Caesar Reigned Supreme

When Sid Caesar died a year ago, his death evoked a cavalcade of memories. He, along with his notable co-stars, made every Saturday night during the early 1950s a night filled with laughter for millions of Americans.

I was still a little girl when Caesar’s show, “Your Show of Shows,” debuted in 1950. My family had purchased its first TV set in the fall of 1949, largely because everyone in America seemed to be watching Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre. Berle, a star in vaudeville, had become a sensation on the tiny black-and-white sets that prevailed in my North Side Chicago neighborhood. Before we got our own TV, I would run down two flights in my apartment building and up three flights in the twin building next door to watch Berle’s antics at my best friend Helene’s apartment.

My parents finally relented and purchased a TV at the Mandel Brothers department store in the nearby suburb of Evanston. At last we were able to watch Uncle Milty, introduced by the Men of Texaco, every Tuesday night. All of us kids knew the lyrics to their catchy song: “We are the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico…”

Berle’s show dominated Tuesday nights, and we didn’t stop watching “Mr. Television” until the show began its decline several years later, but the wonders of Saturday night soon eclipsed the craziness of Milton Berle. From 1950 to 1954, “The Show of Shows,” headlined by Sid Caesar, had families glued to their TV screens every Saturday.

My family never missed a single show. We were addicted to Sid and his cohorts, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. The slapstick humor of Milton Berle looked silly compared to the more sophisticated and clever comedy offered by Sid’s crew.

Among Sid’s multitude of characters, I have a long list of favorites:
• his opera star, spouting make-believe foreign languages in operas like “Pagliacci”;
• his jazz saxophone player, Progress Hornsby (Sid really knew how to play the saxophone, and it was the sax that was his entrée into show business);
• his wacky mittel-European professor in a battered top hat and frumpy frock coat, usually interviewed as an “expert” by Carl Reiner;
• his leader of a rock-and-roll trio called The Haircuts, complete with gigantic wig topped by an enormous pompadour;
• his irritated husband (the perfect foil for Imogene Coca);
• his military hero, wearing a uniform adorned with medals, who turned out to be an apartment-building doorman; and (perhaps best of all)
• his roles as a leading character in movies that were popular at the time. I still remember watching his hilarious portrayal of Montgomery Clift in a rowboat, based on a scene in “A Place in the Sun” (a film I didn’t see until years later), as well as Monty in a scene from “From Here to Eternity” (a film I first saw–but didn’t really understand–when I was 12).

Even my pre-teen persona apparently recognized comic genius because the memories of these characters remain vivid decades later.

Sid’s brilliance must be attributed in part to the cast of writers he recruited. They included other comic geniuses like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart. As Frank Rich once wrote in The New York Times, “If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of “All in the Family’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”

When “The Show of Shows” ended, Sid went on to star in “Caesar’s Hour” for three more years, still lampooning everyday life, movies, and operas. Sid’s talents continued to amaze.

But seven years of an exhausting schedule, six days and nights every week, led Sid to become an alcoholic and dependent on drugs. Years later he admitted that he’d been tormented by guilt because he didn’t think he deserved the acclaim he received. He struggled through the ‘60s and ‘70s, making occasional appearances on Broadway and in movies. But when he finally chose sobriety and a healthier lifestyle in the ‘80s, he began to do great comedic work again.

I had the great good fortune to see Sid in the fall of 1990, when he and Imogene Coca toured in a live show called “Together Again.” The Chicago Tribune’s theater critic noted that the affection displayed by their audiences at the Briar Street Theatre was “palpable.” Sitting with me in the audience one matinee was my 80-year-old mother and my two daughters, who were then 16 and 13. Although we all loved the show, which included some of their classic shtick from “The Show of Shows,” I was ecstatic, reliving the show I’d adored when I was even younger than my daughters.

If you’ve never had a chance to see Sid Caesar at his best, as I have, seek out the 90-minute film, “Ten from Your Show of Shows,” available on DVD. The film, put together in 1973, includes ten comedy sketches from the 1950s’ TV show. You’ll relish the brilliance of its comedy, still fresh in 2015.

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2 responses to “Caesar Reigned Supreme

  1. Excellent! —Chip

  2. The only shows of Sid Caesar that I saw were reruns years later. I never lived in a house with a TV until the 1970s. Your recounting of his shenanigans makes me wish I had seen them back when. By the time I did, there was lots of other great comedy to enjoy like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and later the original Saturday Night Live and later still, Fawlty Towers. Perhaps Netflix has the original and I can see the choicest bits that you saw.

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