Old Jokes for Old Folks
The shadowy bulk of two pool tables dominates this space, illuminated by a single dim bulb near the door. Beneath the light stands Frankie Man, bit player in Bob Fosse movies, friend to Lenny Bruce, survivor of three decades of standup along a comedy trail that stretches from L.A. to the Catskills, and, most recently, to this makeshift dressing room, five square feet of carpet in the billiard parlor of the Boca Del Rey Golf and Country Club.
Slightly higher wattage awaits Man in the adjacent ballroom, where 300 retirees have gathered to either laugh at his shtick or stare at him in stony silence. Years of experience steady his wrinkled hand as it turns the doorknob to admit Tina Robin, whose drawn face, with only a thin smear of red lipstick to provide color, looks far too fragile to support the huge coils of platinum blond hair towering above it. Robin, the other comic booked this evening, has traveled from her home in Lakewood, New Jersey, for two months' worth of dates in Florida. She wants to know why Man doesn't take his show on the road any more.
"I don't need to," he answers. "And I'm doin' all right around here. Got this gimmick."
"What's that?" the comedienne asks.
"This thing with Jackie Mason's kid. They love it."
Man means the routine he does with eight-year-old Sheba Mason, who, as he trumpets to every audience, is Jackie Mason's daughter. Man hooked up with the girl through her mother, Ginger Reiter, a professional belly dancer and an old friend. (Several years back, Reiter filed a paternity suit against Mason. After a court-ordered blood test came back positive, the comedian agreed to pay his ex-lover $2000 per month in child support, plus $91,000 in back payments. Reiter recently has gone back to court, requesting that the monthly payments be raised.)
After Robin leaves, Man uses the few minutes before showtime to vigorously rub his old patent leather shoes with a Quick Shine shoe pad, drop Visine into tired eyes set deep in the wrinkles of his round face, and comb the scattered remains of his reddish-brown dyed hair around a dome of scalp. Turning from the light, he removes his dentures, rinses them in an old cottage cheese container, douses them with fixing powder, and replaces them in his mouth. Then he stirs another powder into a glass half-filled with water. "High-protein solution," he comments and gulps it down. "Gives me so much energy you wouldn't believe it. Better than drugs or alcohol."
A slightly more animated Man opens the door and walks across the dark hallway to peek around the curtain at his audience. "Looks like a pretty good crowd," he says. "Mostly Jewish." Sizing up the throng only takes a second, but as any comic knows, a good eye for crowds is crucial.
Truth is, audiences don't change much along South Florida's so-called condo circuit -- condominiums, townhouse villages, and spas that house an elderly, predominantly Jewish and Italian clientele. For most of these retirees, comedy never progressed past the routines of Las Vegas and Catskills legends such as Buddy Hackett, Jackie Mason, and Alan King, who made them laugh until they gasped for breath, back in the days when gasping for breath was to be savored rather than feared.
The condo comedy business is booming, though Man and the other dozen or so local comedians will tell you it has its pitfalls. Audience members so old that punch lines are lost on them, or so ill they no longer can find solace in humor. Routines must be adjusted, Yiddish phrases added or deleted depending on a given crowd's ethnic breakdown. And there's the issue of selling used goods. Most condo comics have been on the job so long they face the very real possibility that audience members might know all the jokes, or worse, might shout out the punch lines before the performer does.
Such obstacles, though, even combined with the limits of their own talent, don't stop people like Frankie Man from standing in the spotlight in front of a few hundred
people who probably have difficulty hearing and seeing them, much less understanding their jokes. At age 68, Man is the first to acknowledge that he has made mistakes that cost him his shot at the big time. But he has not given up on the dream of national fame. And even after all these years, at least for those few moments before the curtain lifts and the show goes on, the thrill of possibility is enough to bring up the goosebumps.
Tonight's crowd is lively, receptive enough to raise even a cynic's hopes. Although lines like "Right now if you live in Newark, your lucky number is 911" draw only moderate chuckles, Man scores when he asks for "a big round of applause for the guy who gets no respect, Rodney Dangerfield." A quick pirouette finds the comedian facing his audience with his collar riding high on his squirming neck. He grabs the knot of his necktie, raises one shoulder and then the other, opens his eyes wide until they are positively bugged.
"He looks just like him," marvels a man in the back of the hall.
"I have no sex life with my wife," Man ventures with Dangerfield's rolling inflection. "She cut me down to once a month. I'm lucky -- two guys I know she cut out completely."
The old jokes, somehow, have found a new home here, stirring a cloud of laughter, urging several audience members to tilt forward in their seats, leaning toward Frankie Man in his circle of light.
Barbara Gale claims that she, for one, has never been drawn to the spotlight. "You open the refrigerator door in a dark kitchen and some people will stand there and do two numbers," she says. "Me, I pick and choose what I want. I'm not that show business-crazy."
But Gale is proud and, like Man, she has her regrets. "You picked the right one," the comedian remarks. "I am very verbal." This she proceeds to prove, describing her act (which combines music and comedy), her childhood in the Bronx (where she began singing for a local radio program), and the days when her star was ascendant. In the Fifties, after studying briefly at Hunter College, she married Bobby Gale, an aspiring comic and old family friend. At that time, Gale says -- she refuses to divulge the year -- she was the only white singer to record several tunes on the Apollo record label, which counted among its artists Mahalia Jackson. Three months after she bore her first and only child, a daughter, Gale received offers to tour as the female vocalist with two well-known orchestras, led by Stan Kenton and Claude Thornhill. Her husband talked her out of taking the jobs, one of which was subsequently accepted by a little-known singer named Eydie Gorme.
"I'm sure I would have gone on to be big," Gale says, "but I guess I have myself to blame. Today women entertainers can have both a family and their careers. Back then we had to choose." Bobby Gale, too, believes his wife's talent would have won her fame, but he stands by his decision. "Our kid was just a tot," says the comedian, who supported his family by working for eighteen years as a stockbroker. "I knew that if my wife went on the road with all those horny musicians, I would have lost her. She was and is a great singer, but I just couldn't let her go."
Gale picked up enough jokes from her husband and other comedians to start billing herself as a singer/comedian, and now she and Bobby are regulars on the condo circuit. Tonight she's playing the Sun Spa, a Hollywood health resort catering to retired snowbirds from the northeast. Gale works nearly every weekend at such places during tourist season, less frequently in the summer.
Standing at the back of the Sun Spa ballroom, she's eyeballing her soon-to-be audience like a general surveying a battlefield. Thirty minutes remain until showtime, but already about 50 people, most of them women, are seated at tables in front of the ballroom's curved stage with its backdrop of silver and gold tinsel. "These are snowbirds who've been on every cruise ship known to man," Gale assesses. "Let's say they're a little jaded. They sit like this." She slowly stretches out her arm and pulls back her shoulders. The weight of her impossibly long eyelashes, gooked with mascara, descends in a slow blink as she mimics a gesture of profound indifference.
Clearly, she's also worried about their age. "About a half-hour ago we almost lost a woman!" she blurts wide-eyed, explaining that a patron had fainted outside the dining room and had to be attended by the spa physician. "She almost succumbed!" Like many condo comics, Gale has for the most part been able to keep her distance from audiences that are infirm, refusing, for instance, to be booked at nursing homes -- politely referred to in the trade as "retirement homes" -- where the chances of uncontained laughter are slim at best. "Most comedians who work the various facilities avoid retirement homes," she explains. "They can be a real downer. People there are often very sick. A lot of them have Alzheimer's. Very often you don't get any reaction at all. The comedy goes right over their heads."
Despite the negative first impression of the Sun Spa crowd, though, Gale looks cheerfully expectant as she listens to the house trio reading and humming her music in preparation for the show. Her glance alternates between the crowd, the table, and her own image in the mirror behind it until the moment arrives, and the emcee introduces "one of the most talented comedians in South Florida!"
Gale strolls on-stage. "Let me tell you what happened in New York recently," she says. "Three homosexuals attacked a woman. Two held her down, one did her hair." The audience is silent. Her sung impressions of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, and Marlene Dietrich draw some applause. "Hello, my name is Marlene Detrisshhhhhh," Gale mimics. Still in character, she confides that she is appalled by "all of da crime in dis U.S. of A. Of course, I come from a very peace-loving nation. Oh yes, I come from Germany. Very peace-loving. A piece of Romania. A piece of Czechoslovakia. A piece of Poland."
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."
The thought of cranky oldsters causes Robert Lee to sigh and roll his eyes. On a sunny Wednesday morning, Lee settles a slight surfeit of waistline into a chair and winks as he picks up the phone at his Coral Springs booking agency, Big Beat Productions. "If you want to know about my problems, just listen to this," says the bearded 29-year-old, dialing a number and activating the speaker phone. After an exchange of greetings with Ben Zerlin, entertainment director for a Lauderdale Lakes condominium development called Hawaiian Gardens Phase III, Lee explains that a singer he had booked to perform at the condo the following Sunday won't be able to make it because of a heart attack. Zerlin, who like most entertainment directors is a condominium resident volunteering his time, replies with silence. "Hello?" Lee says inquiringly. "Hello? Did you hear me?"
"I heard you," Zerlin growls. "What am I going to do? These people were really looking forward to this. I've already done the advertising and everything."
"I know, I know," says Lee, looking up at the ceiling and chuckling slightly. "But what can I tell you? He had a heart attack! I mean, I can't make the guy come if he had a heart attack!" After Zerlin repeats his complaints and Lee repeats his promise to track down a good substitute, the agent finally manages to conclude the call. "You see what I mean?" he cries in exasperation. "The guy has a heart attack and they just don't care! Like it's my fault!"
Fortunately for Lee, it's a singer he's seeking a replacement for and not a comedian. Singers are still easy to find in South Florida. Standup comedians willing to face the condo crowds have become as rare as undeveloped beachfront. Lee knows; along with a couple of other Broward-based agencies, he books the dozen or so employable comics in the area. Many of the old-timers A Lou Mason, Sonny Sands, Eddie Schaffer, and Tubby Boots A have died. Of those who remain among the living, some are trotting out acts so stale that Lee no longer takes their calls. It's a perpetual battle, he explains. The condo crowds want to see older comedians serving up straight Borscht Belt fare: ethnic humor with off-color stories (but no profanity), impersonations, and one-liners. "We've tried to send younger comedians into the condos and retirement communities." At this Lee sighs once again. "But they don't really go over. The audiences can't relate."
It's really too bad, the agent adds, because the condo entertainment biz is exceedingly healthy. According to Lee, Big Beat Productions has doubled its gross every two years since 1985, the year he and his brother Richard went into business together. And if outward appearances are any indication, Big Beat isn't doing badly at all. The carpeted offices are slick in design, as is Lee, who favors gold chains for neckwear, Movado for his wrist. Green is the color of choice for his leased 1993 BMW 525 (his brother's is red). For Big Beat, which these days books about 500 acts, Lee handles what he calls the "50-plus age group," dealing mainly with condo entertainment directors who work for prestige rather than pay. He estimates that in South Florida there are about 250 condominiums that book acts once or twice a month. In addition, during the season performers are booked every week at a few dozen affluent retirement homes and at two upscale spas, the Sun in Hollywood and the Lido in Miami Beach.
For a one-night weekend gig, local comedians like Man and Gale earn anywhere from $200 to $350, depending on their reputations (the pay might be a little less during the week). Others, who like Tina Robin come down for the season, earn more A up to $500 per performance if they're considered topnotch. Lee says his average cut ranges from fifteen to twenty percent. On any given weekend from October to late March, he says, he's booking about 70 performances.
What makes things difficult for the booking agents are demographic changes in South Florida. When Lee and his brother blasted off Big Beat, bookings in Dade County were down because the elderly population was shifting northward, especially from Miami Beach. Hallandale became the center of condo-entertainment country, with Lee catering to 40 or 45 facilities comprising a largely Jewish clientele. But over the past few years, he says, Hallandale's ethnic makeup has changed, to the point where it is becoming dominated by French Canadians. ("How do you tell a joke to a French Canadian?" Lee cracks. "I don't know.") Now his Hallandale venues are down to about fifteen or twenty in number. Soon, he muses, the generation nostalgic for the Forties and Fifties will be subsumed by those who yearn for memories of the early Sixties. "As long as we have condos, we'll have entertainment," Lee concludes, his mental cash register awhir with the financial potential of his trade. "You've just got to be willing to put up with all the crap."
Hy Kipnis has contended with plenty of crap over the course of his long career and tonight he's hoping to avoid another shovelful. The audience of about 200 gathered in the small ballroom of the Lido Spa on Miami Beach's Belle Isle looks all right. "But there's no telling how many of these people have seeeeeen me before," Kipnis kvetches with the same drawn-out intonation he'll use in parts of his act.
As if worries about the audience weren't enough to mar this cool January evening, Kipnis is nursing a cold. He says as much to Terry Ross, the Lido's social director for the past 25 years, a towering white-haired woman whose full-length gown is accented by several gold necklaces and a huge pair of purple earrings that dangle from her lobes like dollhouse chandeliers. Ross smothers her guests with attention, even going so far as to hire men to come and dance with the widows who visit the spa each season. In return, guests are expected to have a good time. "My audiences are trained to laugh at the comedians I bring here," Ross jokes. "I threaten them with death."
In spite of his cold, Kipnis looks positively effervescent in a gray tuxedo, red bow tie, and matching cummerbund, standing on a raised platform in the small ballroom, bedecked with tinsel stars and streamers. Viewed from the audience, his brown hair looks somehow thicker than it did up close, and the strong directional lights smooth out the wrinkles running from his thin lips.
Kipnis has been on-stage intermittently ever since he was a young man in Chicago during the Depression. In those days he'd pose as a regular filmgoer at Warner Bros. movie theaters, where he would stand up to perform when the manager called for amateur "volunteers" from the audience. The subterfuge earned him five dollars a pop. Though he went on to a career in optometry, he continued to perform for friends and at small social gatherings. In 1979 Kipnis and his wife moved to Miami, where he decided to peddle his shtick at retirement communities. He's now a well-known comic kibbitzer, and tonight he's showing why.
While Kipnis, like his cohorts in the trade, relies on old material -- in his case, funny stories he's picked up over the years -- his delivery is impeccable, and the audience eats it up. "We had a guy back home who was a golfer. Played 36 holes every day," patters Kipnis, who goes on to describe how the man decided to sail his yacht to Scotland to play the legendary courses there. "On the way over, he runs into a storm. Terrible storm, wrecks that yacht completely, and he ends up on a deserted island. He's there for about a year and a half, until one day he's lying on the beach and he sees coming out of the water a gorgeous girl, fabulous figure, wearing a wet suit with zippers all over it and one zipper straight down the center. He says, 'Where the hell did you come from?' She says, 'Never mind that -- would you like a smoke?' He says, 'You got cigarettes in there?' She says, 'I sure have.' And she sits down, unzips a zipper, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and gives it to him. She says, 'Would you like a drink?' He says, 'You got liquor in there?' She says, 'I sure have. I've got Scotch.' And she undoes a zipper, pulls out a bottle of Scotch, and gives it to him. He says, 'This is fabulous -- fabulous!' And she says, 'Now for the big question: Would you like to play around?' He says [and here Kipnis shouts], 'You got golf clubs in there?'"
For 45 minutes Kipnis has them guffawing. He finishes his set just shy of 10:00 p.m. and stands outside the ballroom to personally thank the dozens of people who seek him out to say how much they enjoyed the show. Then, without further ado, he walks away, an old pro with no illusions A only the occasional desire to stand in a small spotlight and make a few people laugh.
Frankie Man makes it perfectly clear that he is willing to do whatever it takes (within reason, of course) to keep himself, if not in the inner sanctum of the famous, at least in what he considers to be its antechamber. And so when Sheba Mason's mother found out that Jackie Mason was booked into the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and asked Man to take the little girl so she might greet her father after the show, the condo comic obliged. Sheba, after all, had not laid eyes on her father since she was a baby.
Sitting in the den of his Coconut Grove home, Man is happy to recount the events of that evening early last December. After Mason's set ended, he says, he made his move. Unfortunately, a security guard saw him and prevented his entourage -- himself, his son Chris, and Sheba and her grandmother, Miriam Olivier A from getting backstage. Not surprisingly, Man persevered; he eventually located another stage door, and Chris managed to jimmy the lock.
The way Man tells it, although the comedian was surprised when the group burst into his dressing room, Mason immediately recognized him. ("I've known Jackie for a long time," he explains.) Introductions were made. Mason, says Man, said Sheba looked just like her mother. Man disagreed. "I said, 'I think she looks more like you, Jackie,'" he recalls. "And then I said to Sheba, 'Are you really Jackie's daughter?' And she answers, 'To tell ya the truth, with a face like this, who else could I be?'"
Mason laughed, says Man, who took that as a sign of encouragement and pressed onward with the routine. "After about two or three jokes, Jackie is hysterical," Man recounts. "He's looking at his daughter very lovingly."
After about five minutes, Mason checked his wristwatch and said he had to meet friends for dinner. As Sheba turned to leave, however, he called to his daughter. "He looks her right in the eye and says, 'We'll talk it over,'" Man says.
Sheba, who confirms Man's recollection of the event, describes the tàte- -tàte as "unbelievable, really rad, and outstanding." Though she hasn't heard from her father since, her mother says Mason's child-support payment did arrive ten days earlier than usual this month.
For his part, Man remains obsessed with the career windfall that Sheba Mason, and, by extension, her father, might provide. "What a mistake that I didn't take advantage of my mother while she was alive," he muses regretfully. "I could have easily made it on the Tonight Show with my mother. I really goofed. Well, I've got another chance with Sheba Mason. I'm smarter and I'm not going to goof again. No more mistakes."
Suddenly he breaks into an impression of Jackie Mason. "The most important thing in life is you have to know who you are," says Man as Mason. "Thank God I know. I didn't always know. I'm not ashamed to admit it. There was that time I went to a psychiatrist. I did. Right away he said,'This is not you.' I said, 'If this is not me, then who is it?' He said, 'I don't know either.' I said, 'So what do I need you for?' He said, 'To find out who you are. Together we're going to look for the real you.' I said, 'If I don't know who I am, how am I going to know where to look, and even if I find me, how do I know if it's me? Besides, if I were to look for me, what do I need him for? I can look myself....'"
The bit started off as a good impression, but Man has taken it too far, gone on a little too long. He'll be the first to tell you, though, that persistence is what pays off in this business. And he'll tell you about the time in the early Sixties when Lenny Bruce stopped by to catch the act he was doing with his partner, Jack Eagle: "Bruce told us, 'Hey, you guys got a great act. Don't ever give up, because if you stay in this business long enough, sooner or later people will hear about you.'"
He'll also tell you the condo entertainment business has been good to him: "Someone came up to me the other day, it was an elderly woman. She said, 'Oh, Mr. Man, you're so good. You drove all the pain away.' Bringing that kind of enjoyment to people is what makes it all worth it."
Maybe enough people have already heard of Frankie Man.
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