Is it just my imagination, or has this been a big year for comedian Sid Caesar?
Not one but two major TV-movies - "Wall of Tyranny" and "Side by Side" (in whichhe was arguably the lead player). A debut at the Metropolitam Opera as Frosch the jailer in "Die Flerdemaus." Talk of a new TV series. And now his first-ever appearance with the Utah Symphony, Saturday at 8:15 p.m. in Symphony Hall.
If the time seems odd (it's to avoid a conflict with LDS General Conference), so does the timing. I mean, the day after April Fools' Day?
Because it isn't Caesar the dramatic actor we'll be seeing, or even the newly birthed opera star. Rather it's the comic who, in company with some of the brightest supporting players and writing talents in the business, staggered the TV world with his genius on two shows in the 1950s _ "Your Show of Shows," in which he co-starred with Imogene Coca, and "Caesar's Hour." At least that's the word tossed around most frequently these days. But, according to Caesar, nobody worried about "genius" then.
"We were just trying to get the show out on time," he says. "Ninety minutes a week, 39 weeks a year, live with no cue cards, no TelePrompTers _ that was six days a week. On the seventh I'd just stand under the shower and shake."
Yet retrospectively those were the glory years, the years when the viewers also shook, only with laughter.
My own favorites were the movie parodies, ranging from the silent era ("The Mark of Xarro" _ more entertaining than the Fairbanks original) to the latest box-office smash ("From Here to Obscurity"). But there were also the musical sendups, from the pop-music idiocy of the Three Haircuts (they actually got a hit record out of that one, "You Are So Rare") to the media-conscious erudition of Leonard Bernstein, or "Bernard Learnstein," as he was dubbed on "Caesar's Hour."
We won't be seeing any of that Saturday. But we will have a chance to savor Caesar's gift for pantomime as he recalls one of his routines with Coca, a man and wife arguing to the opening movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Likewise a series of character monologues recalling the ages of man: the world as seen through the eyes of a newborn baby, a boy going to his first dance and a man walking down the aisle on his wedding day.
Caesar the master of improvised dialects, and convoluted scientific reasoning, will be on hand in the person of the Professor, a character he says grew out of a series of airport interviews on the short-lived "Admiral Broadway Review," the show that first united him with Coca. He himself acknowledges the debt to Jack Pearl's radio character "Baron Munchausen," with his familiar retort, "Vas you dere, Charlie?"
"When I was a kid I used to listen to him on the radio. Then early in my career, around 1946 or '47 I met him and talked to him about his work," Caesar recalls.
Earlier the Yonkers-born comedian planned a career as a musician, even auditing classes at Juilliard. "I was a doorman at the Capitol Theater and couldn't afford lessons," he says, "so I just stuck a pencil behind my ear and sneaked in."
In those days Caesar's instrument of choice was the saxophone, and even before he left high school he was playing summer gigs in the Catskills. His last year there, at age 19, he met Florence Levy, his wife of the past 44 years. And he joined the Coast Guard.
"That was where I met Vernon Duke, who was also stationed at Brooklyn. The schedule at the base was such that we had something like six hours on, then 12 off, then eight hours on and and 24 off _ morale was terrible, because you never went to sleep at the same time. So we formed an orchestra for some Friday night dances and finally wrote a show called `Six On, Twelve Off' that toured the Third Naval District."
From there Duke teamed up with Howard Dietz to write the Coast Guard revue "Tars and Spars," which Caesar acknowledges was his first big break. Comedy had been a part of his act since the Catskills. Now his aerial dogfights (with him doing all the dialogue and the sounds of the planes) were seen and heard across the country, as the show toured and was eventually made into a movie.
Then came the nightclub, Broadway and television success, the last with a writing team that at various times included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. Writer/co-star Carl Reiner later used those experiences as background for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," as did the 1982 theatrical comedy "My Favorite Year."
Caesar says he enjoyed both shows and thought Joseph Bologna, as a character based on himself, did a good job in the latter. "But when we wrote," he says, "we wrote together. Nobody every handed me a script. We just sat down with a blank page and worked on it as a committee."
The decline, he says, began the last year of "Caesar's Hour," when his timing started to slip. The heavy drinking had begun earlier, during the pressures of "Your Show of Shows." Doctors suggested tranquilizers, but he overdid that too, resulting in a dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs that lasted 20 years.
By the time he licked it, in 1978, too much had changed. By the late 1950s live TV was already becoming a thing of the past, and for a comedian who thrived on the excitement of a live audience the options were limited: a Broadway show ("Little Me"), a handful of movies ("It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," "The Busy Body," "Airport 75" etc.) and several attempts at a return to television.
The latest, discussed in the press as recently as a month ago, is currently on hold, he tells me. Is he disappointed? "You don't really get disapponted on TV _ even when you're on, you're off. It's not even a shadow of its former self." PBS, he owns, "does a tremendous job" and he admits to liking "All in the Family," "Barney Miller," "M*A*S*H" and "The Cosby Show," at least in its initial outings.
"But it's pretty much a standup, sitcom world _ a variety show today is practically impossible _ and the networks seem to have lost all faith in themselves. It's a game of follow-the-nearest-leader and you're not really your own boss. Nowadays they tell you what's funny."
And what would he do if he were his own boss again, with his own series and the freedom to indulge in his own brand of pantomime and sketch comedy?
"I'd do what I did," he says. "I'd take today apart, and what's going on in the world. It used to be when you went out with girls there was some interest; today the girl is the pursuer. Instead of being cool, the music today is so loud you can't hear it. And the humor today is mostly smut."
That, he says, won't be true Saturday. And with Christopher Wilkins and Elliott Finkel conducting, you will be able to hear the music.
Elliott Finkel? I mention that sounds almost like a name Caesar and/or his writers might have made up. "No," he assures me, "he's for real. He's a concert pianist out of New York. And I'll tell you something else _ he really did go to Juilliard."
Tickets for Saturday's concert, priced from $10 to $17, may be purchased at the Symphony Hall box office, with student tickets available for $3. For information call 533-6407.