") and Neil Simon ("The Odd Couple" and numerous Broadway hit plays).

Before long on that soft April night, Mel had us reeling with his jokes and hilarious takes on people and life in general. He was scheduled to appear on The Late Show Starring Johnny Carson, and he couldn't resist rehearsing his schtick for us:

He was going to be sitting in that Number One spot beside Johnny, and after a few minutes, Johnny would mention, feigning naive curiosity: "You like to sing, don't you Mel?" To which Mel would reply: "Well, yes ... and if I may ... I'd like to ... may I?"  "Of course, please do", says Johnny.

Mel: (To Skitch (Henderson, band leader): I'll sing "Dancing In The Dark" if that's okay ... just give me an arpeggio in C ... "

Mel begins to sing, and gets as far as  "... and it soon ends", suddenly breaking off. "No, sorry Skitch, that key's too low ... could you take it up a half-step." Skitch complies. Mel stops in the same place. "Sorry, it's still a little too low ... another half-step please?" Mel stops at the same place again, and this time he's standing, presumably to make it easier to reach the low notes. The back-and-forth continues, taking Mel progressively into higher musical range. He's now standing ON the chair.  The key is still not a good fit. Finally, Mel is standing ON Johnny's desk, audience is screaming and JC looks appropriately bemused. Charles and I are now hysterical, holding our sides and gasping for air. He did this bit on the show the following night.

Before he left us that evening, I asked what he was working on.  "Well, I can tell you right now that I want to produce a show on Broadway called "Springtime For Hitler".  We explode into tear-producing laughter:  "Oh Mel! STOP ... we can't take it any more".

* * * * * * * * * * * * * 

P.S. This meeting with Mel Brooks took place in 1958.  The movie "The Producers" was released ten years later in 1968.  Of course, I was thrilled and delighted that Charles and I had learned of "Springtime For Hitler" a full ten years before its release.  The Broadway sensation opened in April, 2001, and received a record twelve Tony Awards.  Mel's vision was realized in spectacular fashion.  I saw a matinee about two weeks into the run.

*  Please take special note next time you see it: In the movie "The Producers", starring Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, there is a scene in which Leo is carefully entering the names and amounts little old ladies have contributed to the next Bialystock project. One of the checks is signed "Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb".  Mel did not have a note pad with him during this visit, so I can only surmise that the lady's name struck him as perfect for one of his doddering underwriters who might use a walker.  He may even have immediately added it to his notes for the movie.  In fact, Mrs. Biddlecomb looked exactly like Estelle Winwood (below) known as "Hold Me Touch Me" in the movie.


Bill Reed said...

I think it was Dancing in the Dark and not I've Got You Under My Skin. At least, that's the way it finally ended up on Carson. Hi, Carol!

Sloane said...

Oh Bill! Thanks a thousand times over for this correction. I've always suspected "Skin" wasn't the actual song he "rehearsed" that night, but I simply couldn't recall the exact tune. In any event, it was a memorable evening.