July 31, 2003
Lunch at Langer’s With Eddie and Irv
Some Fridays, if I'm lucky, I get to eat pastrami with Irv and Eddie at Langer's, the great old delicatessen on Seventh and Alvarado streets across from MacArthur Park. Irv and Eddie are in their 80s, so the fight over the check begins before they even order anything.
"You were brought here!" Eddie says. He drove. He grabs Irv's hand and looks at me. "It's my lunch, so in that case, eat at will."
Irv says OK, he will order caviar.
Eddie is a widower living the high life in Century City Woods. He takes gals from Palm Springs to Las Vegas for a night to see Celine Dion at Caesars Palace. Irv just got his first walker.
"I'm entering a new phase," Irv says with a sigh. His walker has a seat. "Oh it's very advanced," he adds. Now he can shop at Costco with his wife, Norma. Everyone knows there's no place to sit down at Costco. It's amazing what happens to us.
The two men have that wonderful free-swinging easiness, a kibitzing shtick with each other that is such a kick to be around. Today's lesson: The DNA of a Blockbuster.
"The Producers" has just arrived at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. In a new book by Gerald Nachman, "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s" (Pantheon) impressionist Will Jordan claims Mel Brooks stole the idea that created "The Producers." The book also says a friend of Jordan's, Lenny Bruce, did Hitler as a character singing at an audition.
"Now Eddie," Irv begins before the pastrami arrives. "Would you like to hear something interesting? In 1937, I came out here because Berle's radio show was from here." Irv used to write Milton Berle's radio show and vaudeville act.
"So I came out," Irv continues, "and Berle had been signed to be the star of a movie at RKO called, 'The New Faces of 1937.' He was a new face then. Joe Penner, Parkyakarkas [Harry Parke], Harriet Hilliard -- who was Harriet Nelson -- a lot of brilliant people in this picture. And the producer at RKO, a man by the name of Edward Small comes to me and says, 'The script is no good. I want you to rewrite it.' Now they're paying me $750 a week for the movie, and $650 for radio. I'm the richest man that ever lived in the Bronx."
Irv's recall for names leaves me agog. Then Eddie starts in.
"Oh, the script he said was no good was not yours?"
"So you rewrote it then."
"It was by Nat Perrin and Philip Epstein, the twin brother of Julius. Both very good men. Anyway, the basic idea was from a Saturday Evening Post story about a producer on Broadway, Will Morrisey, a crook who sold more than 100 percent of the show. That's where it started."
"That's the basic story."
"That's 'The Producers!'"
"Yeah, I know."
"So I wrote the movie -- lousy movie, you know...."
"But the movie you wrote was not on that idea."
"Yes it was."
"What was it called?"
"'New Faces of 1937!' See the guy was gonna put on a show and make it a flop."
"Oh, I see."
"And it turned out to be a hit. What I'm trying to say is, all of a sudden Will Jordan says it's his idea."
"Anybody can say it's their idea!"
"Anybody can say it," Irv says. "But the guy who did it was the man who wrote the original piece in the Saturday Evening Post. George Bradshaw."
Again with the names.
"Well, who wrote the picture with Zero Mostel?" Eddie asks.
"Mel Brooks! What I'm trying to say is he took this idea and did apparently a phenomenal job, because all the Jews in L.A. are gonna run and buy a ticket for $200."
"My son went last week," Eddie says. "Saw the show. He said, 'We're going in August.' He said it was just wonderful and they brought in some Los Angeles shtick references in the script."
Plates of pickles and pastrami sandwiches arrive. Irv announces: "I have a deep resentment against the whole project. As a Jew, I don't think Hitler's funny. I don't think anything about Hitler is funny. But I'm in the minority." He stops the waiter to ask, "Are there any pickles that are more done than this?"
After we eat, I say, "Anyone want to split a piece of chocolate cake? It looks so good."
"Whaaaaat?" Eddie gulps. "Cake he wants."
"Cake? Who eats cake in a delicatessen?" Irv asks.
"It's almost sacrilegious to suggest cake after a corned beef sandwich," Eddie says with a laugh.
I still have much to learn from these gentlemen. I tell them it wasn't me, it was the Langer's double-baked rye bread talking.
"Remember Berle's great joke?" Irv jumps in. "Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world a Jew dies."
"He would say that on stage?" I ask.
"To Jewish audiences," Eddie says.
Hank Rosenfeld is a comedy writer who lives in Santa Monica.