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Enter Laughing, Again

Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

Milton Berle is holding court in the Milton Berle Booth in the Milton Berle Room of the Friars Club. He’s reflecting on 50 years with the Beverly Hills organization on the eve of its anniversary bash, reliving the night when vaudevillian Harry Einstein killed, then died.

Einstein--the father of comedian Albert Brooks best known by his stage name, Parkyakarkus--was performing at a 1958 tribute to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

“He’d been sick and a lot of people had said, ‘Don’t do it,’ but he was really the smash hit of the evening,” Berle recalls. “He got a standing ovation. As he arrived at the table, he sat down next to me in his wheelchair. They made him stand up and take another bow because the applause was so sustained. As he sat down for the third time, I looked at him and his face was turning colors. I’m sitting to his right. He took a breath and went boom and hit my shoulder, dead. I heard a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the audience. They guessed what happened. I never saw so many pillboxes thrown out from the audience.

“So I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, take it easy; just a little accident here.’ Backstage about eight top physicians were in a tumult, working on him. They used scissors, knives, forks, I don’t know, and they tried to revive him and they couldn’t. . . . Desi was crying. He was so beside himself, and so was Lucy and so was everybody. He said, ‘We’re grateful for this wonderful tribute, but we can’t go on.’ We were all betwixt and between.

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“Tony Martin was on the dais, so I told him to sing a song and what do you think he sang? ‘There’s No Tomorrow.’ I went over and grabbed him by his coat and said ‘Tony, sing another song!’ ”

Welcome to the Friars Club, a place where lore and legend rule.

And who better than Berle, legend incarnate, to assume the role of ringleader?

Berle became a member of the Friars Club in New York in 1926, after sneaking in to have lunch at an underage 12 in 1920 at the behest of Eddie Cantor, who suggested that he dress up in long pants and a fake mustache and muscle his way in. Berle did, sitting at a table with Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan.

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These days when the 88-year-old comedian--the club’s ceremonial head for 23 years--walks into the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, the entire place seems to rise in greeting, primed for laughter and good-natured insults.

“Hello, Mr. Berle, you were terrific on television the other night,” a club member tells the comic regarding his appearance on the Emmy Awards telecast. “You were never better.”

“As long as you don’t say, ‘You’ll never be better,’ ” Berle fires back.

Berle’s official role at the fraternal organization established by entertainers is “abbot emeritus,” having passed along his abbot title three years ago to Steve Allen, a fitting progression considering that Berle, as a teenage vaudevillian, was Allen’s baby-sitter.

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“And I don’t think I ever got paid either,” Berle jokes.

The one-liners reverberate off the walls of the club’s restaurant. Even members who are not entertainers by profession indulge in merciless banter.

Besides telling jokes, Friars Club members also host celebrity “roasts” famous for their off-color humor and all-male guest lists. Some of the older members pass the time by playing cards while younger members go to the club to network. The club also hosts “smokers"--cigar smokers’ fests drawing a wide spectrum of ages.

The club’s glory days are recorded in photographs displayed throughout the three-story building. There’s Frank Sinatra donning an apron to serve spaghetti to his cronies. Here’s one of George Jessel, Jack Benny and Sinatra singing their hearts out in friars’ cassocks.

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And there’s a story to go with each. The time Phyllis Diller donned men’s clothes and a mustache and sneaked into a roast. Or the night Johnny Carson christened an ice bucket at a roast for Buddy Hackett.

“I was on the dais and Johnny was the emcee,” recalls comedian and radio personality Gary Owens. “Fifty people to introduce takes a long time. . . . Nature called. I was seated behind him, about maybe 20 feet from him. Stanley Kramer and Roman Gabriel and I were seated together. Johnny popped under the dais so nobody could actually see him, but we saw him zip up afterward. It took a few seconds, then it started going around the room what Johnny was doing and he got a standing ovation.”

Things have been toned down in recent years.

On a night not long ago the club went so far as to include a table of retired Catholic priests.

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“It’s not as wild as ever,” Allen says. “Though it’s assumed it will be an evening of vulgar humor, the average Friars roast is something you could bring your mother to without her being unduly affected.”

Its origins, though, were anything but tame.

The West Coast club’s founding involves some of that era’s most illustrious names. As the story goes, one August night in 1946, Jack Benny, George Burns and Jessel found themselves with no place to go after a short-lived boxing match at the Hollywood Legion Stadium.

Jonie Taps, then a vice president of Columbia Pictures, was with them, and the next day he held a meeting in his office to form a Friars Club in Los Angeles. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, burst in and thought they were planning to make a movie behind his back.

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“Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, George Jessel, George Raft and Abbott and Costello all showed up in my office,” Taps recalls. “I was Harry Cohn’s right-hand man. He said, ‘What the hell are you doing with all these people? Playing a crap game or starting a picture?’ That’s how the club started, and Harry Cohn became the president. I was the entertainment chair. Sinatra played for me 12 times. Every time I asked him to play at the Friars Club, he did it.”

Early members included Benny, Burns, Jessel as well as Crosby, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante and Ronald Reagan. Its first official meeting was in January 1947 at the Savoy Hotel in Beverly Hills. Fifty Hollywood types showed up.

Throughout the ‘50s, club members raunchily roasted dozens of celebrities, honored many others and raised thousands of dollars. They also held holiday events for needy children. And in between the big events they played a lot of gin rummy.

Card-playing was a favorite activity on the club’s third floor, but in the mid-'60s gin rummy nearly brought the place down.

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About five years after opening the club’s current Santa Monica Boulevard quarters (the Friars met in restaurants from 1946 to 1962), a federal grand jury investigated reports of gambling and crooked gin rummy games for stakes as high as $100,000. As it turned out, a couple of club members with mob ties masterminded a scheme to bilk celebrity members by installing peepholes in the card room ceiling above the gaming tables. In the end, five people went to jail in the scheme, which fleeced members out of $2 million.

From these vantage points, men hiding in the attic were able to read players’ cards with an optical device, then pass electronic signals on devices similar to Morse code transmitters held in an observer’s hands. An FBI probe in 1967 indicated that cheating could have started there in the early ‘60s.

Phil Silvers, Tony Martin, shoe magnate Harry Karl and other celebrities were called to testify. Silvers told the court about sizable losses.

“Let’s put it this way,” Silvers told reporters afterward. He pointed to the freeway and said: “I’m hitchhiking home.”

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As the fraternal club formed by entertainers enters its 50th year (the Friars Club in New York was founded in 1903), it will celebrate with an anniversary gala at the Beverly Hilton on Wednesday saluting singer Martin and dancer Cyd Charisse and featuring Hope, Ann Miller, Sid Caesar, Debbie Reynolds and Ricardo Montalban, among others. (On Oct. 11, the reopening of the newly renovated main dining room will be celebrated with a party at the club.)

Things have changed in that half-century, perhaps most notably the membership, which has gone from 95% entertainment industry types to about 50%.

The club’s 400 dues-paying members include almost as many doctors, lawyers, businessmen and politicians as Hollywood insiders.

Honorary members number about 75, including Hope, Roseanne, Tony Bennett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg, Carson, Phyllis Diller and Reagan. (Sinatra remains a dues-paying member, turning down the honorary appointment, which provides free club privileges.)

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“As the older members have died away, not enough new members have joined from show business,” said Buddy Arnold, a longtime member and Berle’s writer and producer for the last half-century.

The solution? Trying to recruit younger comics and entertainment industry executives, offering half price on the regular $175 monthly dues to those junior members.

“This club formerly never looked for members, but now it is because so many got old or died,” said Harry Ornest, vice chairman of Hollywood Park racetrack and casino. “We’re bringing on new comedians that are replacing the old ones. People think it’s so private. We’re trying to dispel that. It is private, but we welcome new members, and they don’t have to be show-business personalities.”

The formerly all-male club, known for testosterone-laden ribaldry, opened to women in 1987. Attorney Gloria Allred was its first female member.

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Berle, in fact, was one of her two required sponsors.

“He said, ‘Gloria, not only will I make a motion for your admission myself, but I will second the motion,’ ” Allred said. “He also said, ‘You think I’m doing this because you’re a woman? Wrong! I’m doing it to lower the average age at the club--because the average age is deceased.’ ”

Rather than sink into a faded opulence, the 25,000-square-foot club, built in 1962, has just undergone a $300,000 face lift. The club’s restaurant has been transformed from a dark, wood-paneled Brown Derby style--conjuring images of an early Rat Pack movie--to a brighter, more upscale, trendy terra cotta and beige eatery.

Despite the nod to the modern, the old Hollywood aura of the club--situated on prime real estate on Santa Monica Boulevard--remains intact. The card room remains smoky, even a bit dingy, but filled with classic photos and serious players.

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“You instantly get a feeling you’re walking into a world where time has stood still,” said junior member Dean Ward, a 26-year-old recent graduate of New York University Film School now working in animation at DreamWorks SKG.

“You meet representatives of a brand of show business that’s on the verge of extinction. For me, or any other old-time show-biz junkie, it’s the most impressive interactive Hollywood theme park you could hope for. You can actually ride an elevator with Tony Martin and reminisce about vaudeville with Milton Berle,” Ward said. “I’ve always felt that era had a glamour and a camaraderie that you don’t see anymore. To spend a lifetime reading about it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to experience it. And that’s what I get to do there.”


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