Sid Caesar, who died yesterday at the age of 91, was a genius, a comedy legend, a gifted and sensitive performer who has probably influenced everyone working in comedy today. If you want to witness his inventive comedy, YouTube can be your guide. And although I may call him a genius, a comedy legend and a gifted and sensitive performer, I didn't know him. But a friend of mine did.
In 2007, I went to a show in NYC called "Spaghetti and Matzo Balls," featuring singer/actress Rena Strober — the show (see my original review at Jewlicious) was about a Jewish girl who finds a second family, or more appropriately, a famiglia, in the Italian-American community through her regular performances at the famous New York restaurant Rao’s. It was at Rao's one night that she found herself caught in the middle of a "Godfather"-like shootout, and became famous in a way she never wanted. (But that is not this story.)
And now it's 2014. Rena and I hadn't stayed close, but we had both moved to Los Angeles, and found ourselves running into each other regularly. Among other exciting developments in her life, she'd been admitted to the famous Friars' Club, and through her connections there, had been invited to meet Sid Caesar. At the time, Sid was 90 and frail. But in Rena's words, recalling the nascent days of the relationship in a blog post, "from the minute I sat down next to his bed, he smiled and we became fast friends."
Rena started visiting Sid weekly, learning and singing Sid's favorite songs to him; Sid told Rena some of his show business war stories: "He told me about holding Mel Brooks out a hotel window in Chicago, meeting Marilyn Monroe, and how scared he was to sing on Broadway for the first time. I asked his advice on learning lines and taking risks in my career. He may not remember if he went outside that morning, but he sure remembers the challenges and rewards of his career. "
Hearing Rena talk about Sid with reverence and love, you could tell that the relationship between the two was growing; soon, Rena announced on social media that she'd been invited to a Passover seder at Sid's house — the seder would be led by veteran stage actor Theodor Bikel, and according to reflections Rena shared online after the event (and from which all of Strober’s quotes in this blog post are taken), "Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner are known for their witty banter during the dinner." Other famous funny people in attendance included Jeffrey Ross, Renee Taylor, Lainie Kazan and Estelle Harris.
The youngest person at the seder by about 40 years, Rena sang the Four Questions - the first two to a tune from "Little Me," a musical penned by Sid, and the last two to "If I Were a Rich Man," from Fiddler on the Roof. When Rena was leaving later that night, Sid's daughter Karen thanked her. "You have made my father so happy and I really appreciate it. Thank you for spending time with him."
Rena continued to visit Sid, spending time at his side, engaging him in conversation about his life's work in comedy. During Sid's final days, Rena was there with the family to sing to him, talk with him, and say goodbye. At last night’s BINA Winter Salon, an evening of fresh ideas coordinated by the IAC, I ran into Rena again; I had left a note of condolence on her Facebook timeline, but it was a privilege to be able to speak with her in-person about the loss of her friend. Rena had, of course, realized that Sid was old and ill, but she had become attached and her grief was real. I asked if she would be writing about him, and she said she would, “in time,” but the immediate grief was too difficult.
We reflected on her time with Sid, and his impact on generations of humor aficionados, including my father, the creator and editor of blog JewishHumorCentral, who regularly posts videos from comedy classics like "Your Show of Shows." A few months ago, he had posted a video clip of one of Caesar's classic sketches ("The Argument to Beethoven's 5th," featuring Sid and Nanette Fabray in a powerhouse wordless duet, linked below), and I shared it with Rena. She had never seen it before, but played it for Sid later that day. They talked about the clip, whether it was improvised or rehearsed (the former, she remembers him saying), and how brilliant it was, and Rena told him that the clip had appeared on a friend’s father’s Jewish humor blog. This was a story born decades ago in one comedy sketch that has resonated through the years and across technology, crossing from virtual into reality. I connected to Rena through blogging. I connected Rena to my dad’s blog. And she was able to bring my dad’s virtual connection to and deep appreciation for a legendary comedian to that comedian himself. The virtual, with the intercession of real people having real conversations, enabled an ill man to understand that what he had produced in this world had resonance beyond the point that he could have imagined. I believe that this connection, midwifed by the Internet, was a gift for all of us.
"So why is this night different than all others?" Rena had asked in her post about Seder with Sid. "This night has reminded me that life is fleeting, that friends are insanely valuable, that seders are long and that Sid Caesar has touched so many lives. I am grateful to have been part of this event and part of his life."
May Sid’s memory — and the memories that people have of Sid, at seders or otherwise — be for a blessing, an inspiration, and more than occasionally, a guffaw.
Clip for embed:
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a writer, editor, consultant and lifelong student in the school of comedy who lives in Los Angeles. She recently celebrated a decade of blogging at MyUrbanKvetch.com.