Sid Caesar: The Ultimate Comedian

This month’s blogs are dedicated to Your Show of Shows and the stars who made the show such a success. Last week we learned about the career of Imogene Coca, and today it’s Sid Caesar’s turn.

Sid Caesar - Wikipedia
Photo: wikipedia.com

Sid Caesar was born in Yonkers, New York, the youngest of three boys. His parents ran a 24-hour luncheonette. Sid grew up waiting on tables which allowed him to study the accents and mannerisms of a wide range of people and ethnicities. His brother David loved comedy sketches, and the brothers worked on comedy routines together.

At the young age of 14, Caesar traveled to the Catskill Mountains, playing saxophone with the Swingtime Six. Occasionally he performed sketches with his collected accents.

After graduating from high school in 1939, Caesar struck out on his own, pursuing a career in music. He landed in Manhattan where he worked as an usher and a doorman at the Capitol Theater. He played sax at the Vacationland Hotel, a resort also in the Catskills. He was able to audit clarinet and saxophone classes at Julliard.

After a few months, he decided to enlist in the US Coast Guard. He was stationed in Brooklyn, and he played in military revues and shows.

In 1942 Caesar met Florence Levy at the Avon Lodge in the Catskills. They were married the following year and had three children. In November of 2009, Greg Crosby wrote about an interview with the Caesars in the Tolucan Times. He quoted Florence, “I thought he would be just a nice boyfriend for the summer. He was cute looking and tall, over six feet . . . I was in my last year at Hunter College; we were still dating when Sid went into the service, the Coast Guard. Luckily, he was stationed in New York, so we were able to continue seeing each other, even though my parents weren’t too happy about it. They never thought he would amount to anything, that he’d never have a real career or make any money. But we were married one year after we met, in July of 1943.” They would remain married until her death in 2010.

After joining the musicians’ union, Sid played with several well-known bands, including Benny Goodman.

Sid Caesar Wiki, Wife, Career, Net worth and Death children, House,
With wife Florence Levy
Photo: hollywoodmagazine.com

While in the Coast Guard, he was able to collaborate with Vernon Duke, the composer of “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” and “Taking a Chance on Love.” He and Duke put together a show called “Tars and Spars.” Max Liebman, future director of Your Show of Shows, was also part of the show, although not part of the military. Liebman asked Sid to do a few stand-up bits between songs and when the show toured nationally, Sid continued these routines.

Caesar left the service in 1945. He and his wife moved to Hollywood. In 1946, Sid was able to reprise his role in the film version Tars and Spars with Columbia Pictures.

Eventually, he returned to New York and accepted the offer of opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the Copacabana. He also received a contract with the William Morris Agency. He was able to perform in a Broadway show, “Make Mine Manhattan.”

In the fall of 1948, Sid made an appearance on Milton Berle’s popular show, Texaco Star Theater. The following year, he and Liebman met with Pat Weaver, VP of television at NBC. The meeting resulted in the Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca. It was very successful but Admiral could not keep up with the demand for new television sets so it pulled the sponsorship and the show was canceled after 26 weeks.

Sid Caesar's “Your Show of Shows,” the Best TV Has Ever Offered – Once upon  a screen…
Photo: onceuponascreen.com

In 1950, Weaver, Liebman, and Company created Your Show of Shows. It started life as a second half of the Saturday Night Review but became its own 90-minute program in 1951. In 1954, a 160 episodes later, it ended so Coca and Caesar could both have their own shows.

Sid’s show was called Caesar’s Hour, a one-hour show with Howard Morris and Carl Reiner from Your Show of Shows as well as Bea Arthur and Nanette Fabray. The show was not a success. In 1958, Sid tried again with Sid Caesar Invites You.

In the sixties, Caesar took stage roles, as well as big and small-screen parts. He had several specials on television, starred on Broadway in “Little Me,” which got him a Tony award nomination. He also was part of the ensemble of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a huge success that earned six Academy award nominations.

Sid appeared in a few television shows during his career but only a handful. A couple of those include That Girl, Love American Style, Laugh In, Vega$, and The Love Boat.

THAT GIRL - TV SHOW PHOTO #E-13 - MARLO THOMAS + SID CAESAR | eBay
That Girl Photo: ebay.com

Caesar didn’t write his own material. He often performed long sketches, 10-15 minutes. He relied on body language, accents, and facial expressions. Larry Gelbart called him a “pure TV comedian.” Fabray said he always stayed in character, “he was so totally in the scene he never lost it.” He was able to pantomime many different types of characters: a tire, a gumball machine, a lion, a punching bag, a telephone, an infant, a piano, even a bottle of seltzer. Neil Simon said that “Sid would make it [a sketch] ten times funnier than what we wrote.”

Many of his favorite comic sketches were parodies of films including gangster, western, and spy movies. Gerald Nachman wrote Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. He said, “the Caesar shows were the crème de la crème of fifties television, studded with satire and their sketches sharper, edgier, more sophisticated than the other variety shows.” Historian Susan Murphy agreed, describing Sid as “best known as one of the most intelligent and provocative innovators of television comedy.”

Unfortunately, like many comedians, Caesar had some demons of his own. His stardom ended quickly. He had no interest in the movies. He was using pills and alcohol to help relieve the pressures of headlining and producing a weekly show. In 1977, Caesar blacked out during a stage performance of “The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers” in Canada and gave up alcohol immediately. He discussed his substance abuse to alcohol and sleeping pills in his two autobiographies, Where Have I Been? And Caesar’s Hours. He said at his worst, he “had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day.”

Later in his career, Sid came back to the movies. He was in Silent Movie and History of the World, Part I with Mel Brooks; Airport 1975, and Grease and Grease 2, playing Coach Calhoun.

Grease (1978) starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard  Channing, Jeff Conaway, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Kelly Ward, Didi Conn,  Jamie Donnelly, Di… | John travolta, Grease john travolta, John lennon  beatles
From Grease with John Travolta Photo: pinterest.com

In 1983, Caesar hosted Saturday Night Live and received a standing ovation. In 1996, The Writers Guild of America, West gathered Sid and his writers from Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour for a two-hour panel discussion which was broadcast on PBS.

Sid passed away in 2014 after an illness. He left behind an amazing career and a legacy of actors and comedians he inspired. I’ll let his friends have the last word since they knew him so well. Carl Reiner commented at the time that “he was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.” Mel Brooks agreed and said “Sid Caesar was a giant, maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade. And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends.”

We were all privileged to watch a master at work. Thank you for the many memorable moments and teaching us what funny honestly looks like.

Earle Hagen Whistles a Happy Tune

We don’t often notice music in the background of our favorite shows, but it has a significant impact on our appreciation for a series. One of my favorite CDs in the 1980s was the music from thirtysomething. I admit I didn’t often pay attention to the music while watching the show, but I loved listening to the soundtrack.

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Photo: findagrave.com

Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the most prolific songwriters in the television industry: Earle Hagen. Earle was born in the Midwest in 1919, in Chicago, but moved with his family to Los Angeles. He began playing the trombone in junior high school.

At age 16 he left home to play with some of the best big bands in the country: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble.

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Photo: earlehagen.net

During his time with Noble, when he was only 20, Hagen composed the song “Harlem Nocturne” as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. It would be recorded by numerous musicians over the years and later was adopted as the theme for both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and The New Mike Hammer.

In 1940 Earle was hired by CBS as a staff musician. Like many of the composers we have been learning about, Hagen enlisted in the military for World War II. When he came home, he became an orchestrator and arrangement writer for 20th Century Fox. He worked on a variety of films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Carousel.

In 1943 he married Lou Sidwell, a big band singer. They would remain married until she passed away in 2002 and produce two sons.

When Earle accepted the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award in 2000, he explained that “In 1953, the studios committed to large screen production and we went from 38 pictures a year to one. There were other pictures on the planning board but not immediate enough to support the huge studio staffs. So, along with 1199 other people, I migrated to television.”

The first show he worked on was a short-lived series, It’s Always Jan which was on the air from 1955-56.

Then Hagen met Sheldon Leonard. As he says, “There again my good fortune held. I teamed up with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard at a time when they were starting a string of hits that lasted 17 years.” Earle wrote the theme for Make Room for Daddy.

Those 17 years were busy. Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for sitcoms, so a lot of background music was required. Hagen said that during that era, the composer was part of the creative team. His opinion was asked for and respected in pre-production, production, and post-production.

He loved working in television. He said that there was “something about the immediacy of TV that I enjoyed. It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me. I think a statistic of which I am most proud is that in the 33 years I spent in television I was associated with some three thousand shows. Every one of them was recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra.”

His work continued with Leonard, and he wrote the theme song for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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Photo: brioux.tv

Then Sheldon asked him to come up with a theme for a show about some gentle town folks and their sheriff. Earle said he struggled a while trying to come up with the perfect theme. As he described the process: It’s like “peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what’s not.” Finally, he had a brainstorm and “he simply whistled the catchy tune which entered his head.” It’s the whistling of Hagen we hear on The Andy Griffith Show when we hear “The Fishin’ Hole.” Despite the difficulty of coming up with the theme song, Hagen enjoyed his time with The Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I guess my favorite show . . . was The Andy Griffith Show. It covered the spectrum from warmth to complete zaniness. It also was easy to write. Worthwhile, when you are doing four or five different series a week.”

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Photo: mtairynews.com

He went on to work on several shows in the 1960s, including The Bill Dana Show, That Girl, Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle USMC, Mayberry RFD, and The Mod Squad. Hagen based the Mod Squad theme on Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale which added some tension to the scenes, along with a jazzy theme song.

Hagen’s songs are some of the most recognizable ones in television. However, his most innovative and beautiful scores were done for a show that is not remembered much today, I Spy. Leonard wanted original soundtracks for each episode. This humorous spy show was filmed in locations all around the world, so the music had to vary as well.

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This was the first show to star an African American. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were spies who took on assignments around the globe. I would like to say that the reason for the lack of the show being rerun is due to Bill Cosby and the poor personal choices he made which has resulted him being sentenced to jail and the shows he was involved with disappearing from television schedules. However, I rarely remember this show being available even before Cosby’s criminal trials, and I’m not sure why that is. In 2008, all three seasons of DVDs were released.

On the website earlehagen.net, we read that “During the run of the series he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnic music in existence at that time–some of it on commercial records bought in the countries he visited with the production team, but much of it taped live in situ with local musicians. These recordings containing priceless material of musical genres never before recorded, and in some cases, now extinct, were then mixed into the background music produced by the studio orchestra in Los Angeles.  The result was what has been deemed ‘the richest musical palette ever composed for any American television series.’ ”

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Photo: desertnews.com

Sheldon relied on Hagen to literally scout the world for filming locations. The couple visited Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and New York. Hagen discussed this trip. “Before the show started, at Sheldon Leonard’s invitation, Lou (my wife of 58 years so far), and I were invited to go on a `round the world trip with the Leonard’s scouting locations for the upcoming series, I Spy. On that 52-day trip we traveled first class, stayed in first class accommodations and at every airport were met by a car, driver, and interpreter, who stayed with us as long as we were in the country.”

Earle wanted viewers to remember that these were US spies so he named his music “semi jazz,” which fused local world cultures with American jazz music.

Deborah Young-Groves discusses the variety of music Hagen used in her article, Creating the Perfect Vibes for “I Spy.”

“And who could forget the frantic–almost joyous–chase across the University of Mexico in ‘Bet Me A Dollar’–Spanish brass–almost Copeland-esque (remember ‘El Salon Mexico’?), too loud to ignore but erratic and happy. And yet, like Copeland, Hagen only scored where he deemed appropriate. In that very same episode the child, who urgently seeks help for Kelly, runs in utter silence.  We hear only his pounding feet and his sobbing gasps.

But the two best episodes for music are ‘Home to Judgment’ and ‘The Warlord,’ for equally fascinating reasons. ‘The Warlord’ borrows heavy oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by that American jazz – but it works) using snare drums and brass.  How Hagen can get a trumpet to sound Asian simply by a jagged sequence of notes is still a mystery to me!

Then he changes completely and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds.  It is somber, powerful and almost painful – one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.”

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Photo: thestar.com

I Spy was on the schedule for three seasons. Hagen was nominated for an Emmy all three years for his work on the show, and he won it the last year the show aired. When asked about his favorite episodes, Hagen said, “Some of the shows of course stand out in memory: ‘Tatia,’ ‘Laya,’ ‘Home to Judgment’ ‘Warlord,’ and one of my favorites, ‘Mainly on The Plains.’ ”

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Photo: planetoftheapes.com

The music was so memorable on this show, that Hagen was able to record two albums from the series. The first album was recorded by Warner Brothers and the second was Capitol. He said he enjoyed the Capitol album more only because he was able to work on in the off season, so he had more time to devote to it.

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Earle would continue with his work on television throughout the 1970s, working on a variety of shows, including The New Perry Mason, Eight is Enough, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In the 1980s, he worked on Dukes of Hazard.

During the last decades of his life he taught and wrote books on scoring and music arrangements. He wrote the textbook, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. In 2000, he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of.

In 2005, he married his second wife, Laura Roberts. Hagen died from natural causes in 2008.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Perhaps his website sums up his career best: “When one considers the vast range Earle Hagen’s career has covered, and just where he was at each stage in his life—playing trombone in the big bands during the 30s, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra, working at 20th Century Fox during the reign of Alfred Newman, creating TV themes and scores for Sheldon Leonard shows, not to mention teaching brilliant young composers the art of scoring, and publishing the top texts in his field—it can truly be said that he lived through the best times in each of these worlds.”

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Photo: themusicsover.com

Earle Hagen was another one of the great pioneers in the golden age of television and he should be celebrated for his amazing career.