Remembering Carl Reiner – A Man Who Changed My Life

red and yellow stage
Photo by Barry Weatherall on Unsplash

This is the first in a series of ,”Stories of Encouragement” – hoping to make difficult times easier.

” Memory is ‘ A Terrible Liar! ‘ “:  So that late, great actor, director, writer, Hume Cronyn related as the title for his memoirs some three decades ago. That stated, I shall try to recall as accurately as I’m able, without prevarication, what transpired between a great man of television, stage, radio, film, and no doubt zooming comedy to the end, Mr. Carl Reiner, and me in the summer of 1965.

As no doubt the vast majority of you are aware, this immeasurable contributor to our culture, at the age of 98, merely but a week ago, declined to renew his earthly option of an open run and newly contracted for a more heavenly audience in order to help make the angels laugh, perhaps at something other than our feeble selves. It’s reported by no less an authority than his renown filmmaker son, Rob, that his father wanted ever so to be able to rejoice at the results of the upcoming election. Here’s hoping now that this politically aware and active icon of comedy may well  assist from above the cause he so urgently was promoting. In consequence, since Shiva,( Jewish mourning)  is the length of seven days, it is meet to relate here this tale, as everyone on this planet that is remotely in touch with their funny bone,  remains in a state of mourning, as well as  deepest appreciation, for the innumerable guffaws, titters, chortles, and convulsions of the belly that this genuine genius delivered to us all over a career that spanned some seven decades.

black-and-yellow stadium chairs
Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

I was first aware of of his persona and talents being the perfect straight man to Sid Caesar, first on, ” Your Show Of Shows “, then some years later on the subsequent hit, “Caesar’s Hour”, both during the 50’s on NBC. I recognized as a child what a talented comic actor he was, as were all of the ensemble surrounding Caesar : Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and later Nanette Fabray.  I was however not aware then of how valuable he was from the beginning as a writer for those historic broadcasts. Reiner, as a scribe, more than held his own with the likes of the show’s creator and runner, Max Liebman and those that Max engaged such as  Danny Simon, and his quiet younger brother, Neil, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Joseph Stein, Michael Stewart, Selma Diamond, Tony Webster ( the writing team’s sole gentile),Reiner’s partner to be for life, Mel Brooks, and somewhat later with the aforementioned second show, such further legends as Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. 

That Reiner was inspired from such successful television experiences to create, initially for himself, then when CBS demurred the idea of his being the lead, consulted with Sheldon Leonard, (yeah, Nick in ” It’s A Wonderful Life”!) and came upon the new personality that had just starred on Broadway in ‘Bye , Bye, Birdie”. What resulted has been assessed by many a critic and the public at large,as being perhaps the greatest situation comedy for television of all time: that of course being, ” The Dick Van Dyke Show”.

1975 -Chuck Gerber as Tiny Tov on “The Magic Door”-WBBM-TV

It was with this creation of Reiner’s many, Many masterpieces, in nearly its last season of filming in August of ’65, that  yours truly crossed paths with this genial giant, then in his mid-life and already a legend, and my sixteen year old self. 

I’m originally from Chicago, north side, West Rogers Park, or West Ridge as it’s lamely come to be called. I attended the same elementary school named for Daniel Boone, no less, that my dear late mother, Miriam, went to in the1920’s. At graduation from this venerable institution I was conspicuously selected to sing, “The State of Ellenoy”, a folk song well known to Carl Sandburg,  that served as a commercial for those daring settlers to go westward in the 19th century into Illinois:

” So move your family westward Good health you will enjoy,  And rise to wealth and honor In the state of Elll-le-noy! “

It may well have attracted Lincoln. Don’t know for sure. What’s this got to do with Carl Reiner?! Relax, I’m getting there. This is all actually pertinent.

See, as far back as I can recall, I’ve been a singer. And whenever and wherever I’ve sung , for the most part at least, people have been pleased. Even Yakur Corey, my 8th grade home room teacher at Boone who taught science and math and had found my scholastic skills to be wanting to say the least,. Still, he could hardly stop remarking how well I sang that damn song about our state at that fully attended auditorium on Washtenaw Ave. Then, later at Stephen Tyng Mather High( named for a great conservationist!), I joined not merely it’s Symphonic Choir, taught and led by a truly brilliant musician, educator, and helluva taskmaster, William G. Paulick, but it’s Madrigal, which featured the creme de la creme singers in our school’s community.  In conjunction with this, I’d been performing since the age or 13 with the Teen Footlighters at the Bernard Horwich Center’s JCC on Touhy Avenue. It was  led by an extraordinary theater veteran, one Mickey Henningsen. He once actually pushed me onto a stage at said Mather H.S.’s auditorium even before I ever entered that school because at 13, fresh from my Bar Mitzvah,(” Oy, you shoulda heard how he sang his HAFTORAH!”),  I was cast in a musical revue called, ” City Lights” (an homage to Chaplin), and first encountered that renowned scourge, STAGE FRIGHT!

1979- Avery Schreiber as Pseudolus and Charles E. Gerber as Hysterium “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”

Yet thanks to Mickey’s literal push from the  Backstage right wing,  I went on to sing a duet of , ” Me And My Shadow” with my talented female cousin, Sandy,  which brought down the house because we were so darn cute and sang in perfect harmony.

Frankly, I have never, or hardly ever, encountered that malady since. What’s more, later that year, Mickey cast and directed me as  Benny Southstreet  in,  “Guys And Dolls” , who happens to be the second voice of three in Frank Loesser’s immortal opening of that show: “Fugue For Tinhorns”, following ” I Got the Horse Right Here” with, “I’m Picking Valentine ,’Cause on The Mornin’ Line, This guy has got him figured at,_  Five to Nine!” This becomes quite pertinent in this account later.

What’s even more than more, Mickey cast me as my first romantic lead at 15 in one of the very few Non- Hit musical works  of Rodgers and Hammerstein:  ” Allegro! ” (a favorite of Hammerstein’s, Rodgers, not so much).

2000-Charles E. Gerber as “Tartuffe” with Debra Whitfield as Elmire -The Workshop Theater-photo and production by Carol Bennett Gerber

I played Joseph Taylor Jr., opposite a Broadway veteran to be, one Ferne Bork, a lovely gal with a great voice, with whom I had  quite a crush, and who appeared as Yum-Yum two years later at Mather to my KoKo in Paulick’s  somewhat truncated but truly well sung and at times hilarious  production of, “The Mikado “.  Ferne some years later appeared in not only the National Company of “Hair ” in Chicago, but ” Jesus Christ, Superstar! “, in the Original Company on the Great White Way! Apologies to Whoopie Goldberg, but until that phrase is amended and adopted, so it remains.

OK, so it’s the summer of ’65, I was for a few weeks a daytime camp counselor for the Horwich Center, earned a few bucks and decided I was going to visit my relatives in Los Angeles. All I could afford to make the trek was to take the Greyhound Bus the 2,000 miles west and eventually back. My father, Myron Gerber, from whom I inherited a strong voice and with whom I’d sung duets in our synagogue’s High Holiday Choir, thought it would be a good experience for me to cross the country solo , a mere three years post Bar Mitzvah.  My also musical mother, Miriam, who’d played the piano and composed songs in the ’30’s, simply prayed. 

1975- Miriam and Myron Gerber

Indeed, the prospect of being welcomed by my L.A. Mishpucha (Family), was most welcome to my heart and theirs .It consisted of my father’s mother, Mimi, real name, Bertha, some of her surviving siblings from the “old country”, (great uncles) my dad’s twin sister, Ruth, her husband, Herman, daughters Barbara and Marcia who were off doing their adult lives, and their son, Larry Davis who was slightly older than I and was destined to become the creator of this Very Internet Magazine!

My father’s older brother, Sol, his wife Ruth( popular name, then!), and my other two cousins Richard and Marilyn (now Mornin’) both who would become remarkably accomplished in their chosen fields, then lived in what was and still known as ,”The Valley”.

Consequently, I stayed mostly with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Herman at their fairly large apartment at 1220 Citrus in the Fairfax/ Beverly hood. Cousin Larry, just shy of eighteen then, was already on his way emerging as the Macher (great success)) he was to become. He’d begun creating  a list of clients whose fish tanks he would maintenance, particularly in the Hollywood community. Yes, from such caviar, Splash Magazine evolved!

Now, his mother, my Aunt Ruth Davis, was always somewhat show biz savvy. I remember some six years earlier, when our family visited there at that very apartment, there was a party hosted by the Davises and my dad, Myron (Ruth’s twin, remember !) amidst a large group of guests, asked me if I recalled the actor who played the Major Robbie Robertson on my favorite Saturday morning TV show,”Space Patrol”, that being one Ken Mayer? “Yeah!,” as in ‘Of  Course!,’ I replied and then had me turn around and, LO!,  there was KEN MAYER, himself! This early television character actor had apparently been an old friend of my aunt’s and everyone got a big kick out of seeing how tongue tied I was upon meeting this space traveller, more than a decade before Star Trek, actually  attending this quaint gathering on earth.

Twins Ruth Davis and Myron Gerber
celebrating 75 years-They” shared a womb together!”

So, this Aunt Ruth, (she and dad loved to say how they ” shared a womb together”),was determined to take me to as many cultural events in LA that she could such as the great LA.. County Museum, watching Andre Kostelanetz conduct an An All Gershwin Program from The Hollywood Bowl on TV  which featured Bobby McFerrin’s father, the great baritone, Robert sing Porgy superbly as he did when dubbing Sidney Poitier in the film.

In addition to these, not one but two television productions taping and filming . One, at the nearby Television City , headquarters on the west coast of CBS , was  the taping of “The Danny Kaye Show”, which was fun to be sure, and the other, which I believe,was filmed at The Desilu ( formerly RKO) Studios : you guessed it, ” The Dick Van Dyke Show”!

This summer of ’65 began what was near their last year of filming. It continued airing new shows into June of ’66.  The episode my Aunt Ruth got us seats to be among the Live Audience, so they could record our honest laughter, as opposed to canned which I’ve always detested, was entitled: ” No Rice At My Wedding!” It was written, not by Reiner, the show’s creator, nor the newly made writer-producers who’d taken a load off of the master for the past few years writing Emmy winning scripts for the show, 

silhouette photo of trees during sunset
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Rather it was the then relatively unknown, Jerry Belson and, are you ready?, Garry Marshall!  It involved a plot which was to have occurred ten years earlier in Rob and Laura’s relationship when Rob was in the Army,  and Laura was the prize in a raffle being offered on the base for a charity as a date for the winning soldier for one night and referred to, as a Titled ,””Bivouac Baby!”  The story recounted how our now favorite couple nearly uncoupled before they could otherwise,  because the winner of this raffle was one Cpl. Rice played by the then ridiculously gorgeous TV heartthrob, Van Williams, who wins the raffle!  Williams years later was to  become on ABC,”The Green Hornet , but on this night’s filming, he was merely, The Hunk!

Directing this episode was a special guest at the helm, the also very handsome and talented actor, Lee Philips, who’d appeared in many a television show including the original TV broadcasts of “Marty”, with Rod Steiger, and “Twelve Angry Men”, not with Fonda, yet, but Robert Cummings, although Sidney Lumet was already at the helm with that one and that’s how Fonda hired Sidney for the subsequent great film which Fonda produced as well as played Juror #8.

Philips however, was prominent in two distinguished films , so noted for different reasons. One was Paddy Chayefsky’s,” Middle Of The Night”,with Frederic March and Kim Novak, playing Novak’s ex-husband with a helluva seduction scene. 

1995- Charles E. Gerber as Malvolio-
“Twelfth Night”-
The Workshop Theater-
photo and production by
Carol Bennett Gerber

The other, which was as naughty as Hollywood could get in the 50’s ,” Peyton Place”, when Philips was the object of adulterous desire to Lana Turner! No doubt Reiner and the other producers were counting on his experiences with such provocative subjects for this relatively racy plot involving the possible sexual advances at Rob’s Army base with whom was to become the present day America’s Married Sweetheart to countless millions : Laura, the Not Yet Petrie!

And who do you think was acting as the Emcee, or,”Tumller”, as was called in the Catskills, and before that  in the old country ghettos, such as Sinitzy in the Ukraine where my grandmother, Mimi and her ten siblings came from (just picture Anatevka), when such a celebration was taking place? Who was the man responsible for keeping all those assembled in a mirthful mood so that during the well more than two hours of filming the 22 minute episode, the laughs from the audience would not become tired and stale but rather warm, honest and BIG? You got it, again folks, Reiner, himself!

Yes, there he was, in the flesh, as well as in all his Alan Brady Bald Glory! And Boy, did he know how to work a room! Truly, no one could do it better, nor more responsibly. It was his baby and no one knew more than he how much time everything cost and how to keep things moving in this extraordinarily well-oiled machine. Mind you, this was its fifth year now and had already been proclaimed historic, which of course, was merely natural and a matter of course for this man.  His records with Mel Brooks of “The 2,00 Year Old Man” LPs not only became the best comedy records of the time , when at this time there was a plethora of genuinely great ones from Jonathan Winters to Shelly Berman, to Bob Newhart, to Stan Freberg, and sooooo many beyond!  In front of him was a future of making incredibly memorable films and doing for Steve Martin in cinema what he did for Van Dyke here. My personal favorite is,” All Of Me” ,with Martin and Lily Tomlin…watched it the night of the master’s announced passing…God it’s great. Three geniuses at work in perfect comic harmony. Four, should you count Richard Libertini, and you should(!) as the Tibetan Monk ( ” Beck in Bowl”).  But I digress.

Three young Gerbers: Chuck, David and Richard

 Back to the filming of, “No Rice At My Wedding!”  So, the scenes are shot, one by one, and I come to realize that one of the supporting players in the episode is none other than Johnny Silver, the Original Benny Southstreet! Gave me goosebumps being close to the man who first played one of my , by then, favorite roles in my three year career on the community stages of northern Chicago. Still, nothing was more fascinating, not even the extraordinary Mr. Van Dyke and Ms.Moore’s playing their scenes so expertly, than observing Carl Reiner, between the scenes, keeping the audience appropriately pumped up, relaxed, welcomed, never trying too hard, and in terms of improvisation, ready for anything. After the third scene or so, he announced, ,”By the way, if there’s anyone here who can sing, dance, tell jokes, or do a striptease, and wants to help fill the time while we’re setting up for the next scene, just yell out and we’ll see what we can do!” “Huh”, I thought. I let this pass at first and see if there are any takers. No. Not a one. 

2010- Charles E. Gerber in Bob Sickenger’s adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan,”Topsy Turvey!

They continue the filming. Rob’s getting jealous of Van Wiliiams’  Cpl. Rice. Could Laura’s character actually find him the Cpl., atTractive? Is she Blind?!  It’s like what will be the movie of “Apollo 13,”: you know it’ll work out, but the suspense! 

Next break between scenes and now they’ve been filming at least 90 minutes. Mr. Reiner, tireless as he was, looked like he needed a break himself. There’s a momentary lull. Suddenly the Angel of Chutzpah whispers in my ear,” It’s now or never, Boychick!”

Chutzpah, for those who may not know, and even for those who think they do, is most perfectly defined as that quality of:  “Someone who murders both his parents, then pleads on the mercy of the court on account of being an orphan!” In other words, unmitigated gall. And,  one of my favorite quotes from the sacred Talmud: ” Chutzpah prevails even in Heaven!” And so, at this seminal moment in my life I suddenly project my voice from within the audience from the row where seated next to me is my dear Aunt Ruth, her son Larry, and even my older sister Francine who flew from Chicago to join in this summer’s family fest.  I yell, ” I thought you said’ if anyone wants to sing, dance, tell jokes or do a striptease here, that they could!” Reiner then looks at me some 20 feet apart from him on the stage and it can be perceived that his eyes are widened, his mouth somewhat agape, and the color of his bald pate is decidedly altering toward a reddish hue. Nevertheless, this veteran who was never thrown by anything thrown at him by Brooks or Caesar, yells, back , ” You want to SING?” And I cleverly respond, “YEAH!”  A beat; and then,  ” OK, Come on Up here! “, as he fearlessly invites me knowing full well his responsibilities for Everything, yet Not knowing what the show now is up for.

Well immediately the audience starts applauding and is irretrievably convinced that I’m a plant. That’s cool, I thought. I arrive on stage, appearing all bravado. I see my cousin, Larry ready to hide his head. My sister laughing. and my Aunt Ruth starting to beam.

I’m now next to one of the greatest entertainment legends destined to cover two centuries, and for the most part, at 16, know it.  He’s smiling , but clearly somewhat apprehensive, for if I lay an egg, it’s not going to do the remaining filming of this episode any favors.

He comes rather close to me and whispers in my ear, trying not to sound too much like a desperate plea,: ” Can you really Sing? And at this moment , that aforementioned Angel , simply had me nod my head as  if Leonardo were asked if he could draw.

I signaled with my smile and subtle nod, ” Don’t worry,I got this.” Somehow, that signal worked  and he became reassured and rather excited. Now, I had neglected to mention, that at this filming, a superlative jazz piano trio  was playing for our entertainment during some of the intervals throughout the course. I don’t think the keyboard was helmed by the renowned Earle Hagen who’d supplied the musical score for all the episodes, but it may have been. Nevertheless, this was THE top rated show at CBS, (next to “Gunsmoke” anyway) so who are they gonna hire?, BUPKISS??

The piano, drums and base were clearly first rate. Reiner asked me, “What do you want to sing?”  Now, I think,” Boy, Johnny Silver is here! How if I were to sing “Luck Be A Lady” from “Guys And Dolls?”. I  could  sing Sky’s part better than Brando you can believe, and Silver, the Original Benny Southstreet, from both Broadway And the Film could sing the whole ensemble counterpart : ” Roll with ya, Roll,with ya. What’s the matter, Roll the Dice!”  So, I call out ,” Luck Be A Lady!”  Reiner turns to these expert musicians and repeats the title. 

Now the musicians look at each other and it’s Their turn to turn colors. “Too Hard!, Too Hard! with no rehearsal! “,they call out.  Reiner, almost apologetically turns to me, “They say it’s too hard.”  His face, is suggesting, ,” Please, go easy on ’em and PLEASE, don’t make this a Disaster!” Then I think of that great ballad from ” Finian’s Rainbow”  by Burton Lane and Yip Harburg, “Old Devil Moon”. The Footlighters had just staged it at the Horwich Center. I wasn’t in it,  but I knew that beautiful song, and loved it. ” Old Devil Moon”,  I offered which Reiner with renewed hope, repeats to the guys. The guys nod. “Good Song!”  We pick out the key. And now, The Great Tummler makes a Big Introduction: ” Ladies and Gentlemen, for the First Time during the filming of this show a member from our audience is about to entertain us . “What’s your name, son?”  I quietly say, “Chuck Gerber” . ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, CHUCK GERBER will now sing for you, ‘Old Devil Moon! ‘  Take it away!”  

He then looked at me with the anticipation of a husband watching his wife go into a delivery room back in the day when following in there was not allowed. His face oozed” Please be good!”   He may well have murmured a Brucha( prayer).

They play the opening chord, the Intro, and I  begin to sing with the confidence I’d  displayed  three years earlier with my Haftorah, and now with the most mellifluous baritone my sixteen years could muster, warble:

“Iyyyyyyyy, Look at you and suddenlyyyyyy, Something in your eyes I seeeeee, Soon begins bewitching Meeeeeeeee….” and at that moment, I see in Reiner’s eyes, immediate relief,  joy, and more than a touch of admiration from a man whom one could say,with a Yiddish accent, Had  Been aROUND!

I sang the entire song without a flaw. The trio could not have supported me better. I believe that even Mr. Van Dyke and  Ms. Moore came forth from the back to see what the hell was going on. And the audience goes NUTS! 

Now, any lingering doubts from members of the audience other than my own family as to my being a pre-planned plant ringer for their amusement is removed. Curiously now, receiving no less than a sustained ovation, I become modest, almost embarrassed.

 I say to this giant of show business, ” Mr. Reiner, I just wanted to meet you, and I started walking back from whence I came.  The great man stops me and pulls me back. ” Wait a minute, Chuck.” He puts his arm around me. It’s like he’s now my new found uncle in L.A.!

He says, “I was just talking to the producers, and we all agreed that for what you just did, you ought to be paid, and figured that you’re at least worth a Dollar!”  Audience roars! He hands me a dollar, which I duly pocket and thank him and again start to walk away.

And, AGAIN, he stops me and pulls me back. His tone now gets serious. Looks me right in the eye. ” You’re very talented.” My eyes are misting.” And I get the feeling that you just might want to make Show Business your living, am I right?” I nod.  “Well, I’ll tell you, Chuck, I can’t t know for sure how far you’ll go in show business, ’cause, and I think you may have an idea of this already, that it’s a very hard, very tough business. But, I  do know that you’ll go far in Life… ’cause you got GUTS!” 

The audience goes apoplectic. This Mensch of a great man and I warmly shook hands, maybe embraced briefly, not sure, this part is a little blurry in my memory, but I  DO recall walking back to my seat and see my Aunt Ruth, kvelling (swelling with pride for a loved one who’s done good!) like I’ve never seen Anyone kvell before.

I was to see that same radiance of kvelling on her face when twenty years hence when she came backstage to hug me, crying, after I gave a performance as the lead in a prestigious Broadway National Tour of  a Multi-Tony Award Winning play when, in L.A., we played the historic Beverly Theatre.  But it took twenty years to achieve that., and frankly at least that long to achieve again quite that degree of kvelling.

The framed dollar

After the filming, Aunt Ruth framed that dollar and inscribed from whence it came and from whom.  A decade later, during my first marriage to the wonderful writer Jane Lawrence, now Lawless, with whom I wrote several seasons of a children;s show on the CBS affiliate in Chicago, WBBM, called ‘THE MAGIC DOOR”; a show I was also to star for seven years and be among the recipients of the Emmy, I gave as a present to Jane’s mother, Katherine, that precious framed dollar. Eventually Jane and I divorced, and some years later at a ripe old age, Katherine passed away. And it was only in this last decade or so, that Jane was able to find and retrieve that framed dollar and very kindly sent it back to me, shortly after my beloved and brilliant second wife, Carol Bennett Gerber, with whom I’d spent and collaborated for 28 years, passed on. That very framed dollar hangs now on the wall of my study in my apartment in midtown Manhattan. I look at it every day. I marvel at this singular recollection of that August evening of 1965, when I was touched by greatness, kindness, and as though I’d received Rabbinical Blessings from a Lanzmann (a fellow Jew), who wished me WELL, and helped to give me the courage to give this ,” Ole Show Biz”, a try.

Charles E. Gerber in “Torch Song Trilogy”

” Enter Laughing!”, Yes, indeed, sir. Unto Heaven!

 Thanks, Mr. Reiner. I really only wanted to meet you. 

All photos: Courtesy of Charles E. Gerber unless otherwise noted.

Carl Reiner’s facebook page has some wonderful photos of him.

Charles E. Gerber is a contributing critic to Splash Magazines Worldwide. He is , after four decades, an award winning and critically acclaimed actor, director, writer, composer, teacher,and among the Founding Artists of The Workshop Theater in Manhattan where he’s been acting, directing and teaching Shakespeare, as well as newly born plays since 1994.

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