From The Pet Press, a free monthly magazine for Los Angeles pet lovers.
A Comic Legend With a Heart For Animals
By Felice Catena and Elayne Boosler
As a child of the fifties, one of my earliest, happiest memories is watching Sid Caesar and his band of comics every Saturday night on “Your Show Of Shows.” We had one of the first TV sets on our block, and the neighbors would gather in front of our tiny little Hoffman TV screen to watch adults being SILLY!For those too young to remember, “Your Show of Shows” was a ninety-minute LIVE variety series that aired on NBC from 1950-1954. One of the classics of television’s “Golden Age”, it showcased the amazing talents of its stars, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, along with supporting players Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. It also launched the careers of some of today’s most gifted writers including Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. But it was Caesar’s comic genius that is perhaps most remembered: as the henpecked husband, the greasy-haired cad, and, as a master of dialects, the double-talking foreigner. (In reality, Caesar ONLY spoke English).February 2004 – I find myself, accompanied by comedian Elayne Boosler, in the Beverly Hills dining room of Sid and Florence Caesar and their lovely daughter, Michele. We had been greeted at the front door by an adorable, freckle-faced Border Collie/Sheltie mix named Carlin, who could not have been more delighted with our presence, especially since we arrived bearing a snuggly new fleece blanky from Elayne’s online site (www.tailsofjoy.net), a wonderful new ball and Scooby Snacks. Carlin rolled over in joy for tummy rubs from his new best friends (Elayne and me) and began madly racing around the house, returning every couple of minutes to roll over again on the foyer floor for more love.
Carlin came from Southland Collie Rescue (www.collie.org). “He had been returned by two other people – one, a family in divorce, and the other, a single man who decided not to include Carlin in his wedding plans. It was our good fortune to meet Carlin and fall in love with this sweet boy,” explained Florence. “He came with his name.”
Sid, now in his 80’s, moves less spryly than he once did. Several years back, while walking his dogs, Plato and Minnie, in his ‘hood, (both dogs, adopted from city shelters, are now in doggie heaven) they passed a construction site. A dog in a worker’s truck began to bark at his dogs, who lunged, taking Sid with them. He went down and his hips hit the curb. He had surgery for the injuries to his hips and now walks with a cane. But his quick wit and the twinkle in his eyes have not diminished a bit. We were warned not to stay more than 30 minutes, as Sid tires easily, but he and his family graciously hosted us for nearly 2 hours, with Carlin alternately napping nearby and coming to Elayne and me for kisses.
Sid Caesar grew up in Yonkers, New York, where his father owned a restaurant during the Depression. Although his family did not have animals, Sid says, “There were always dogs around, even if we didn’t own them. Two dogs lived next to the restaurant, and they used to race back and forth along the fence, bark at each other, and then run away. That’s how they got their exercise for the day. There was one stray dog called Princey, who was very thin, and he would follow me because he knew I was always going down to the restaurant and would give him table scraps. There was no commercial dog food then. This was 1934, during the Depression, when, of course, people ate first – before dogs. The restaurant threw away a lot of food, so I would pick out good scraps for him, and he would walk out of the restaurant with his tummy full. Princey was low to the ground, and after I fed him at the restaurant, we had to put his tummy on a roller skate. I enjoyed watching him eat, because he was so starved and always wanted more.”
“My first memory of my relationship to an animal is a police dog who used to sit under my baby carriage. If anybody came near me, he would bark. I used to hang around his neck; I loved him. When I was only about 2 or 3 years old, someone poisoned him. I still remember when he went away. I was a baby, but I knew. Ever since then, I’ve loved animals. In those days there were no shelters or rescue groups. The ASPCA was all that existed.”
“When my children were young, someone sent me the grandson of Rin Tin Tin. I sent a cab to pick him up at the airport, and we named him Julius (Caesar).” (To which Elayne replied, “You sent him a cab? Well, they ARE good tippers, everyone knows that. Those Shepherds know how to tip.”) “We didn’t know how to take care of him, and we were in a little apartment. The kids were scared of him, because he was biting my son Rick’s toes when he was in the high chair. We had him for a short time and then he went to live with Imogene Coca, who had a big house and yard.”
“Then, when we moved to Long Island, we had a Harlequin Great Dane – Danes are wonderful too – they all think they’re lap dogs. He only wanted to be in our laps.”
When asked about “Your Show Of Shows,” Sid replied, “The biggest thing that people tell me now is, ‘I remember sitting with my family and watching the show.’ The kids could come – they weren’t afraid. TV was clean. Elvis was the first one to be considered way out there – they cut him off at the waist on Ed Sullivan.”
“I used a chimpanzee in the show once. We were all sitting around having dinner in a sketch, and the chimp was sitting there too, supposed to be having dinner with us. The problem was, when we rehearsed with the chimp we fed him 4 bananas. When the show came on, he didn’t want any more – he was full. And we were live. So we all sat there staring at the chimp.”
While the comedy genius of Sid Caesar inspires so many today, some of his comedy heroes included Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy. (Of Harry Ritz, Sid says, “He was the guy in the middle – the funny one is always the guy in the middle.”)
A funny man on the outside, Sid Caesar has always loved learning and reading about mathematics and physics. Little did he know that one of his biggest fans was the genius behind the Theory of Relativity.
“The year was 1955,” remembers Sid. “It was funny. I was down in the rehearsal hall doing the sketches, the writers were there to watch, and my secretary came in and said, ‘Mr. Caesar, Dr. Einstein would like to talk to you.’”
“He made the first contact. I said, look, no jokes. We haven’t got time. This is Thursday afternoon. Saturday is the show. Now stop fooling around.”
“No, no, Mr. Caesar. Dr. Einstein would like to talk to you.”
“So I go upstairs, I get on the phone, I say hello.
“Mr. Caesar, I’m Helen Dukas. Dr. Einstein would like to talk to you.”
“She said the right things – ‘he wants to talk to you, and we will call you again and make a future date… we’re on Mercer street in Princeton… we’ll give you the directions where to come.’”
“I said yes, thank you very, very much, and I thought it would be like this weekend, or something. I called my secretary and told her to get every book on the Theory of Relativity ‘cause I gotta bone up on it over the weekend. And I did! I went through it again, even though I had read it before.”
Unfortunately Albert Einstein passed away before Sid had a chance to meet him. “I never got to speak with him. Then one day while giving a lecture at Columbia University, a tall, thin man comes up to me and says, ‘Pardon me, you’re Sid Caesar, aren’t you?’”
“I said, yes, sir, I’m Sid Caesar.”
“He said, ‘Let me introduce myself. I’m Robert Oppenheimer. Albert used to like you. He used to talk about you many times. And I just thought I’d let you know.’”
(At this point Elayne couldn’t help commenting, “And you missed the opportunity to say, ‘I thought I bombed!’ How could you not think of that? That’s amazing that Einstein talked about you to Oppenheimer. Even if he said bad stuff, it’s a compliment.”)
These days, Sid’s less hectic life keeps him happy. “When you retire, you must have a routine. I get up and I walk. That’s my main thing. I walk the hill here, but I don’t take the dog with me any more. I walk for about an hour, up two big hills, before breakfast. Then I come back and cook my breakfast. I like to cook… my specialty is egg white omelets… I like to eat healthy. I also like to read every day and watch television. I was on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” with Drew Carey not long ago. It was very good. He’s a very talented and nice man. We all had a lot of fun. It was a good feeling, y’ know.”
“I also love to watch the Animal Channel,” Sid continues, “but when they show ‘the hunt,’ when one animal kills another in the wild, I can’t watch. I have to turn it off. I like the animal police shows where you see some of the animals being taken from peoples’ homes. It’s a shame how some people treat their animals. It’s a good thing they get rescued.”
As supporters of many animal welfare organizations and issues, the Caesar family also attends The Genesis Awards every year. “We became involved because our daughter Karen worked with The Genesis Awards since the very beginning. She’s a real animal person, involved in everything. She was on the original board of the Ark Trust and continues to this day. The Genesis Awards started as a little luncheon, and now it’s a big event every year.”
“It’s a lot of work,” adds Michele. “My sister keeps saying she’s going to stop, but she can’t. It’s a big commitment.”
“The world has changed so much,” continues Sid. “It’s a different language now, a different culture in this country. Especially regarding animals. When a dog is mean, it’s not the dog, it’s how it’s trained. Many Pit Bulls are loving dogs. It’s the owners who make them mean. A Rottweiler is the best dog. I used to have two Rotts, but people were afraid of them. I felt bad because I knew how sweet they were, but no one would deliver here at our house.” (Elayne: “So you didn’t have pizza for what, 11 years?”)
“Animals have no pockets. They’re not fake. They’re not trying to put you on. All they want is a little food, a pat on the head, and a little love. That’s it. They’re not trying to cheat you. They’re not trying to hide something, because the only thing they’ve got is their feelings. If you make them like you, they’ll like you for the rest of their lives. They’ll forgive you for a lot of stuff. You don’t have to apologize to them, but it’s good to apologize to them, ‘cause they know. They’re your really true friends. And if you want animal friends, please get them from the pound. They appreciate it. A little love, a little food, and you’ve got friends for life.”
Visit www.sidcaesar.com, where you can purchase Sid’s “Buried Treasures Collection” – digitally restored classic comedy from “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour”, as well as Sid’s book, “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter.”
Felice Catena has been a member of the Los Angeles Humane Community and an animal rescuer since 1994. She has a soft spot for silly small dogs and the smell of puppy breath. She thanks Sid, Florence and Michele Caesar for generously sharing their time and humor; and Elayne Boosler for making this interview possible, and for keeping Sid laughing!