First Shirley Temple, now Sid Caesar. The entertainment world is as little less bright this week with news that Caesar died today at his home. He was 91 years old. I spoke to him in September 2000 in connection with some DVDs celebrating his work. Here is that story.
Sid Caesar recalls the adrenaline rush of live TV
By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Sid Caesar had to think on his feet -- and, occasionally, about his feet.
Take the live TV episode a half-century ago when his longtime producer, Max Liebman, shuffled the order of the comedy sketches right before airtime. The dresser, who sometimes had 70 seconds to help Caesar change costumes, told the actor everything was under control.
“So I went up and got dressed in this leotard that was like a leopard skin, and I had these big gold lame boots, and I ran downstairs and I looked out on the stage and it’s a bus sketch. Now, this is live. This is live,” the 78-year-old recalled in a phone call from his Los Angeles home.
“And I was in shock for about a second and a half, and I said, ‘Pants, coat. Pants, coat, shirt. Come on, come on.’ I took the pants off one guy, the shirt off another guy and I ran into the sketch,” where the other actor asked, “What kept you?”
Caesar ad-libbed that he had a little trouble getting dressed and acknowledged the funky footwear: “Yeah, they look nice, but you gotta feed them every morning and then you gotta shave them at night. They’re a lot of trouble.”
Live television could be a treasure trove of trouble -- scenery falling down, actors forgetting their lines -- but it also could be pure adrenaline for the performers and the audience. Caesar, whose “Your Show of Shows” premiered Feb. 25, 1950, did 90 minutes live for 39 weeks a year. For four years.
No second takes. No editing. No TelePrompTers. Not even cue cards, since some actors tended to read them instead of playing to their performing partners.
“We didn’t know we couldn’t do it, so we did it,” says writer Mel Brooks. “If anybody was asked to do that today, they’d say, ‘Impossible.’ “
Now, Caesar is promoting a venture that would have seemed impossible 50 years ago: the release of “The Sid Caesar Collection” on video and DVD, available at www.sidvid.com or, as of today, in stores.
At the moment, the collection consists of three 75-minute tapes or DVDs: “The Magic of Live TV,” “Creating the Comedy” and “Inside the Writer’s Room.” If you order from the Web site, you get a free copy of “On the Docks,” a parody of “On the Waterfront” with Caesar and actress Nanette Fabray.
In addition to the sketches, the tapes feature interviews with writers and cast members: Caesar, Brooks, Fabray, Carl Reiner, brothers Neil and Danny Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Howard Morris and Mel Tolkin.
This is the first time that sketches from “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” have been presented in their entirety since they aired. Also included are some bits from “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” a 1949 variety hour that ran on the NBC and Dumont networks simultaneously and gave Caesar his TV start. A couple of months after “Your Show of Shows” ended, the star returned with “Caesar’s Hour” from September 1954 to May ‘57.
In those days, programs were preserved on kinescopes, reels of film shot off a TV monitor as the live show aired. The kinescopes have been digitally restored, cleaned up and enhanced frame by frame.
Caesar had the foresight to keep 450 hours of material in Iron Mountain, a temperature and humidity-controlled storage facility in Hollywood. “I just wanted a collection for myself, to know what I did,” he said. Keeping the kinescopes proved a stroke of creative and business genius.
Three partners from Creative Light Entertainment originally contacted Caesar about the movie rights to his 1982 autobiography. That led to a deal to bring out the videos, which could grow to a set of 10 plus a documentary.
Peter Jaysen, one of those partners, said, “We met Sid a year and a half ago, and we spent over a year putting these first three together. We spent about four months coming up to Sid’s private study twice a week, watching the kinescopes to choose what we would put out there. There was just so much, there’s a wealth of material there. ...
“We would love to see it turn into a larger series because then there would be a definitive collection of ‘Your Show of Shows’ and ‘Caesar’s Hour’ fully restored.”
Deciding what to include in this first round was a matter of flow, just as it was in assembling the show. “You have to have a balance; you just don’t throw sketches together,” Caesar said.
“If you have one with a lot of physical action, you don’t put it up against another with a lot of physical action. You gotta start the show with something everybody understands, usually a home sketch ... since most people are familiar with that. Then, as you work on, you get a little crazier, come back again with a silent movie or something else,” such as a faux foreign film, movie satire or even an opera.
“The Magic of Live TV” collection opens with a sketch about a bet over the names of Disney’s seven dwarfs. It ratchets up the zaniness with a Viennese professor in a Hollywood boardroom, a rapid-fire bit about the $5 date, Caesar’s saxophone sit-in with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, a gem of physical comedy in which Caesar, Reiner, Morris and Imogene Coca pretend to be figures on a Bavarian clock, some matchmaking mischief, a performance by the long-haired Haircuts and a spoof of “This Is Your Life,” considered one of the funniest moments in TV.
The spoof was shot in front of 5,000 people at the sister theater to Radio City Music Hall in New York. The sketch was one of those rare bits that was not rehearsed. “The first time we did it was on the air,” Caesar recalls. “All we did was walk through it and talk through it,” to save the craziness and physical energy for the real thing.
Although now recovering from a broken hip, Caesar adhered to a strict routine during his TV tenure. He left the house at 8:38 or 8:40 a.m., was in his office by 9:30 and started work at 9:45 a.m. “We’d keep hours. It’s not when it comes to you. You get all these guys in, to go to work in the same room.”
The show had to be written by Wednesday night, to allow time for the mimeograph machines to crank out duplicates (this was before fancy copying and collating machines) and for props, scenery, costumes, makeup and sound effects to be readied for Saturday night’s live performance.
In between were run-throughs, rewriting, blocking and rehearsals. And if some recollections of those days are to be believed, there also were moments of comic genius, cigars, alcohol, arguments, angst, therapy and at least one writer dangled from the office window by his ankles.
Almost a half-century after Caesar helped to invent TV comedy, he has found a new audience in college students. “The young kids are just eating it up alive. ... They’ve never seen this type of comedy. No schmuz,” he said, using the Yiddish word for dirt. “The whole family can watch this; you can watch this with your kids.
“And we didn’t need it,” he says, of the off-color material today. “The audience you hear is not canned laughter, that’s from the live audience. It’s not been sweetened.”
2002 file photo of Sid Caesar, arriving at NBC’s 75th anniversary celebration in New York. AP Photo/Ron Frehm, File
Also, Caesar and Imogene Coca in New York for the Museum of Broadcasting's first "Salute to Television." AP Photo/Aubrey Reuben, File.