Old Jokes for Old Folks

For the comics who play South Florida's condo circuit, knockin' 'em dead is a disturbingly distinct possibility

Straddling a chair, she begins to sing "Falling in Love Again." No one stirs, not even when she shouts, "Eat your heart out, ladies!" as she pulls off a purple shawl to reveal...bare shoulders. Aside from the occasional chuckle, there is no laughter to compete with the sound of medicine bottles being opened, pills being spilled. Still, Gale forges on: "I just read that Stop and Shop just merged with A&P. It's gonna be called Stop and Pee." A few people head for the door, slowly, with the aid of canes and walkers.

At the back of the ballroom, Gale's husband is not taking things well. "This place is a morgue," Bobby Gale grumbles. Then, drawing stares as he pounds his hand on the table for emphasis, he moans loudly: "These are dead people!" But, he observes somewhat brightly, Gale has kept her poise.

"It's grapefruit time!" announces the white-haired master of ceremonies, and indeed, those who have stayed around are treated to fruit as Gale departs the stage, a smile frozen across her mouth. Later, outside the ballroom, she's still flashing teeth as she greets a fan, an elderly gentleman from Tel Aviv who buys not one but two of the cassette tape recordings of her songs she sells for five dollars apiece. "The crowd loved you; it's just that they're too weak to make any noise when they clap," the man says gently, softly bringing his hands together to demonstrate.

Frankie Man's crowd is clapping with healthy vigor as he leads them through a talking gallery of familiar stars -- Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Ed Sullivan. One of his most convincing impersonations is Louis Armstrong -- his face in a perpetual grimace, mouth wide, belting out a chorus of "What a Wonderful World."

Man used to play the trumpet as part of the impersonation; he stopped a couple of years ago when his wind fell short. He picked up the horn as a nine-year-old in Newark, where he was born Frank Schreiber in 1928. After World War II, while blowing with the bands at the Concord Hotel, Grossingers, and other venues in the Catskills, Frankie Schreiber got to know the regular crowd of comedians, including Lenny Bruce and Buddy Hackett. The latter frequently made fun of the trumpet player's sartorial formality, referring to him as "that little man with the tie," a gibe Frankie transformed into his show-business name.

Even while making a living with his trumpet, Man was practicing comedy bits in his spare time. One night when he was 28, at a club in Queens called the Boulevard, the scheduled comic failed to show up and Man stepped forward from the band to take his place. The evening went so well, he says, that he decided to stick with comedy. Though he never made the move from Borscht Belt to big time, his friendship with Lenny Bruce, the comedian's mother Sally Marr, and movie producer Marvin Worth landed him a small part in Lenny, Worth's 1974 film about Bruce's life. (In one of the movie's early scenes, Man is shown doing his imitation of Armstrong; he appears in a couple of later scenes as a down-and-out comic). Bob Fosse, who directed Lenny, again called on Man when he was filming All That Jazz, released in 1979. In a scene depicting the troubled youth of Fosse's autobiographical protagonist, Man again plays a standup comedian, this time performing before a strip-club audience whose indifference borders on hostility.

Man moved to Miami from New York in 1969 but received little notoriety until the late 1980s, when he began treating condo audiences to an act that featured his diminutive 96-year-old mother, Hannah Schreiber:

"How do you feel about sex, Ma?"
"It's the finest department store on Fifth Avenue."
The crowds loved it, says Man, who is of the opinion that such a gimmick is essential for any older comedian hoping to go nationwide and perhaps land a spot on TV. The Miami Herald and the Miami News wrote features about the duo, but Mrs. Schreiber died in 1989, before her son could realize any talk-show coup.

Which brings us to Sheba Mason.
"You know, Jackie Mason has an eight-year-old daughter, and she's breaking into show business," the comedian announces to the crowd. Suddenly a little girl is skipping up the center aisle in a white silk blouse, a sparkling grosgrain string tie, and a silver skirt with a gold fringe. Man begins to sing "Ain't She Sweet" and Sheba joins in, loud and off-key. Her lips, shiny with red lipstick, pout on the few occasions when her mouth isn't wide open in full shout or stretched in a put-on gap-toothed grin (a smile Man likens to her father's). When the music stops abruptly, so does little Sheba, who stares at the floor until Man prompts her with a question:

"Are you really Jackie Mason's daughter?"
"To tell ya the truth, with a face like this, who else could I be?" says the girl, attempting to imitate her father's voice.

After the routine, the audience adjourns to an outdoor patio for coffee and cake. Amid the loud chatter, some can be heard remarking that Sheba Mason might do well to postpone her break into show business. "That kid is being exploited," says Dorothy Baskt, a husky blonde in a red cotton jacket and matching slacks. "She's sure going to have trauma later on." But Baskt and her companions loved Frankie Man and they loved Tina Robin, too. After one naysayer sniffs that she didn't care for the performance at all, Baskt glares at her departing backside and announces, "Some people! If she didn't like the show, she should just go home. What an old fuddy-duddy."

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