(Excerpt from Irving Brecher interview)
Your first major writing gig was for Milton Berle in the 30s. How did that come about?
I was an usher at the Little Carnegie Playhouse on 57th Street in New York. That was one of only two art houses in the city at that time—this was 1933. At the time, I was nineteen; I’m now ninety-four. We would screen movies from Germany and France, and that’s really what made the theater exclusive. Actually, we had many anti-Semites as customers, some of whom were actual Nazis.
At this time, I was working six-and-a-half days a week for $18. Occasionally, I would send a funny one-liner to the newspaper columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan. When they would print one, I’d get a big kick out of it.
I was taking tickets at the movie theater one day and a reviewer from Variety came in. His name was Wolfe Kaufman—“Wolfe” with an “e.” He knew me because he came to every movie that premiered. He said, “I heard a couple of your jokes last night. I saw Bob Hope at the Loew’s [Paradise] Theatre and he used a couple of your lines.”
I said, “No kidding. Really?” I was a little naïve. “They laughed like hell,” he said. “Listen, schmuck, people get paid for doing that type of writing. Why don’t you take out an ad in Variety? Maybe you’ll make some money.” I said, “Gee, that’s a good idea. How much is an ad?” He said, “$15 an inch,” which was really much more than I could afford. He knew this, so he told me, “Just write up an ad, and I’ll give you one inch of space. You can pay me back when you can.”
I was very appreciative—but kind of bewildered. Later, when I was on my break, I wrote an ad that read, “Positively Berle-Proof Gags. So Bad That Not Even Milton Would Steal Them. The House That Joke Built.” Berle was known to steal jokes, so I was playing off that. I also published the phone number of the theater—which I still remember, by the way.
I can’t even remember my number from a few years ago.
Circle 71294. I have a remarkable memory. It’s weird.
When the theater closed that night, I walked down to the Variety office, which was in the Times Square area, and I dropped off the ad with the right person.
The next week the mail arrived, and I quickly looked for my ad in the weekly Variety.I was thrilled! A few hours later, the theater’s phone rang. I said, “Little Carnegie Playhouse.” A voice said, “Irv Breecher?” He pronounced it “Breecher.” That was not the way my name is pronounced, so I figured it was my friend Lee, who always liked to fuck around on the phone. I said, “Lee, I’m busy,” and I hung up.
The phone immediately rang again. I picked it up and said, “Little Carnegie Playhouse.” I then heard, “No son of a bitch hangs up on Milton Berle!” I thought, Maybe this is for real? Berle said, “Are you the guy that took out the ad?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “If you’re so smart, bring over some material, and be at the Capitol Theatre tonight at eleven. Go backstage. You’ll be sent up to my room. Bring something funny.”
I got the newspapers—at the time there were half a dozen of them—and I wrote some topical gags. I had about ten or twelve by the time I was finished. With great trepidation, which I can’t even describe, I walked to the Capitol Theatre and entered the backstage. I had never been backstage at any theater, let alone a theater this big. I walked up the stairs to a room with a star on it. I knocked on the door, and a naked man opened it. I knew it was Berle immediately. I had already heard that he had the biggest cock in show business.
A first-hand account! So, the rumors were true?
Have you ever seen a salami chub? Yes, they were true. They were more than true…
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