James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn.
The Kaminskis named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. The elder James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.
The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, named Buddy Rich. By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.
Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion of the 78th Infantry Division, in the European theater. There, he served through the end of the war.
He and his unit worked to find and defuse explosives, though on several occasions, the 1104th had to drop its tools and fight as Infantry.
At one point, Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. The Americans were so close they could hear German soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, crooning out an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform, in black face: “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”. After he was done, polite applause could be heard, drifting across the river. I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried singing to their Nazi adversaries, during World War II. The ones who actually pulled it off, must number precisely, one.
Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.
Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.
Soon he was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC program “The Admiral Broadway Review”.
In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to create a play so awful that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with investors’ money. The problems started, when the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”. Even before the time when taking offense became an industry, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks who could have gotten away with that one.
There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. Three of his movies made the American Film Institute’s top 100 list of comedy films. From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).
“As long as the world is turning and spinning”, Brooks says, “we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes”.
Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez. As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT”, in history.
Two years ago, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three-day production of “Young Frankenstein”. Let me know if you can think of another 90-year-old guy, who remains that current. I can’t think of one.
“Well, just being stupid and politically incorrect doesn’t work. You can be politically incorrect if you’re smart”.