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No. 115 / 2017

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Ivor Davis



America’s Comedy King
Still Thrives At 90

OTHING is sacred when Melvin James Kaminsky hits town. Kaminsky, better known as director/producer/writer/actor/outrageous comic Mel Brooks, is showing up all over the country at screenings of his groundbreaking off-the-wall 1974 film Blazing Saddles, which the late critic Roger Ebert described as “a crazed, grab-bag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken.”

When the movie ends and the lights come up — Mel is unleashed. He’s already played the Kennedy Center, and recently showed up in Philadelphia and Hartford.

Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks
For more than 60 years he has plied his trade turning out sidesplitting comedies that have skewered every cinematic genre and topic known to man:  Westerns (Blazing Saddles), horror (Young Frankenstein), sci-fi (Spaceballs), Hitler (The Producers), legends (Robin Hood Men in Tights). Not to mention world history in The History of the World Part 1 in which he plays five roles — plus writing, producing and directing.  Even Alfred Hitchcock got the Brooks treatment (in High Anxiety.)

Along the way he’s picked up a bagful of prizes: Oscars, Emmys Grammys. The auteur director is known also for his five Grammy-winning comedy albums stemming from The 2,000 Year Old Man which got its start in l961.  

“Mel is involved in controlled madness on his movies,” observes actress Madeline Kahn, a regular in many of his movies.

John Trembler, producer of Brooks’s live performances, puts it this way: “I’m totally in awe of him. He’s a unique force of nature with the energy of a man half his age.”

Trembler notes that Brooks’s passion never wanes. “He likes to come to the theater at the beginning of the movie and sit in the wings and listen to the audience. Then he shakes his head in disbelief because they are still laughing 40 years later.”

I talked by phone with the peripatetic Brooks who amazingly turned 90 on June 28.

How does it feel to get back in the saddle when you’re pushing 90?
I never got out of the saddle.  I’ve been busy. I’m going back to my first love, which is live theater. I started in the Borscht Belt when we did three or four items a week in a musical revue, a play, then amateur night. I was always busy onstage doing something. Writing sketches beginning on Broadway in l952 in a show called New Faces with Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde and Carol Lawrence.  I still get goosebumps when a Broadway orchestra strikes up.

What can we expect when you go on stage?
I kind of talk a lot. It’s a wandering trip through my life. The story of a poor kid from Brooklyn. How I came to be. Stories of being in the Army (as a combat engineer in World War II Germany), hearing a German platoon singing across the river—and me singing back Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye (the Al Jolson song) to straighten them out. Stories about the TV show Get Smart, and with the incredible Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, writing Your Show of Shows with Carl Reiner and Neil Simon.

I understand making Blazing Saddles wasn’t a cakewalk for you?
I quit the film once. Richard Pryor was to be Black Bart the sheriff, but the studio said no. Richard was having drug problems and wasn’t a proven star. But he persuaded me to do it without him. He said he wouldn’t get paid if the movie was cancelled. He helped me find Cleavon Little and said, “I’ll be good and get the laughs—but there’s no way I would scare those rednecks shitless like Cleavon could.”

Tell us about that legendary campfire scene?
Blazing Saddles allowed me to be the lovely Rabelaisian vulgarian that I am. I mean those cowboys farting around the campfire allowed me for the first time to really exercise my scatological muscles. So we had a bunch of guys eating a lot of beans and delivering a mighty symphony orchestra—music in the wind!

What about your Indian Chief speaking Yiddish. Surely another first for a Western?
I didn’t want to do the clichéd Indian sounds —Hi Yoyo— and that sort of stuff. I was thinking that no one knew Yiddish so why not use it. My grandmother used to speak Yiddish to me when I was a kid in Brooklyn. At early screenings I saw that when there are Jews in the balcony there’s thunderous laughter when the Chief speaks.

Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks 
Did you mother Kate speak Yiddish.
No. She came from Kiev but spoke with an Irish accent.

No. She went to grammar school in New York in l915—and all the teachers and politicians spoke with an Irish accent. It stuck.

Talk about your smash hit Broadway musical The Producers, which came 34 years after the movie opened.   Like Chaplin, you lacerated and lampooned Hitler.
It’s part of my heritage. No Chaplin, no Mel Brooks. You learn from the greats of the past. In Great Dictator Chaplin plays this little Jewish barber who is mistaken for the Fuhrer. He is beautiful, doing that ballet with the balloon as the globe of the world.

So you borrowed a leaf from the Chaplin playbook?
Yes. When Producers first came out the critics said it was totally tasteless.  Peter Sellers, the genius English actor, loved it and out of his own pocket paid for ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen. And the film was saved. Before that you couldn’t get arrested.

What drives you at 90?
I’m always doing something. I just played the Kennedy Center with this show and now I’m doing other venues. I’m re-energized…up and flying…around the stage. It’s very important. That’s my fuel, the basis of my energy, the laughter that comes flying back.  Sometimes the energy is so big that if I wore a hat it would blow away.

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Ivor Davis, a Southern California-based writer, is the author of the sensational newly published memoir The Beatles and Me on Tour
and has covered the Hollywood beat for four decades as a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Express and Times of London
and as a columnist for the New York Times Syndicate and Tribune-Media Syndicate.

PET Picks Prime Videos

BACKTRACK  Take a psychiatrist, burdened with the tragic death of his daughter, and you have a thriller of a movie as the good doctor (Adrien Brody) can’t help but suspect his patients — or are they ghosts? — were involved. Naturally this is one psychological supernatural thriller that will haunt you. Lionsgate, 90 minutes, Blu-ray $19.99, DVD $19.98.

WELCOME TO KUTSHER’SWELCOME TO KUTSHER’S Relive the glory days of the Catskills in this nostalgic documentary of the last surviving Jewish resort in the legendary Borsht Belt. Remember the days when we sought relief from the sweltering canyons of Manhattan to bask in the refreshing pool by day and get off on the hilarious one-liners by Freddie Roman and Henny Youngman in the nightclub. We can only relish the memories of those days now that the last campus of cool mountain dew was sold and demolished in 2014. This video by producers Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg will ensure that the Catskills experience remain in our hearts forever. Menemsha Films, 72 minutes, DVD $29.95 at MenemshaFilms.com.

THE DECENT ONE THE DECENT ONE A riveting and chilling documentary based on the captured diaries and papers of Heinrich Himmler, whose Nazi work description consists of chief of the German police and the Gestapo, head of the SS secret police and its armored division, the Waffen SS, responsible for security at the concentration camps, and in control of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Kino Lorber, 88 minutes, DVD $24.95

THE GREAT MUSEUM THE GREAT MUSEUM A fascinating inside look at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, a supreme art palace that houses the paintings of Rembrandt, Peter Brueghal, Caravaggio and other canonical works. Kino Lorber, 94 minutes, DVD $29.95




BARREAMPED: SLEEK & TONED PRENATAL WORKOUTBARREAMPED: SLEEK & TONED PRENATAL WORKOUT Fitness expert Suzanne Bowen presents her latest body shaping barre program combining dance, Pilates, yoga sand her classical Lotte Berk training. This is for all mamas-to-be who want to use spinal alignment, proper breath and classic BarreAmped exercises to stay trim and fit throughout pregnancy and beyond. suzannebowenfitness.com, 88 minutes, $19.99.

BELLY BEAUTIFUL WORKOUT BELLY BEAUTIFUL WORKOUT Third in Patricia Friberg’s series focuses on pre and postnatal Pilates Barre Fusion. She follows the guidelines of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for safe exercising. Workouts sections include pelvic floor activation exercises; also pre and postnatal barre for arm and thigh (and bottom) exercises. A new dad bonus aims to help dads build tolerance and strength for muscles when lifting baby. patriciafriberg.com, 89 minutes, $19.95.

PET Picks Prime Music

LUKAS FOSS: COMPLETE SYMPHONIES Celebrating its 20th season, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) has released the first recording of the complete orchestral works of the Jewish composer Lukas Foss on its independent record label, BMOP/sound. Gil (1922-2009). Gil Rose conducted. The Jewish composer and child prodigy was born Lukas Fuchs in 1922 in Berlin, moved with his family to Paris in 1933, and immigrated to the United States four years later. He died in 2009. “Although his roots are firmly grounded in Boston, Foss played a leading role in America's music history,” said Gil Rose, BMOP/sound executive producer. BMOP/sound, two-disc CD, $35.99

CLARK PATERSON: THE FINAL TRADITION Ten songs written by Clark Paterson and Cline Bates, sung by Paterson in his third album. His rough voice will penetrate your heart and hit you in the kishkes.

PETE KENNEDY: HEART OF GOTHAM For two decades Pete Kennedy has been one-half of the folk-pop duo, The Kennedys, with wife Maura. Now the guitarist steps into the spotlight as a singer-songwriter with a solo album of original songs written over a period of five years from his home base in Greenwich Village, reflecting his deep love of New York.

NADAV LEV: NEW STRINGS ATTACHED NADAV LEV: NEW STRINGS ATTACHED The Israeli-born guitarist, now based in New York, gathered new music from prominent composers in Israel for a trove of contemporary guitar music. Collaborating with nine world-renowned musicians and vocalists, Lev has created a wonderful showcase of guitar music. $14.98 at delosmusic.com.

LOVE, GUNS & MONEY is Bianca DeLeon’s fourth album, brimming with unrequited love, her soul yearning for the man she thought she had. Also about guns in the streets and money everywhere the night Noriega fell. Beautiful haunting songs out of the south Texas borderlands. biancamusic.com

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