The Boy at Camp Granada
My uncle owned Camp Champlain in upstate New York and various relatives went there, or worked there, so it was a home away from home for me. But I could see that camp was not such a comfortable experience for some kids -- early in the summer, in particular, it was not unusual to hear one or two in a cabin weep at night from homesickness.
I never saw anyone as unhappy, though, as the boy we called Sherman, using only his last name. From the first day of camp, he wanted out, to get back home. We were 11 or 12, I’m pretty sure, but it’s been four decades, so the memories are hazy -- though not my memory of the knife. That I’ll never forget. And the song, of course.
Sherman had never been to camp before he arrived at my uncle’s on Lake Champlain. He was the smallest boy in the cabin but made his presence known by reading us the letters he was sending his parents, telling them how miserable he was: “I wish you were here and I was there.” “The counselor plays the trumpet in the middle of the night and won’t let me sleep.” That sort of stuff. But the letters didn’t work. Sherman remained at the camp, and remained miserable, right up until the lunch hour when he took matters into his own hands.
We were at one of the long tables in the barn-like mess hall. He was sitting on my left. Another boy was on my right. They began arguing. About what I can’t recall. But, as I said, I’ll never forget the knife. Sherman picked his up and threw it. It hit the other boy square in the chest -- OK, it was a dull butter knife, and it may well have been the thick handle that hit the boy. But he fell backward nonetheless and started wailing. I grabbed Sherman in a headlock and probably started pounding on him. Of that I’m not certain -- but the headlock definitely. And the next day he was gone. They’d kicked him out.
I was amazed later when word filtered down that Sherman’s parents had asked if he could come back. But it was near the end of camp and my uncle wouldn’t budge. We never saw Sherman again.
Nor did we put two and two together when, in the next year or so, a man named Allan Sherman became the most unlikely of overnight celebrities.
A hitherto unknown TV quiz show producer, he was by his own account “a fat, ugly gargoyle,” an asthmatic who wheezed and “the worst singer in the world.”
Yet in short order, his raspy voice produced three chart-topping albums by transforming familiar melodies into Jewish-themed spoofs. He scored his first hit with a takeoff on the French children’s tune “Frere Jacques,” his version making it “Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman. How’s by you? How’s by you?”
His third album, however, sent him to the peak of his success. Released in summer 1963, “My Son the Nut” included a song set to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” Allan Sherman titled his version “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp).”
Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh
Here I am at Camp Granada
Camp is very entertaining
And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining
It’s about a boy who desperately wants to go home, at least until the end of the song, when he decides camp isn’t that bad after all, so “Muddah, Fadduh, kindly disregard this letter!”
I still did not make the connection until my uncle said, “You remember his son, don’t you?”
That album topped the charts through summer ’63 and Sherman performed with symphony orchestras around the country. He went beyond being just another guest on “The Tonight Show” -- he filled in as its host when Johnny Carson was away. But when President Kennedy was assassinated two months after that summer, the public’s appetite for novelty humor rapidly waned. A decade after “Hello Muddah,” Sherman was dead, found alone in a Los Angeles apartment on Nov. 21, 1973, felled by obesity and emphysema at 48.
By then, I was out of college and the whole story -- of the camp, the knife, the song -- was part of my cocktail party repertoire. Whenever childhood summers came up, I sprung it. No doubt others imagined that their own camps could have been a model for Camp Granada, but I had the goods, the real thing, what radio’s Paul Harvey calls “The Rest of the Story.”
Yet every time I told the tale, it left me uneasy. I knew the episode I was playing for a moment’s entertainment involved the real troubles of a real little boy whose first name I could no longer even recall. I found myself wondering what had become of Sherman, and it was hard to imagine anything other than a sad, self-destructive life unfolding for him.
But it never occurred to me to find him, and find out, until this summer, the 40th anniversary of the song that became his father’s comic legacy.
Not all comedians spring from bleak childhoods, but Allan Sherman lived the cliche. In his 1965 autobiography, “A Gift of Laughter,” he recalled being abandoned by his father, Percy Copelon -- a stock car racer, mechanic and inventor -- as a young boy.
He took the maiden name of his mother, Rose Sherman, who’d been a flapper in Chicago, entering Charleston competitions. She married for the first time at 15 and went on to have four husbands -- his father was the second -- along with “I don’t know how many boyfriends,” Sherman said. Between marriages, she’d park him with relatives around the nation. He attended 21 schools.
At the last one, Fairfax High in Los Angeles, Sherman wrote the senior musical, which starred classmate Ricardo Montalban. After graduation he decided to track down his dad and found “this great big fat man” in Birmingham, Ala. After a tearful reunion, his father agreed to help pay for his education -- if he’d change his name back to Copelon. Sherman did, briefly, until he got no money, or even a note, from his dad.
He recalled his reaction: “Say something funny say something funny say something funny because how can you look reality in the face and think, ‘My God, my own father doesn’t care if I live or I die?’ ”
Some years later, Sherman saw a news clip about a Percy Copelon in Alabama who was “perched atop a flagpole until he starves away half his 350 pounds.”
Then came another clip: “Down From Flagpole/Killed in Bathtub Fall.”
Sherman’s credo, “Say something funny,” would provide his livelihood after he was discharged from the Army (for allergies) and expelled from the University of Illinois (for being caught in a sorority house with his future wife, Dee). They settled in New York, where he hustled a living selling jokes to comedians and where their son Robert was born in 1949.
Two years later, Sherman and a partner came up with an idea for the fledgling medium of TV. “I’ve Got a Secret” had a celebrity panel question a guest in a bid to figure out that he was -- say, the accountant who did Albert Einstein’s taxes.
Sherman produced the hit show for seven years but couldn’t stand all the meetings and memos and had a falling-out with Goodson-Todman Productions, the force behind decades of TV quiz shows.
Fired from his own creation, he accepted an offer to produce another show, in Los Angeles. And while “Your Surprise Package” didn’t last long, the good news was that the home he rented, in Brentwood, was next to Harpo Marx’s. Soon he was entertaining the parties thrown by the old Marx Brother, playing the piano and performing song parodies that popped out of his head, like his takeoff on “Seventy-six Trombones”: Seventy-six Sol Cohens in the country club/ And a hundred and ten nice men named Levine!
Talent manager Bullets Durgom was at one party and hooked him up with Warner Bros. records. On Aug. 6, 1962, Sherman picked up a $55 unemployment check in the morning and recorded his first album later in the day.
Some novelty songs had cracked the Hit Parade in that era, such as David Seville’s “Chipmunk” tunes. But Sherman’s “My Son, the Folksinger” seemed overtly Jewish at a time when Jewish performers generally reserved their ethnic material for the Catskills. Sherman thought he might clear $4,000, if he was lucky, by selling 10,000 records.
Within months, sales topped the million mark. Sherman played Carnegie Hall, rode in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and was a guest on his old quiz show, “I’ve Got a Secret.”
When he wrote his autobiography three years later, he was still gushing over the dizzying life of hotel suites and late nights winding down with double shots of J&B;, seemingly having no notion that his wild ride had already begun its downward turn. The next year, 1966, saw the release of his last album for Warner Bros. His marriage would be over by the end of the decade, and soon thereafter his life.
Oddly, his autobiography glossed over his top-selling song. He mentioned only that he was under pressure to fill his third album when his wife said she was heading out to get their youngest child, daughter Nancy, “clothes for camp.” Sherman said he instantly thought of “my baby going away alone to some strange wilderness.”
There was no mention of his son’s having been to camp, much less sending home the very sort of letters depicted in “Hello Muddah.”
In fact, the 324-page memoir offered only glimpses of Sherman’s “sensitive, poetic little boy.” Robbie was studious, his father said, had an affinity for electronics and once was the hero when their dog was attacked by an animal in hills behind their home. His wife couldn’t look at the gored pet, “but Robbie picked [him] up in his arms, with all that blood pouring out -- Robbie, who’s supposed to be so disorganized and afraid and unwilling to face reality. Robbie picked him up, and located a veterinarian and saved his life.”
Nowhere had he mentioned anyone saying the boy was disorganized, afraid or unwilling to face reality. Sherman was ranting at someone, though, and it was more reason to worry about what might have become of the frail boy I’d known in camp.
“Let me point out right away, not to look for sympathy, but just as a comment on memory -- I had four just-outside-of-the-brain tumors removed, two in 1973 and two in 1983, and I have a bunch of memory gaps,” Robert Sherman said. “There are things that people come up and show me pictures of, home movies and everything, and I say, ‘I just don’t remember.’ ” But he also said, “I do remember some of the Camp Champlain stuff.”
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, ASCAP, helped me find him last month, passing a message to the estate of the late Allan Sherman. Days later, we spoke for the first time in 42 or 43 years -- neither of us could figure out if he was at the camp in 1961 or the summer before.
He did not remember the headlock -- “Not at all” -- or the confrontation in the mess hall. Or his letters. “I just remember maybe that was the first time I had been away for a long time. But I just hated it a lot. I was always small and not very good at sports, and it may have been that I was frustrated in baseball games or whatever and getting teased or something.”
He had a vague memory of the train ride up to Westport, N.Y., on the edge of Lake Champlain, where my uncle and two partners in 1954 bought a couple of hundred acres with an old stone manor house.
You might find Indian arrowheads in the woods, or pieces of cannonballs from the Revolutionary War. Fort Ticonderoga was just down the 136-mile lake where we’d go fishing before sunup, catching tiny bass the cook would fry up and serve with our scrambled eggs. There were hikes in the Adirondacks and, yes, lots of baseball, sometimes against teams from the small towns nearby, one of which spawned Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres, star of the ’55 World Series.
“I really don’t remember much,” Sherman said, “other than it wasn’t a lot of fun and I wanted to get out.”
My assumption of all these years was not a fiction then. “The song is somewhat triggered, I think, by what happened to me there,” he said.
Sherman thought his father also drew on his own experience at a camp, as a counselor about 1940. “And mostly, it’s just kind of one of those lucky accidents of the words coming into his head while listening to music and stumbling upon at some subconscious level that ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ phrase and the terrible kinds of things that could happen to a kid.”
His father would write phrases on a legal pad to see which sounded funny -- “ptomaine poisoning” -- and which might rhyme. All the couns’lors hate the waiters/ And the lake has alligators.
But pure craft cannot explain why the song went over as it did. Sherman clearly tapped not only his son’s experience that summer but the overwhelming emotion of his own early life, the terror of a child separated from his parents. Though he did add a feel-good end that was hardly like his life, his song never strayed from the child’s point of view, an ability Steven Spielberg later showed in “E.T.,” where it’s the kids who understand the stranded space creature’s desperation to “phone home.”
Robert Sherman said he didn’t realize the reach of his father’s song until versions started coming out “all over the globe,” some in countries that didn’t have summer camps. During a trip to Britain in the mid-'80s, he went to see the Disney classic “Fantasia,” a segment of which has hippos dancing to the same Ponchielli music.
“Almost the entire audience was 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-year-old kids along with their young parents, and when the scene came on the whole movie theater, I’m guessing 500 to 600 people, started singing the ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ words,” he recalled, “and it amazed me because these kids weren’t alive when the song came out.”
In “Seriously Funny,” a new book about comedians of the ‘50s and ‘60s, author Gerald Nachman declares that Sherman’s single camp song “assured his immortality.”
Our discussion of the camp, and the song, lasted much of an hour. But we hadn’t yet touched on Robert’s own life, other than his mentioning, at the start, the tumors near his brain.
The year they were discovered, 1973, also saw his father’s death. That was “one of the worst years,” he said, though it was not easy the second time, either, when his weight dropped to 88 pounds. The little kid never grew above 5 foot 3. He laughed at how the doctor told him, “Well, you don’t have any more muscle to lose.” Then he laughed a second time at the memory.
I had been right to worry about him. But wrong to think he couldn’t make it.
His weight was not the only way he was unlike his dad. He avoided the booze and chain smoking too. He did share something, however -- the wit.
He only “grazed on college” after graduating Los Angeles’ University High in 1967. Family friend Steve Allen handed him his first job, putting him on the staff of a TV show Allen was doing. But Robbie was on his own after he was hired as a gofer on a morning show on KABC.
The station decided to do a segment on completion of Interstate 5 from Mexico to the northern tip of California and the town of Hilt. Sherman, then 21, had an idea: “What is so important about Hilt, Calif., that we should spend billions of the taxpayers’ dollars building a freeway from Mexico to Hilt? So I went up to Hilt and hired a local cameraman and went around doing basically a documentary that showed that there is pretty much nothing there in Hilt, Calif.” It was a screwball premise, worthy of his father.
Just before his first tumors were detected, Sherman was hired by Mark Goodson -- who’d fired his dad in the ‘50s -- as a game show writer. Over the next 20 years, through his health problems, he rose to become a producer of shows such as “Super Password.” An early computer nerd, he was the first quiz show executive to see how they could connect researchers, writers and producers and eliminate all those index cards with questions and answers.
Like his dad, however, he was never quite at ease in the corporate climate. So when the Internet came, he formed Robert Sherman Co. and started a series of entertainment sites: Quiz- land.com, offering “The Best Quizshows, Puzzles, Fun and Games on the Web!”; HerMoment.com, an online “community for women” offering celebrity gossip and recipes; and MajoritySays.com, which polls Internet users on questions from “Do you believe in God?” to “Would you rather have a unicorn horn growing out of your head or green skin?” During the Clinton scandals he posted a song parody imagining how the president might sing “My Way”:
“And now, my end is near
I’ll try to hide my raging fury
I thought I made things clear
I testified to Starr’s grand jury”
Over a period when many have gone bust on the Internet, Sherman has made it work, supporting himself with those sites for most of the last decade.
He is approaching his 54th birthday now, and his weight is a healthy 140. He says he has made his peace with his dad too, a man he sees as having tried hard to be a “real good” father, like setting up all those model trains in the basement -- even if it was the elder Sherman who wound up playing with them for hours on end. Robbie now thinks it made it easier that his father died “so quickly,” before his self-destructiveness took a greater toll.
He has not had children himself but has lived for years with a woman who has a daughter, 25. And she did go to camp for a while -- day camp, not a sleep-away like Camp Champlain.
I told Sherman he might have liked it had he given it a chance. He didn’t have to be into baseball. One of my uncle’s partners was a music director in Great Neck schools. He assembled great bands and there were shows too, takeoffs on Broadway hits. Spoofs!
But he stopped me. It wasn’t about the camp, he said. “I always, and this was true of my father, was more of a loner than a socializer.”
Today, if an idea comes to him at 3 a.m., he heads to the computer in his Chatsworth home and punches it in. In the morning, he wakes to see the world’s response. He’s not the least bit unhappy to be alone in his office all day, figuring out new ways to, as his father put it, “say something funny.”
To date, he’s come up with 9,000 questions for his Web surveys. When last we spoke, he had just posted one that asked, “Would you rather have spaghetti for hair or have a surgically implanted AM/FM radio?” The problem was, the choice was too easy -- almost everyone was choosing the radio. So he added “that you tune by sticking your finger in your nose.” That got a quarter of the folk opting for the spaghetti hair.
“I am constantly,” said my old cabin mate, “amused.”
The recording and complete lyrics of “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” can be found on The Times’ Web site. Go to latimes.com/campgranada.