May 15, 2013
Funny music, sad life
On an otherwise unremarkable day in 1938, a chubby but charming student at John Burroughs Junior High in Los Angeles “cracked the code of his comic gift and discovered his life’s work,” as we learn in “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman” by Mark Cohen (Brandeis, $29.95), a penetrating biography by a savvy observer of show business. On that day, “probably in room 100-M,” the young man then named Allan Segal composed the following ditty:
Allan Segal would one day achieve enduring pop-culture celebrity as Allan Sherman, but his early work carries all the toolmarks of the accomplished parodist that he was destined to become — the simple but precise and attention-getting rhyme pattern, the sly Yiddish reference, and the insertion of mundane moments into the elegiac world that is conjured up in the pop music.
We learn from biographer Mark Cohen that Allan’s comedic nature was a strategy to survive an unsettled childhood and a collection of embattled relations, a “riot of family energy, sexuality, Yiddishkeit, Americanism, recrimination, enmity and criminality that greeted Allan on all sides,” as Cohen describes it. Ricocheting across the country — Allan “attended four high schools in Los Angeles, Ohio, Chicago and Miami in just four months” — he was always able to ingratiate himself with an impromptu performance: “As a child he was a celebrity,” recalls one of Sherman’s high school friends. “He stood in the middle of the room and entertained.”
By the time he returned to Los Angeles in 1940, enrolling at Fairfax High School as a senior, however, Allan Segal had renamed himself Allan Sherman. “It announced Allan’s independence from his mother and her various husbands,” Cohen explains. “The Sherman name was a declaration of war, and that is the way Allan seems to have understood it.” And he learned how to use his showy wit to compensate for his porcine figure: “He was self-hating,” a college friend observes, “but he covered it up with a huge ego act.”
After college, Sherman headed to New York with the goal of writing and producing musical comedy, but he scratched out a living by writing jokes and sketches for comedians and singers and scripts for radio serials. When he sold the idea for the TV panel game show “I’ve Got a Secret” to Mark Goodson and Bill Todman — and joined the show as a producer — “he was now in.” The subtext of the show was sexual suggestiveness, as Cohen points out, “and it was his job as producer to find contestants with secrets that allowed the sparks to fly.”
The role of producer on a hit television show suited Sherman well. “It was where the overweight joke writer, procrastinating genius, wit, parodist, singer, performer, lyricist, Army wash-out, sex-obsessed college ejectee and would-be Jewish playwright could impersonate … a respectable breadwinner and father of two,” at least until Goodson-Todman fired him, too. Sherman worked as a script doctor for other people’s television shows and offered his “underground Jewish comedy” at parties:
One of those parties was hosted by Harpo Marx in 1961. There, Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle and “all the great vaudeville comedians from Hillcrest” Country Club gathered to hear Sherman’s “Goldeneh Moments From Broadway.” Word of his antics reached the recording companies, and he was signed by Warner Bros. Records to make his first album, “My Son, the Folksinger,” which Cohen describes as “a rush job made possible by Sherman’s nearly thirty years of preparation.” The album “hijacked a collection of folk songs, took them on a joyride through his Jewish imagination, and turned them into a hit album that left critics wondering what was going on in this country.”
“My Son, the Folksinger” was one of the fastest-selling albums in the history of the music business in America. He was soon headlining at the Sands in Vegas and dining at the White House with the Kennedys. He was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” “When he was hot, he was hotter ’n hell,” observed TV mogul Jerry Perenchio, and jazz master Jon Hendricks called “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Sherman’s signature song, “a great American masterpiece.”
Success on the charts, however, did nothing to banish the lifelong demons of self-destructive behavior — drinking, smoking, gambling, sexual promiscuity and over-eating among them. “[H]e knew how to take care of himself, but only if ‘take care’ is imbued with the malevolent meaning implied by Hollywood gangsters,” Cohen writes. “Sherman took a contract out on himself.” Or, as actress Faith Dane puts it, “I remember telling him that he was going to kill himself, and he did.” On Nov. 20, 1973, his life ended as the doctors had predicted, with a heart attack.
“Over the course of fifty years, his popularity has waxed and waned with changes in the cultural climate,” Cohen concludes, “but his best work has earned a permanent place in the country’s musical repertoire and memory.” Thanks to Cohen’s accomplished work as a biographer and music industry historian, we understand that Allan Sherman was something much more than a novelty act.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.