Advertisement
Share

HOLLYWOOD : Take Our Club, Please : The Friars are trying to change their Old Hollywood image by getting young comics and entertainers to join up

</i>

At a booth, Jackie Diamond is getting off the phone. “Catch ya later, baby,” he says, torching a Monte Cristo cigar and glancing around the dining room of the Friars Club, which could easily pass for an upscale cafeteria in the Fairfax shtetl .

Diamond, whose real name is Michael Rosenberg, is a transplanted New York comic. He has been a Friar for five years and spends several days a week schmoozing in the big room. Diamond is 27 years old.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 16, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 16, 1992 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of an editing error, the TV series starring Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko was misidentified in last Sunday’s story on the Friars Club. At different times, it was known as “You’ll Never Get Rich,” “The Phil Silvers Show” and “Sergeant Bilko.”

With such venerable institutions as Schwab’s, the Masquers Club and the Brown Derby only memories, the Friars Club on Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills is one of the last vestiges of Old Hollywood. Founded in New York in 1907 as a nonprofit, charitable organization for show folk, it soon became the place to be and to be seen socially. In 1947, the Los Angeles branch was formed.

“They are trying to get in some young people, especially show people,” Diamond says with the air of an elder statesman. “I think it’s important, though, that those they take in be worthy of the Friars. They have a reputation to keep up.”

Diamond sparkles in contrast to the regular lunch crowd. At the next booth sits Buddy Arnold, who 45 years ago co-authored “We Are the Men of Texaco,” the theme song from television’s first hit show, “Texaco Star Theatre.” It is Arnold, not Diamond, who personifies the average Friar; a slight, gray man, he slouches behind a cigar large enough to be a gag souvenir from Farmers Market. He nods as his former boss, Milton Berle, walks by.

Berle stepped down as president of the California club three weeks ago, ending a 30-year reign as the Friars’ chief spokesman and capo.

Advertisement

His replacement, to be elected on Aug. 19, has a tough act to follow. Certainly none of the names being bandied about--members Sol Burakoff, Steve Levine and Bill Sarnoff--have the show business cache of Milton Berle. But whoever gets the nod faces a challenge. He will have to take the Friars into the 21st Century--a daunting prospect for an organization more closely associated with vaudeville than MTV.

Today Berle will lunch with more than a dozen young comedians. They have been invited as a first step toward joining the club and revitalizing its image.

As Berle arrives at the table, his guests break into respectful applause. Deadpan, Berle retreats, getting his first laugh. Returning, he lowers his 84-year-old frame into a seat next to Improv owner Budd Friedman.

“Milton’s got an incredibly low blood temperature,” Friedman whispers. “So he’s always wearing layers, and the club is always boiling hot.”

A varied bunch is being courted by the club. Many, like Bob Zany, Bruce Smirnoff and Hugh Fink, are legitimate professionals with club and TV credits. Several other of these “young comics” considerably stretch the definition of young or are borderline in the comedy department. Thanks to the cable boom and the emergence of strip-mall cabarets across the country, stand-up has been less an art form than a commodity for the past 10 years.

Ironically, even as the number of comics has grown, their sense of community has diminished.

“Comics don’t have a union,” says guest Taylor Negron. “They are paid poorly. They’re poetic people, gifted with words, and they need to network. And it’s nice to be served by a waiter who isn’t trying to get an acting job.”

Today’s luncheon is a far cry from the club’s old days. A gander at the program from the “Friars Frolic,” an event held at the Shrine Auditorium 43 years ago, reveals a star-studded fraternity. Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, Mickey Rooney, Harpo Marx, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly--in drag. And on and on.

The Friars’ “Man of the Year” roasts became the stuff of true legend. As the roasts were far too ribald for radio or the TV networks, you really did have to be at these affairs. The irreverent dinners encouraged the guest of honor’s friends to check their standard, insincere speeches at the door and let their ids come out to play.

Long before Andrew Dice Clay or the late Sam Kinison became household names, “working blue” at the Friars was tres hep. Only at a Friars roast could the publicly demure Jack Benny say of his good friend, “George Burns having sex is like shooting pool with a rope.” Don Rickles fearlessly taunted Ol’ Blue Eyes: “Don’t just sit there, Frank. Enjoy yourself--hit somebody!” Henny Youngman paid tribute to Howard Cosell: “Next time you get a toupee, get one with brains.”

And much-married Toastmaster General George Jessel compared himself to Arnold Palmer: “He’s made a fortune on his putts and mine has broken me.”

Tommy Sledge, an Improv regular who wears a fedora and trench coat as part of his act, tells Berle that he’s halfway through “Milton Berle’s Private Joke File,” a published compendium--meaning he’s read 5,000 of the entries. The author asks Sledge if he’s used any onstage.

“I wouldn’t really feel comfortable doing them,” Sledge demurs. “They’re not mine.”

“That’s one thing I really hate,” Berle says with a wink--Walter Winchell once dubbed him “The Thief of Bad Gags"--"a comic who steals someone else’s material.”

Berle earned many other nicknames during his prime time, including “The Coaxial Gable,” “Uncle Miltie,” “Public Energy No. 1,” “Mr. Tuesday Night” and, of course, “Mr. Television.”

In 1948--after 35 years in which he had appeared in silent films, headlined in vaudeville and earned big money in nightclubs and on radio--America collectively fell in love with Milton Berle. The matchmaker was television.

A novelty with sales of less than 1 million when “Texaco Star Theatre” first hit the airwaves, television was a necessity by 1954, when the show’s stranglehold on Tuesday nights ended. By then, 26 million homes had a TV set.

Post-"Texaco,” Berle made movies, played Las Vegas and took stabs at legitimate theater and writing.

“I love Milton Berle,” Diamond says. “I think he’s one of the great people to walk on land.”

Berle has put an extraordinary amount of time and energy into the Friars organization, and for this he has been feted countless times--for his 60th anniversary in show business, 75th and 80th birthdays and, of course, the publication of his book about the club, “B.S. I Love You .

Berle has chalked up his sometimes difficult personality to an early entry into adulthood as a child actor. So perhaps, after three marriages and a roller-coaster career, he finds that the Friars Club provides the only constant in his life. It’s here that he thrives--noshing, socializing and basking in the smoke-filled memories that the stale, windowless room somehow keeps fresh.

“Robin Williams, I think he’s great,” Berle says. “He’s multifaceted, by the way . . . not only a comedian, he’s an actor.” Waxing rhapsodic on the craft of being funny is something Berle clearly loves to do, but there are few revelations in his carefully chosen words.

“A comic is a guy who says funny things, and a comedian is a guy who says things funny,” Berle serves up, oblivious that his audience today is perhaps too well-versed in entertainment cliches. They’re not here for the “Comedy Rule of Three,” or an explanation of why the letter K is funnier than the letter P --they want stories.

The younger comics, a good-natured lot, seem uncomfortable but are awe-struck just to be in Berle’s presence. Patient as he arrives at each predictable punch line, they affect polite chuckles through toothy, generous grins.

“The old-timers are all intimidating,” actor-comedian Negron, who stars in the upcoming CBS series “Frannie’s Turn” with Imogene Coca, says later. “I worked with Lucy (Lucille Ball) a few years ago. She was still putting Vaseline on her teeth. She’d point her cigarette in my direction and say, ‘You there. Boy in the blue sweater.’ ”

Still, one can only wonder what--beyond the initial thrill of meeting their legendary host--membership in the Friars Club offers the current generation of performers. The Friars have claimed as recently as 1988 that there was a four-year waiting list for new members. But Berle’s fanatical loyalty notwithstanding, the sad truth is that the organization has fallen on hard times.

The Friars are tight lipped when it comes to numbers. The membership is now thought to tally between 700 and 750, down from an all-time high in the early 1980s of more than 1,000. Dues--which run about $600 a year for new members--have declined along with the membership. And the club’s other revenues--income from members’ meals, hall rental and special events such as a recent Tommy Lasorda roast--have also suffered in the recession. (One Friar claims the club is seeking $500,000 to stay afloat.)

There’s one activity that doesn’t seem to have waned. Despite posted “No Gambling” signs and wagering limits, staggering amounts of money are still said to change hands regularly in the club’s card room. Twenty-five years ago, a grand jury probed a series of incidents that occurred in the ultra-private third-floor quarters.

In 1962, a dishonest but enterprising coterie installed peepholes in the card room ceiling after regular Friars hours. An electronic device was then wired to the midriff of one player. The peeper read the opponent’s cards and sent a prearranged signal to the gut of his cheating partner.

Tony Martin took a bath, as did Zeppo Marx and shoe magnate Harry Karl, whom Berle flippantly refers to in one of his books as “a size 12 triple-E patsy.” The biggest loser of all was Phil Silvers, Sgt. Bilko of “No Time for Sergeants,” who in his embarrassment would not reveal a dollar figure.

As for the perpetrators, Friar Maurice Friedman, a Las Vegas developer who built the Frontier Hotel, and Mafia hit man Jimmy Roselli were among those sent to prison. Fourteen members were declared personae non grata .

In 1988, attorney Gloria Allred filed a sex-discrimination suit against the Friars. Allred had been made an honorary member along with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor but further challenged the club’s longstanding gender barrier by insisting on co-ed sauna privileges.

The members relented but refused to change their attire for “the schvitz ,” which was customarily little more than a smile. As far as they were concerned, if Friar Allred was genuinely interested in the sagging derrieres of ex-vaudevillians, they were happy to accommodate her.

Such whimsy could never be mistaken for true controversy, but it did serve to illuminate the Friars’ archaic, stag-party social policies in the wake of the growing women’s movement. If their press in the past 25 years is any indication, drinking and gambling--male bonding through vice--have all but replaced fund-raising as the Friars’ raison d’etre.

Their woes continued in 1989, when Spy magazine revealed that the Friars were giving little or none of their revenues to charity. One one elite group, the magazine said, was actually pilfering.

Berle and Arnold, according to banished Friar David Peters, were among those known as “The Freebie Gang,” members exempted from dues while frequently receiving complimentary meals and event tickets.

Peters listed his gripes in an in-house memo that resulted in the termination of his membership. He then reported his accusations to local and state law enforcement agencies, as well as the Internal Revenue Service. A typical complaint: “Buddy Arnold’s wife had the best table at the Gene Kelly affair and did not pay.”

Most officials took the charges about as seriously as the motion picture academy takes Jerry Lewis. The chief reason, cited by one Los Angeles deputy DA, was the alleged perpetrators’ advanced age and failing health.

Berle was unnamed in the gambling fiasco--which he will not discuss--and claims to be a lifelong teetotaler. His drug of choice continues to be the sound of laughter. After picking at a latke and declaring it inedible, he starts firing off one-liners based on prompts from around the table.

The group eventually grows restless. They filter out gradually, each shaking Uncle Miltie’s hand; one or two ask for a cigar as a keepsake. Berle could sit there spieling all day--in fact, he probably will, with whoever wants to listen. It’s hard to imagine the Friars ever continuing on, through the good and bad times, without its devoted Public Energy No. 1.

Stogie-smoking comedian Bob Zany sent in his Friars application immediately after the Berle get-together. “I like the tradition,” Zany says. “The comics who were at that table are the new guard. In 10, 20 years we’ll be the ones holding court.”

Most of the lunch guests have, amazingly, signed up for membership. Six hundred smackers a year, applicable to meals, will buy them the privilege of unlimited schmoozing in the stuffy confines that Richard Belzer once compared aesthetically to a Miami Beach coffee shop.

“There is a camp quality to it, a real ‘Valley of the Dolls’ feeling,” new Friar Taylor Negron says. “But Milton Berle, George Burns . . . these people are sandwiches. Right now, I’m just a carrot with a little bit of onion soup dip,” he says bittersweetly. “Someday, I hope to be a sandwich.”


Advertisement