Dropped over to Resorts International Hotel Casino in Atlantic City to catch Henny Youngman doing one time only bar mitzvah show. King of the One Liners reading Golden Oldies from The Book of Mo. Three hundred seater, SRO crowd. Hot-shot tenor Jan Peerce in boffo cantor role. Home-grown talent, Rabbi Seymour Rosen, a newcomer out of Margate N.J., a natural in supporting role.
"Take this Bible -- please," he says.
Hit of the gig, though, Henny. Makes 'em laugh, makes 'em cry. Cries a little himself. A showstopper, an original.
"I've been 50 years in show business, and everything I did I'd hear, 'Hope did this, Berle did that. Well let 'em try this," he says.
Laugh it up folks, those are the jokes.
Hey, hey, hey, you know Henny.
Big man, 6 feet 3 inches, mighty gut, mighty girth. Machine-gun delivery, jokes pared to the gleaming bone. Once clocked in Vegas doing 250 jokes in 45 minutes, but that's his trademark. Big break 46 years ago, working Kate Smith's show. "Take my wife -- please," he said. Overnight sensation, made 250 bucks that gig. "Since when you funny?" his mother said. He showed her the check, Hen (short for Henry) Youngman, from Brooklyn, son of Jake the immigrant sign painter. Fast, fast he changed the name. "Hens lay eggs," he said.
Now works over 200 dates a year, mostly one-nighters at upwards or $4,000 per, but this past Saturday afternoon, between gigs in Atlantic City, decided to try something radically different -- going to get bar mitzvahed, for the first time in his life, at age 73. But seriously, folks. Had been working on that date for months; ordered the little skullcaps with his name inside; had wife Sadie sending out the invites; was boning up on the old Hebrew.
All Manhattan buzzing, loved the casting, loved his nerve, but hey, hey, hey, was it for real? Nothing to do but call up the bar mitzvah boy himself and find out.
"Henny baby, blue suit, fountain pen, traditional food, the works?"
"The whole bit," says Henny. "Chopped liver, two-tone halvah."
So mazel tov! and see ya in Jersey."
"Bring a present," Henny says.
Atlantic City -- Yok it up folks, that was a joke. Friday night, late. The locals wearing big yellow buttons that say "BBB" for Bring Back Bert (Parks), Henny onstage, holding forth his violin. "Two old ladies up in the Bronx, one says, 'You see what they did in Afghanistan'; the other one says, 'I'm in the back, I don't see nothing.'" Later, he comes back to his dressing room in mini-press-confab. Cold cuts, booze, a nice spread.
"Eat, drink, ask," Henny insists He's sitting on the couch, tux jacket off, pants confortably unhooked. Drinking 7-Up. All he ever drinks is soda, he's not a drinking man. Up for a little light schmoozing, but not the heavy stuff. Had enough heavy in his life lately, only brother Lester, manager for 35 years, dead of cancer two months ago. A little schmoozing Ok, though. Talks about how he never got bar mitzvahed, 60 years ago 'cause his cousin died the day before and it was canceled and the family just never bothered to rebook. Says he's having the bar mitzvah now because local reporter suggested it and figured it to be a nice idea. Says that family, growing up in Brooklyn, not especially religious, though when he got a gig amateur night at the Sixteenth Street Theater on Yom Kippur, his father went in with the cops and dragged him off the stage. "We went to the synagogue on the High Holy Days," he said. "Beyond that, the religion Papa taught was to be good to your parents, read books, and listen to opera ... My father loved the opera ... He made $13 a week, but they always had money for me to study music ... Music was the only thing people weren't harassed with in Europe."
He talks about the early days in the business; "I starved for years ... a lot of the time I didn't have money to pay the rent. I used to panic a lot of the time, panic sets in." He talks about his wife, Sadie, says no, she doesn't mind the jokes, but that sometimes in the business "you sacrifice your family to tell the truth ..."
Says opera biggie Jan Peerce is here 'cause Peerce is an old pal; they know each other from when they were both starting out, with bands up on the Catskills, in Swan Lake. "Givena one-liner on opera, Henny," says the guy from Time. "I go to the opera -- whether I need the sleep or not," says Henny. Did he ever take music seriously, the newshound pursues? "Every Jewish kid had to study fiddle," says Henny. "I could play two ways, for pleasure or revenge."
But say, hey, it can't all be yoksville, we're talking tradition of the Jewish people here, 5,000 years of law school and cholestrol.
"You a religious guy, go to temple much?" yours truly asks, getting tough.
"To me, religion doesn't depend on one day or another, it's trying to do the right thing -- I'm religious because I take care of my obligations" says Hen. "To me, religion is what's in your heart."
Another shot. "So why's the hotel picking up the tab?"
"They're inviting a lot of strangers I don't know, I should pick it up? Why shouldn't they give me a bar mitzvah, you don't think I deserve a bar mitzvah?"
Final shot, direct approach. "You don't think it's wrong -- you haven't gotten any criticism holding a religious ceremony upstairs from a casino?"
The Hen is dumbfounded. "I had called from London, I was up all night with the phones, CBS is coming, they're going to tape the whole thing. Five thousand people called the hotel, they wanted to come. Irving Fine, you know he's George Burns' manager, called me up and said it was a brilliant idea -- wished he'd thought of it for George."
In other words, hey -- boffo!
How about a fast segue here, bar mitzvah morning, the next day. One hour to a curtain and the principals are having a run-through for the press, Youngman and Peerce and Rabbi Rosen cluster together in front of an ark on the stage of the hotel's Viking Theater, two dozen photogs, newshounds, circling around.
Youngman stage center, cradling the Torah, Peerce and Rosen on either side, and hey, these boys are hot.
"Let's put the Torah back and I'll bless Jan in front of the ark," suggests the rabbi. "No, let me hold the Torah and i'll bless him," says Jan.
The photogs, meanwhile, going wild. "Could ya sing a little bit Jan?" one shouts.
"On a dead mike?" asks Peerce.
"It's just for a picture," says the photog.
Jan gets into it, his wild operatic tenor filling the room; Shama yisrael, adonoi eloheinu ..." he wails.
It's all a hit," yells Henny.
Showtime. Henny stage right flanked by the rabbi; Peerce stage left, Henny's family behind. Crowd middle-aged, well dressed, no celebs, lotsa Henny's pals. Good audience, sober, quiet, no wise guys. Eager to see the bar mitzvah boy perform. Finally he takes the stage. Finally he's on. He reads from the Torah in Hebrew, though from a sheaf phonetically spelled English notes. "Put down the notes, for God's sake" a friend in the third row moans. No matter, Henny's got the crowd. Onstage, his wife, Sadie, begins to cry. The daughter and daughter-in-law cry also. Then Henny's into the third act finale, the bar mitzvah boy's speech. He starts it with a twist, a joke, but a sweet one, spiritual.
"Today I am a boy," he says, and the crowd goes wild.
"He keeps up the joking; how he's gotten over 60 fountain pens in the mail; how at least he doesn't need a bris , that would be the unkindest cut of all; how at his stage in life you want to make a spiritual commitment, you don't wanna gamble at the Pearly Gates -- you gotta gamble, make it at Resorts International, ha, ha ha.
He keeps it going. Tries to make some jokes about how if he'd been bar mitzvahed back in 1919, in his blue suit with his hair combed, that his mother would have been there telling him to straighten up, his father there with a handful of bills, his brother Lester ... But as he does, he starts to cry ... His parents are dead, so is his brother.
"My fater," he says his voice choking, the jokes unintelligible, "my mother ..."
He cries. He makes a recovery. He thanks his friends. He thanks the press. He thanks his wife.
"I can't resist going for the laugh," says Henny, "but a man like me has a serious side ... the gift that saved Jews through the years has been their sense of humor ..."
"Today I'm the proudest Jew in the world," he says.
A boffo one liner. But it was no joke.