Kismet, Shismet … Just Listen.
September 13th, 2013 · No Comments · Blog
Kismet, Shismet … Just Listen
by Michael Rakosi
“There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens its self up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.” -
“Field of Dreams” – Screenplay by Phil Alden Robinson
In 1980, I received a check from Warner Brothers in the amount of $180. … made out to Mel Brooks.
I have been in the real estate business since 1967, as a lender, landlord, developer and broker. I have made a lot of money, lost it all and regained it. I have owned a hospital, banks, movie theaters, the famed Fillmore East and dozens of other properties, but being funny is my raison d’etre.
My interest in comedy began in my mid-teens. I listened to comedy albums over and over again. First, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen … and later, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Then, in 1965, I discovered Don Rickles. I was in heaven.
When “The Producers” came out, (Still my favorite movie, by the way), I bought the dialogue-filled Soundtrack album and committed it to memory, as I had with all my other comedy albums. So you can understand that by 1980, when I mistakenly received that check in the mail, I was already very close to being a Mel Brooks groupie.
When I called Warner Brothers and asked them what to do, they said, “Don’t send it back, we’ll issue another”, so I put it in my desk drawer and forgot about it.
Fast forward to 1995 … I was walking on the 20th Century Fox lot with a friend who worked there, and I spotted Mel Brooks, and like the big sloppy fan that I was, and still am, ran over to him. He was warm, friendly, gregarious and welcoming. I told him about the check and asked what HE thought I should do. He looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t cash it.”
I laughed. He smiled. I was thrilled.
In 2001, I saw one of the last previews before the opening of the musical of “The Producers” on Broadway. The word of mouth on the show was already off the charts, and after the show, I saw Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, walking along West 44th Street. I smiled … but let them escape without them having to interact with me. A few years later, they weren’t so lucky. Mel and his beloved Annie had dinner two tables away from me at an Italian restaurant on Second Ave.
Now, before I continue, you should know that my parents are buried in Knollwood Park, a small cemetery on the Brooklyn-Queens border. It probably holds about 10,000 graves (that’s small by NYC standards) and having been there for a number of other funerals, I was told that Mel’s parents were also buried there.
Finding my parent’s graves is always a bit of challenge and I often lose my way. On one of these occasions, I found that Mel’s parents, the Kaminsky’s were, in fact, buried right behind mine. Each time I visit, after I put a stone on my parents’ headstone, I do the same for Mel’s parents.
Now, do all these odd coincidences mean anything?
I don’t think so. I am not a believer in kismet or portents or talismans or signs … however …
Three different times after that, I had dinner right next to Mel at the Peking Duck House in Chinatown. At first I engaged him with a small amount of genial chit-chat, but by the third time, we were talking like best buddies; about the old times, our parents and our parents’ cemetery. At first, he didn’t believe me, but when I named the cemetery as Knollwood Park, his eyes welled up.
Now, you must understand that I am NOT a shy guy. I am verbal and aggressive … If I was a dinosaur, I’d be a T. Rex. So I am not exactly given to subtlety. Yet, I never once mentioned to Mel that I was doing stand-up for what will soon be 8 years, that “The Producers” is my favorite movie of all time and that I know the 2000 year old man routines by heart or even that I have an internet talk show for men entitled “That Show with Michael Rakosi” (It’s great. Google it.) No, we were just two guys chatting.
When he was about to leave, Mel walked over to my table, put his hands on my shoulders, and said to everyone in the restaurant, “This is one big ganze Jew.”
That remains my all time favorite compliment.
Jeff Greene, a very close friend of mine from New York that now lives in L.A., called me and asked me to speak with a friend of his about a real estate project. His friend turned out to be Fred Tarter, a clearly prosperous and joyful man, who is a professional investor. Somehow, the conversation got around to my standup comedy, and he tells me that he shares a grand-son with Mel Brooks. Mel is his “mekhutn”, a Yiddish word meaning his daughter’s father-in-law. Suddenly things started getting eerie. I thought I heard a voice whisper, “Next Stop, Willoughby”, from an old episode of “The Twilight Zone”, and Rod Serling began intoning, “You are traveling through another dimension; a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind …”
There is an old joke of a man caught in a rising flood after days and days of torrential rains. He refuses all aid and rescue, waiting he says for a sign from the Lord, telling him what he should do with his life. The water rises over the first and then the second floor of his home, he is now sitting on the peak of his roof. Just then a Red-Cross helicopter appears over his home, and sends down a ladder. He refuses help and puts up a poster which says “I am waiting for a sign from the Lord”…
The helicopter retreats and the man implores the heavens, “Lord send me a sign”. Just then a booming voice calls out with biblical thunder, “Who the hell do you think sent the helicopter?!”
Sometimes you’ve just got to listen.
Joe Frazier – R.I.P.
November 8th, 2011 · No Comments · Blog
R.I.P. Joe Frazier. In 1996, Joe Frazier published his autobiography “Smokin’ Joe”, with my good friend and award-winning writer, Phil Berger. What a story! Frazier, born 1 of 13 children made his way from the rural South and became champion of the world. We held the launch party for the book at an eatery in my building. Gerry Cooney, Jose Torres all came to celebrate with Frazier, this big mountain of a man in his signature Stetson. It was a great party, a night to remember. First Berger and now Frazier have lost battles with cancer and both were champs who went out punching. I’m honored to have known them.
October 11th, 2011 · No Comments · Blog
“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” was a 24 year old Pantene commercial featuring Kelly LeBrock that has somehow resounded over the decades.
Don’t hate Denise Grayson because she followed her muse, gave up an amazing career, giant salary, perks and respect to become another auditioner who thinks they can perform, paint, write, dance, (fill in your own choice), and submarines their education, lifestyle and their personal life to take on the Sisyphean task of conquering Show Business.
Hate Denise Grayson when your husband, wife, sister, brother, (fill in your own relative), decides to chuck it all because of Denise Grayson. THAT is a good reason to hate.
Denise did all the things we want from our children. Top of her class in high school, graduated in 15 minutes from college, entered Law School at 19, while remaining respectful, sharp and beautiful, with 20 foot white teeth, good for advertising.
It started off well enough; an only child of parents (both teachers), her father, a pro musician, who picks up every instrument like people pick up salted peanuts. His visage suggests a) the head of the Teamsters or, b) at the very least, a shop steward, who speaks as if he is a Don at Cambridge. Her mother is soft spoken, a reader, semi-intellectual, and an amateur painter of high quality. These are the real culprits. They encouraged and allowed Denise to ‘follow her bliss’.
From struggling in the vineyards of auditioning, (where there are truly grapes of wrath), Denise lands a role in a spectacular, game-changing movie, “The Social Network”. And who, after six auditions, does she play, but an Intellectual Property lawyer, which is exactly what she was previously, in real life. (Hollywood, I assure you, is nothing like ‘real life’.)
Big names were rejected for the role. For the excoriation of Mark Zuckerberg (Played by Jesse Eisenberg), with words in staccato rhythm from the magic keyboard of Aaron Sorkin, Denise plays the part to a ‘T’, bringing life to the writer’s words, in a setting that was her own. With her character, Gretchen’s questions, the movie rotates from scene to scene. She is Denise, well-oiled, that makes the story go. The authenticity of the deposition scenes are because Denise IS that person.
Imagine Hollywood doing something so real. What will we have next? A fantasy movie about a Black President? Now the audition line has ended. Denise has already filmed a pilot for a sitcom, has another movie in the can, and Producers know her name and face.
Such is the life of Denise Grayson today, red carpet, Academy Awards and more.
In driving: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. In Life, if success appears more probable than it is, IT IS NOT. Blame Denise Grayson.
The Stuffed Bear
A few years ago, I saw this Giant cream-colored Polar Bear in Paris.
It was about 5 and a half feet tall, thick with big glass brown eyes, leather nose, paws and ears. I told the saleslady, I was buying it for a woman. (That was a big lie. It was for me. So what?) She said, instead of sending it, I should buy a coach seat for it and take it with me. I said, “Are you nuts? Send it.”
A few weeks later, I’m back in New York, and I get a call from Customs … at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris. (I swear the following dialogue is verbatim.)
(French accent) “What is in ze box, Monsieur?”
“A stuffed animal, sir.”
(French accent) “What kind, Monsieur?”
“A bear … a Polar bear.”
(French accent) “You may not take stuffed animals out of France, Monsieur, we consider zem national treasures, Monsieur.”
“He’s not alive.”
(French accent) “Of course, Monsieur, he is stuffed.”
“He’s a stuffed animal, a toy, a child’s present.”
(French accent) “We don’t consider a stuffed animal from France to be a child’s present.”
“Wait a minute. You understand, he was never alive.”
(French accent) “Maybe not to you, Monsieur.”
“He has no bones!”
(French accent) “Not anymore, Monsieur.”
“I bought him from this lady on the Champs D’Elysee … she wanted me to take him home with me.”
(French accent) “You Americans encourage French people to be bad in the name of commerce.”
At this point, I was seething, and I was about to say, “Look you Frog, your women have small breasts, nobody over there showers, you always need rescuing, you’re afraid of Germans, and you all eat snails.” But, instead, I said, “You’re right. The box is mis-labeled. It’s a gift … for Jerry Lewis.”
There was a pause.
(French accent) “Why didn’t you say so, Monsieur. The package will be sent immediately.”
“The Good Humor Man Always Rings Twice.”
May 20th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Blog
“The Good Humor Man Always Rings Twice.”
“Baby Boomers” is a nice appellation, I guess, for my people, generally thought of as those born between August ’46 and December ’63. Nice is nice, but it’s not the “Greatest generation”, or “Gen X” (forceful and mysterious). It doesn’t seem weird or peculiar that our generation fought and protested the same war, brought down a President, brought forth rock n’ roll and widespread drug use, (sometimes intertwined), integration, women’s rights, health awareness and gave birth to the speak-your-own-mind-endlessly era, which were aided by the personal computer, cellphones and all the “I” things, which resulted in the interconnectivity of everyone, everywhere.
Toasted Almond ice cream bars, for example, have their own Facebook page. That’s right, the one flavor that means only Good Humor. Not Coconut or Chocolate Chip Candy, (my personal favorite), not Strawberry Shortcake or Chocolate Eclair. Only Toasted Almond makes you think only of Good Humor. Cold, delicious and endlessly surprising. The Good Humor man or woman (Yes, there were women, my friend Sandy was one), arrived at approximately the same time every day, and caused screaming. “Dad, I need a quarter! A Dime!” “What does everyone want?!” My nephew Mark used to cry every time he heard the bells, because having had ice cream twice that day already, his mother would think three was ‘overload’ and say no. Anticipating this, he would start to weep upon hearing the bells.
I was a Good Humor man for one Summer in the late ‘60’s. It taught me kindness, business, empathy and more. I was a relief driver and got seven dollars for loading a truck and two dollars for showing up when not needed. I got twenty five percent of what I sold, and a bonus of 8% for everything I sold over $100. (That was called “bageling”)
The best thing about the job was feeling as if you were bringing a spark of joy into people’s otherwise mundane lives. A moment of pleasure on a hot Summer’s afternoon or early evening.
Bringing joy is a really nice thing. Good Humor is Hnot actually humor, but it is good. Very few jobs share those characteristics, except maybe standup comedy.
Maybe “Toasted Almond” is a good name for our generation. Many of us were toasted a good deal of the time, and all but a few of us were ‘nutty,’ but I think it would be a hard sell.
By the way, my nephew Mark, grew up and made a lot of money, and bought a Good Humor truck to put on his estate. Now he makes his own kids cry.
My generation has been one of myriad opportunities and that damned word, “choice” again. But this generation goes from the middle of Truman to the beginning of Johnson, and the pressures of all those years was not the same.
Many of the generation chose to serve, some to flee in protest, some to become teachers, some to stay in school ad infinitum. Clinton and George W. Bush are among us, as are Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Barack Obama is one of us, Michelle Obama is an honorary member. George Carlin and Robert Klein are not Boomers. None of the Beatles or Rolling Stones are, nor The Beach Boys (except for the late Carl Wilson.) And the entire 2008 Republican Presidential ticket missed it from both ends. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are, but none of the people behind Facebook are.
Baby Boomers have exercised, vegan-ized, self-actualized and botox-ed, in a defiance of age, both physically and metaphorically, for so long, that first careers, and often second, have come and gone, and we are still rarin’ to go.
We’ve had second families and second careers. Lifepaths that were detoured by marriage, wars, babies, have often sprung to life after we felt our familial and career responsibilities had ebbed or ceased. Little sprouts and buds of new ventures sprung through crowded sidewalks as this generation, which admired Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Gerry Rubin, William Westmoreland and Richard Nixon (By the way, none members), seeks another sense of fulfillment without the Peter Max covered VW bus. (Not a member either)
Our generation thought that age and infirmity would never touch us, (some of us were actually glowing), and to quote Lucille Lortel, “Age is just a number, and mine is unlisted.”
But enough with the overview. Everyone has heard these names in whatever juxtaposition. Specifics interest us. Hence, the birth of “Ice Road Truckers.”
When one is young, impressionable, impressed and driven, when your parents are attorneys, one cannot decide to be a carny, a clown, or a denizen of late night comedy clubs with drinks and drugs and smokes and seedy characters, (are there still such a thing as seedy characters?)
My parents, being who they were, had expectations for this investment of love, time, money and their son. My college years were at best, spotty, and I went into the Real Estate business, barely surviving at first, but then achieving greater and greater success.
Success often breeds success, (as does its often abused stepbrother, failure), but I did very well, with all the bells and whistles; the chauffeured car, the art collection, the giant New York City apartment, but saw it all go away in the early nineties like a tsunami of liquid plumber.
My creativity, long in hibernation, came back to the fore during therapy, and I came up with the idea for a talk show; sort of a real life therapy with the viewer as voyeur.
My partner, Anita and I shopped it, and were told by a leading agency, “We don’t want anything this good.” “You need a comedian or celebrity to host.”
Rising to the challenge of always being the funniest, and I mean that without equivocation; Someone suggested that I am the bastard child of Dr. Phil and Don Rickles.
Knowing that both my metaphorical parents were bald deterred me not, and I took a standup comedy writing class given by one D.F. Sweedler. The graduation was an appearance at the famed Comic Strip Live in Manhattan.
It was overwhelmingly exciting, without the nerves. (When you lose all your money, few things make you nervous again.) It was also great, unreal, and a high unlike any other.
That was over 300 appearances ago (at the Comic Strip alone), and gigs around the country, in L.A., Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, etc.
It has, in essence, given birth to “That Show with Michael Rakosi”, which has been thrilling in execution, acceptance and acclaim, a mighty trio.
We have male boomers speaking about their lives. Our only rule is, “No Sports and no politics.” It is touching, warm, informative and funny. Women can’t believe it. I can barely believe it myself.
Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home”, but you can certainly come out for the second act.
The Good Humor man always rings twice.
April 29th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Blog
Monday, was an unusual and special day. My friend Rabbi Robert Levine of Rodeph Sholom was being honored as man of the year, or because it is Naral, person of the year for his endless support of Women’s productive rights. The event was held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Time-Warner Center on Columbus Circle. I was seated with Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Institue of Religion, his wife, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice-President of the New York Board of Rabbis, Cantor Rebecca Garfein, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow and Dr. Reverend James A. Forbes Jr. of Riverside Church. So it was me, four Rabbis, a Reverend and a Cantor. “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong.” Let me give you an idea; the devil was about to join me at my table, saw who I was sitting with, and fainted. So much for a good time, though the clergy can certainly tell a great story.
The luncheon was filled with many politicos and other stars in the celebrity firmament. Mayor Bloomberg spoke first and said that he had met Rabbi Levine in the men’s room, now first of all Robert spends a lot of time in the men’s room, (no perversion implied), and as far as I am concerned, the Republicans are not the only ones who can spend their time meeting and greeting in the men’s room, the Democrats can also. He spoke of N.Y. defense of women’s health care rights and the funding thereof. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand spoke next and said she met one of the other leaders in the ladies room, being that women had the same rights as men and laugher ensued.
Those who knew, spoke of and asked questions about, www.thatshowwithmichaelrakosi.com and the forthcoming episodes and which of the cast members they like and felt was memorable. I was taken happily aback by what people remembered, and how much they cared.
Isaac Mizrahi the famed designer was next and was funny and charming, (I hate when others are funny). He was rousing and full of “piss and vinegar” and raised much more money for Naral with his speech. He and I were the only men there who were not wearing a tie. He was not, as claimed, wearing a giant Target t-shirt underneath his leisure suit. In any case, he was excellent.
After a number of speeches by the leaders of Naral, came Tina Brown, editor, literati, and all around famous person, who spoke brilliantly, expanding the issue of women and their rights all around the world. She seems to have intimate knowledge and inside “poop” of the great and the near great. In a hard spot, without her regular audience, she was brilliant. I congratulated her after the speech and she was both beautiful and gracious. We spoke for a moment about how her mother was almost Maureen O’Hara, and she was startled that anyone knew that. She is in charge of www.theDailyBeast.com and I have read it since Monday. It is both cutting edge and informative, but after all, what else would you expect from “The Master”. She asked who I was, and I gave her a card from the show. I hope her phone calls cease.
Robert Levine was up next and though I have seen him speak many times before , he was beyond masterful. The “right wing” of our country has never encountered such a brilliant, thoughtful attack on their opposition to the rights of women and their unborn fetus. He quoted scripture and pointed out the bible’s only mention of abortion. He kept a powerful and intellectual subject moving with different tempos and references both personal and philosophical. Without his natural humor, (and Robert is funny, I hate to say that), he kept us enthralled at his thoughtfulness and powerful oratory. He truly was second to none.
Did I mention that I gave out a lot cards for www.thatshowwithmichaelrakosi.com and that people promised to watch? I hope you all enjoy the incredible story of Christopher Borg beginning Thursday, and then will watch all of the other 6 episodes over again.