Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar

For many years when I was a kid, the high school up the street played host to traveling summer-stock ensembles.

These groups were headed by stars of varying magnitudes -- including Joan Fontaine, George Gobel, James Whitmore and Durward Kirby. (Yes, my younger readers, there was once a show-biz person by the name of Durward Kirby. Calling him a star might be stretching it -- he was basically an announcer who found fame as a sidekick on a variety show headed by perhaps the best M.C. of all time, Garry Moore.)

During one of those summer weeks, the star was Sid Caesar, who appeared in "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," written by his one-time writer Neil Simon.

I didn't see the play. (I was too young and stupid to attend most of these plays, not realizing that they provided a great opportunity to see a form of summer entertainment that is now gone forever.)

But I did see a local TV interview with Caesar.

I'm not sure whether "Ten from 'Your Show of Shows,'" a movie featuring some of the best moments from Caesar's signature TV show, had been released. I was too young to have seen that 1950s TV classic, and I mainly knew him from his later appearances on TV shows like "That Girl" and in movies like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Busy Body," a mystery-comedy directed by William "The Tingler" Castle and based on a book by Donald Westlake. Caesar starred in "The Busy Body," but it couldn't bring his career out of rigor mortis.

Anyway, Caesar was interviewed outside a motel less than a mile from my home. The local guy who brought in the summer stock shows apparently had booked a room for him there. (I like to think I'm wrong about that -- the motel is now an assisted-living home, and from what I saw of it once while visiting a couple of friends there, I'm sure that Caesar deserved much better.)

The filmed interview defined the word "paradox" better than any lexicographer could. Some (including me) say that Sid Caesar was one of the funniest comedians ever, but in the interview he acted as if he were days away from a trip to the electric chair and kind of looking forward to it. I don't remember any of the questions or answers -- all I remember is the body language, his stiffness and terseness. The interviewer would have had a much easier time getting blood out of all the stones in the Grand Canyon.

For all I know, onstage up the street from me, and armed with material by the country's best-known playwright, Caesar was his usual brilliant self. Off the stage, as himself, he seemed to be in some sort of pain.

Years later I read his autobiography ("Where Have I Been?"), and the broken pieces of Caesar's life and career seemed to fall into place. The book told of his struggles with depression and pills, and I'm now pretty sure that on that summer day outside the motel, he was in the midst of one of those battles.

Apparently he was able to overcome his problems, or at least deal with them, by the time the book came out, because during interviews at that time he seemed much happier. Or at least less tortured.

I won't attempt a deep-dish analysis of Sid Caesar's genius. I'll just say that his work still stands up and, I think, always will because like the best comedy performers, he understood human nature, which never changes from century to century -- or from kinescopes to digital.

(To read more about those summer stock shows, go here. The "Rolls-Royce lady" is Joan Fontaine, whom I didn't identify at the time because she was still alive and still, I assume, capable of filing lawsuits.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

The irony always rings twice

I received a letter in the mail today.

The letter is from the U.S. Postal Service.

It invites me to volunteer for a study to help them “understand and improve processing and mail delivery.”

The study would require me to spend “only a few minutes a day” to report the kinds of mail I receive each day. I would make these reports “via an easy-to-navigate website.” (Hmm. Where have we heard that before?)

I hope I won’t seem like a disloyal American when I say that I won’t be participating in the study.

For one thing, I often can’t spare “a few minutes a day.” And I’m sure I’d be forgetful; as it is, I sometimes have trouble remembering to floss. (Just ask my hygienist.)

But even if I wanted to participate, there’s another problem.

Although the letter I received today is from the U.S. Postal Service, it was not sent to me by the U.S. Postal Service.

It was sent to me by my stepmother.

She had received the letter at her home because it was addressed to me at her address.