Sid Caesar, the pioneer of television sketch comedy who died on Feb. 12 at home in Beverly Hills, grew up in a Yiddish speaking home in Yonkers. He lived above the family diner, the St. Clair Buffet, that catered to the European immigrant workers from a nearby hat factory. His Russian-born mother Ida held forth at the cash register; his three older brothers also helped out.
Sid evolved his hilarious double talk routine by mimicking the accents of the German, Italian, Greek and Polish customers. He’d pick up exotic phrases from these ethnic people who delighted in teasing him. Everyone had a hearty laugh with the five-year-old kid. Little Caesar suddenly found himself center stage.
When Sid was nine his Polish-born father Max said, “Sidney, you’re going to be different. I want you to play the saxophone.”
“Because somebody left one here.”
While waiting the required six months to join the musicians union Local 802 in Manhattan so he could work in bands, Caesar took a job as doorman at the Capitol Theatre. The previous guy quit and Caesar was the only one who fit his coat.
Sid the saxophonist played in several bands in Manhattan and in the Catskills until World War II interrupted his budding career. He enlisted and got lucky, appearing in the Coast Guard hit revue, “Tars and Spars,” which toured the country and became a movie in 1946.
After the spectacular success in the 1950s with “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” both on NBC, the prince of television’s Golden Age plunged into the abyss of a 20-year blackout. The Caesar salad days came crashing down in a total emotional and physical collapse. He endured a life-threatening dependency on drink and drugs. “I didn’t unwind,” he said. “I unraveled.”
Caesar recounted his early years when I visited him at his fabulous home in Beverly Hills for my first book, “The Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame,” in the late ‘80s.
He told me how he went to cheder for eight years after school—and learned nothing. He said he studied his haftorah for his bar mitzvah phonetically. “I don’t know what I was talking about. Nobody ever explained it.”
He recalled how “the fellow sat in the front with a stick and a schmaltz sandwich with a piece of herring, and that was it. ‘You’ll read next. You’ll be next. You’ll go.’ That was going to cheder. That was teaching. So you grow up and say enough. “
If that turned him off to a large degree, he still absorbed something in his comprehension of life and the universe. “I believe there are some very wise things in the Torah—they argue back and forth. I have nothing against religion. I believe there is something, an energy, a force.”
Caesar had two daughters, Michele and Karen, and a son Richard. He made sure his son the doctor had a bar mitzvah. “As for religion, it’s up to him,” Caesar said.
Last time I saw Sid Caesar, he was being honored at the Third Annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor, sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, in 2000 at the Pierre Hotel.
Larry Gelbart, one of the writers on “Caesar’s Hour,” admitted he’s also not much of a Jew “except those times I got beat up for being one.”
Mel Brooks, a writer on “Your Show of Shows” who presented the award, cracked, “I’m not here to bury Caesar, I’m here to praise him.”