Chapter 12 "Seeing Eddie Cantor"
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My father, like many, wanted to work. When we moved from Williamsburg to East New York, he became part of the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. He helped build the Palisades Parkway. At 5 a.m. I'd watch him get dressed. He'd put on huge leather lace-up boots that extended almost to the knee. I asked him why he wore boots. "Copperheads," he said. New Jersey had copperheads. A dangerous job, I thought. "Deddy" then waited for the truck that would pick him up and take him along with other men to New Jersey. My father had never held a shovel in his hands until then. When he got home from the Palisades, heíd plop himself into a chair, light up his pipe and turn on the Atwater Kent radio, a large metallic black box with a lid and a horn. Comedians were my father's favorites. On different nights there were Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Edgar Bergen, and Charlie McCarthy. He didnít understand Fibber McGee and Molly.
Laughter seemed to dissipate the pain of being unemployed. Even my mother's anguish subsided when Eddie Cantor sang: "Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper, now's the time to fal-l-l-l in love." More than anyoneEddie Cantor made us aware that the entire country was in a Depression and we weren't alone.
My mind danced when Eddie was on. I wanted to be Eddie Cantor. I thought he could change the whole world. I too could change the world if I were a comedian. Eddie said: "When I'm the President, When Iím the President." I thought, wow, what if we had a Jewish President. We could go down to Washington, D.C. We'd live with him in the White House. He'd take care of us like cousins.
My dreams were real to me. I wrote a letter to radio station WEAF, requesting tickets to see "The Eddie Cantor Show" live. Six weeks later five tickets arrived in the mail at our new apartment on Alabama Avenue, Brooklyn. Had Eddie Cantor read my letter? I felt like I had reached someone for the first time in my life. I was about 9 years old.
The day we were to see the show I became the head of the family. We left from East New York, taking the subway at Livonia Avenue, then changed at Broadway Junction for the Broadway Local, and went over the bridge into Manhattan. Life changed, once I was over that Bridge. It was a new world.
We arrived at Rockefeller Center and waited in the lobby with hundreds of other free-ticket holders. An usher, looking very formal, motioned to all of us and removed the felt-covered chain. Like a hungry army, we crowded into the elevators that took us to the 8th Floor. There, in the studio where the Conan O'Brien TV show is broadcast today, was where we'd see and hear Eddie Cantor. We quickly moved into our seats, hungry for the excitement to start.
The clock on the wall said 7:00 p.m., an hour before the show was to go on. The musicians strolled on stage and took their places. Jimmy Wallington, the announcer, appeared before us. "Before Eddie comes out," he said, "we want you to know this show is going out all over the country. So what we need is lots of applause, and we want you to laugh loud at the jokes. Let's see you applaud." Everybody applauded enthusiastically.
Suddenly Eddie Cantor bounded onto the stage. Everyone clapped. His energy, his bulging eyes, his jet-black hair seemed to burst out of his body. Eddie talked directly to the audience.
"Would you like to hear a song?" he said.
"Yes!" the audience answered.
"How about 'Makin' Whoopie'?" he said. Big applause. "This is Bobbie Sherwood, our orchestra leader. Bobbie, take a bow. Bobbie's from the South. A lot of you are probably from the South. South Brooklyn." He continued speaking to the audience. "How did you get here tonight?"
"Subway!" somebody yelled out.
"Was it crowded?"
"Did you pay?" Laughter.
"Come on, who went under the turnstile? You, what's your name?" Eddie Cantor was talking to my brother Arnie! "How old are you?"
"Seven," Arnie replied.
"Are you married?"
"No," Arnie said shyly.
"I've got five daughters," Eddie Cantor said.
The audience laughed.
"I'm just looking for a shidach -- the Yiddish word for a marital match. "How much time do we have, Jimmy?"
"Half an hour."
"Let's do 'Susie.' "
More applause. Cantor started to sing. His body seemed to surge as if it had been hit by electric current. His feet and hands were moving vertically and horizontally like piston rods. He looked like a puppet that had been given life and wanted us all to wonder at it.
I saw my mother and father turn to each other. They smiled. I had brought them together. I had done something that seemed impossible. Eddie Cantor could bring peace to my family.
From that moment I really wanted to become a comedian.
At three minutes to 8 o'clock, just before the show went on the air, Jimmy Wallington said to all of us out in front: "Remember, you're supposed to laugh."
Eddie ran across the stage, took a flying leap into Jimmy Wallington's waiting arms, and kissed him on the cheek just as the program went on, live.
To call it a radio show was a misnomer. When Eddie came to a joke he'd roll his eyes, which meant for us to laugh. He nodded his head when a joke didn't go over, which meant laugh anyway. When the show ended, Eddie seemed exhausted, but he performed a few encores. He gave us a great show, a great evening.
It was late when the Stiller family arrived home. I had gotten my family out of Brooklyn to see the world's greatest comedian. My mother and father had an unwritten truce; there were no fights for three whole days. I felt I had accomplished something wonderful, getting.
Years later, when Eddie Cantor died, I wondered why there wasn't a national day of mourning. His died as if he had never been around. What he did for my family that night was never expressed in the obituaries but my memories of Eddie Cantor -- and my debt to him -- never died.
Copyright © 2000 by Jerry Stiller