December 8, 2005
Tommywood - Crystal Clear
Billy Crystal has something he wants to share with you.
Crystal has had a diverse and varied career, with plenty of ups and downs, as a stand-up comic, a TV performer and a movie actor. On the one hand, he starred in "When Harry Met Sally," a movie that convinced many non-Jewish women to imagine that they were Meg Ryan and that they could find true happiness by sleeping with a short, funny Jew (we owe you big). On the other hand, there was "Rabbit Test" and "Father's Day," which didn't do much for Crystal -- or for me.
Crystal has done it all: He was a cast member in the heyday of "Saturday Night Live," with his amazing impersonations of Fernando Lamas and Sammy Davis Jr.; he was on the short-lived but much-heralded sitcom, "Soap." He's done every kind of movie, including action films, "Running Scared"; serious dramas, "Hamlet" and "Memories of Me"; huge box-office comedies, "Analyze This" and "City Slickers" and their sequels; a Woody Allen film, "Deconstructing Harry"; and animated films, most notably (at least in our home) "Monsters, Inc."
But there was something Crystal had not done. No -- not write a children's book. He's already done that ("I Already Know I Love You").
What he had not done was really tell us about himself. About his childhood and the very special world he inhabited, all too briefly, with his father.
Crystal developed these stories into a one-man show, which he developed first at the La Jolla Playhouse and then took to Broadway as "700 Sundays." The show has been not only a huge popular success; it was also a huge financial success on Broadway, a street littered with good intentions and poor investments. It even won a Tony Award, which Crystal accepted on the stage of Radio City Music Hall.
I would say that it doesn't get better than that. But it is evident that the best part for Crystal is performing "700 Sundays."
Crystal will perform "700 Sundays" in Los Angeles from Jan. 6 to Feb. 18 at the Wilshire Theatre. In the meantime, Warner Books has just published "700 Sundays" in book form.
I am not revealing any big secrets when I explain that Crystal's father, Jack, died when Crystal was 15. His father worked hard at two jobs, and the time they had together was mostly on Sundays -- 700 Sundays, Crystal once calculated.
Many of us never get over our childhoods (of such things do analysts and nostalgia merchants profit). Although childhood seems to pass slowly, even languidly at the time, and each memory is intense and heartfelt, all too soon it is a distant land that we strive to conjure up, recall and review in a new light of day.
In Crystal's case, his childhood was populated by some memorable characters -- and some famous ones. Crystal's uncle was Milt Gabler. That name may not ring a bell (which is the point) but Gabler ran a record shop in Manhattan next to Grand Central Station called Commodore Records.
At one time, it was home base for the jazz world. Gabler not only sold records, found out-of-print records and re-issued them, but eventually he founded a record label. Crystal's father, Jack, became the store's manager and as a second job, organized concerts that he emceed.
This was no ordinary childhood. You go to the store, and Louis Armstrong is there, or Count Basie or Rosemary Clooney. The first movie Crystal ever saw was "Shane," and the person who took him was Billie Holliday. Gabler produced and released "Strange Fruit" on his own label, when no one else would. Crystal called her Miss Billie, and she called him Mister Billy. That's something worth talking about.
One of the most touching scenes in the book is the jazz shiva that occurred spontaneously during the days following Crystal's father's death of a sudden heart attack. Crystal had shut himself in his room, unable to cry, not knowing how to mourn, when he heard large whoops coming from downstairs. His uncle, Bernhardt "Berns" Crystal, was telling stories, and then Wild Bill Davidson took out his horn and played some blues, and over the days that followed, 52nd Street relocated to Long Beach, Long Island, as Eddie Condon, Tyree Glenn, Zutty Singleton and others jammed a jazz farewell.
"700 Sundays" is also about that thing we all wonder about: How did we become who we've become? Crystal relates how on his fifth birthday he performed for a bunch of jazz musicians, and after they performed, he ran on stage and tap-danced. You get the impression that his fate was sealed then, and that, one way or another, he's been performing ever since.
He also talks about his passion for the Yankees and his veneration and eventual friendship with Mickey Mantle (and all without mentioning the fine HBO movie Crystal produced, "61").
In the book's acknowledgments, Crystal writes, "Creating and performing '700 Sundays' on Broadway was the most fulfilling time in my career."
It is easy to see why. What could be better than after a lifetime of playing roles, to write and perform work that tells people who you are -- who you really are and what made you the way you are -- and for the audience to appreciate it. Must be, in some small way, like writing "Tommywood."
When I told my wife I was writing about "700 Sundays" in book form, she asked: "Does that mean we're not going to go see the show?" Let me tell you what I told her:
"Reading the book is like noshing on the appetizers. If you're not seeing '700 Sundays' in person, then you're just not getting Billy Crystal. It's the performance of a lifetime -- his father's, his uncles', his aunts' and his. That, I want to see."
Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays," Jan. 6-Feb. 18, Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call for exceptions. (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878. $40-$95.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Visit him online at www.tommywood.com.