Sunday, February 26, 2012

Writers for Caesar's Hour: (from left, front row) Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart and Mel Brooks; (from left, back) Neil Simon , Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. (pbs/file 1956)

Sid Caesar didn't do it all alone, of course.  There were his brillian costars, such as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner,  Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray.  And there were the writers--as brilliant a group of writers as ever wrote for one comedian's television shows.

Those writers, many of whom are individually famous (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart) have also been immortalized on film (in My Favorite Year, which conflates Sid Caesar and Steve Allen) and especially on stage, in Neil Simon's play Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

I recently saw and wrote about a community theatre production, which led to research into the writers and their contribution to Sid Caesar history. The play is about a group of writers for a 1950s comedy-variety television show called the Max Prince Show, but it is based very loosely on the last year or so of Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar.

The play is set in the writers’ room of a weekly 90 minute comedy-variety series in 1953. The play’s characters are loosely based on the legendary writers who worked for Sid Caesar, but not all of them in the play worked on Your Show of Shows. Several joined later for its successor, Caesar’s Hour, a one hour show of mostly comedy that debuted in the fall of 1954.

The two characters in the play based most clearly on the real writers were the team that were there at the beginning of YSOS, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. “They set the tone for the whole show,” Carl Reiner said. They had written Caesar’s previous series, The Admiral Broadway Revue, which first teamed him with the now-legendary comedienne, Imogene Coca.

In the play, the character of Val Slotsky is based on Tolkin. Like Val, Tolkin was a Russian immigrant, by way of Canada. And like Val, he had a dour outlook, conditioned by pogroms in Russia. He trained as an accountant but entered show business through music. His first writing was composing songs and then bits to go with them. Larry Gelbart called him the “founding father” of YSOS, where he was head writer. Despite his years in North America, he had a heavy Eastern European accent, but he was highly literate, with a European sophistication and Old World manner.

The character of Carol Wyman is based slightly on Selma Diamond, who was on the staff of Caesar’s Hour and later became a brassy, gravel-voiced performer. But Carol is mostly based on Lucille Kallen, the only woman on the staff of YSOS. Kallen was famously allergic to the pervasive cigar smoke in the writers room. In the play, Carol complains that she has to keep her dresses in a humidor. Like Carol in the play, Kallen got pregnant during the run of the show, and the play has a kind of in-joke about that. Some reference is made to a writer being hired temporarily to replace Carol. Temporary replacements were in fact hired for Kallen—they happened to be Neil Simon and his older brother Danny Simon. By the time Kallen was ready to return, the show was over. (The play is narrated by “Lucas Brickman,” the Neil Simon stand-in. Brother Danny isn’t mentioned, and he would not follow Neil to Caesar’s Hour.)

Kallen had worked with Tolkin, first at a large Jewish resort in the Pocono Mountains, and then on the Admiral TV show. Kallen wrote especially for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as a couple, either in stand-alone sketches or for their regular segment, the Hickenloopers. She was a small woman in a room of large men, and sometimes had to stand on a couch and wave a red sweater to be heard. Reiner remembers her as very pretty, and concerned with preserving her femininity as a professional woman. She later wrote a novel with this theme, before becoming known to a different public as the author of the C.B. Greenfield mystery novels.

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