BREAKFAST WITH NATTIE
by Henry F. Mazel
I didn’t know him really, but I went to the funeral anyway. It was one of those events where you could say, later on, that you'd been there. A show business era had ended, Maxie Marko, the last of the great vaudevillians, was gone, Maxie's contemporaries had long since passed away – Jolson, Burns and Benny, Fanny Brice, Jessel, Cantor and the rest. Mostly it hits me in the stomach when I realize young people usually never heard of them. Fame, like the way they lived, is pretty much transient. I did get to know some of the best of them, though -- especially Nattie -- but that was later on.
In the Twenties, when they could get bookings in New York, the top vaudevillians were real Broadway hounds, making the rounds at the favored hot spots -- from El Morocco, with its zebra pattern upholstered booths, to breakfast at a bustling Lindy’s, where tourists gobbled up the legendary cheesecake. Vaudevillians, for the most part, really liked to eat. And, yes, they liked to drink, too — but they really did live to entertain.
Not that life was all that glamorous in show business. Sometimes it could be downright dangerous. There was the buck and wing man, Malachy Moore, who got shot in the leg by an irate customer outside the Belasco Theater because he wouldn’t do an encore. Of course, you couldn’t do an encore unless you were next to closing. It was right there in the contract. Moore bought a polished wooden dummy from Eddie Dale and became a ventriloquist so he could sit on a stool during performances. Dale got the dummy back fairly quickly because the act died at the Morosco. But that was life on Broadway.
Years later, when vaudeville itself was dying, talent started moving to California where there was work in pictures and eventually television. That’s where I first met George Burns -- his friends called him Nattie. It was 1956, and I was a kid doing rewrites at Fox. Fox Studios was on Pico Boulevard just across the street from the famous Hillcrest Country Club.
In the 1920s and 30s, most country clubs refused to admit members of the ‘Hebraic persuasion,’ so Jewish performers founded Hillcrest. Not many of them actually played golf, so I guess it must have been the principle of the thing. Ironically, The Hillcrest Country Club was exclusively Jewish -- Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns, Danny Kaye, and the Hollywood moguls Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer were members. Those two studio titans didn’t exactly get along with each other, or anyone else for that matter. One time Mayer punched Sam Goldwyn right in the nose while they were taking a ‘shvitz’ in the steam room. MGM was never the same.
When the Club finally decided to open membership to Gentiles, they didn’t exactly push the envelope. Their first choice was Danny Thomas, a Lebanese Catholic, who looked -- well, very Jewish. I mean they weren’t asking Randolph Scott or Van Johnson or anything.
I used to sneak into Hillcrest almost every morning for breakfast. I loved the heady atmosphere of the Club’s dining room, its high-backed chairs and white linen tablecloths -- and the very odd but delicious feeling that somehow you were still back at the Stage Deli in New York. One Thursday morning, I sat at a small table, settled in and ordered my usual. This particular breakfast turned out to be the best one of my life.
I had a cup of coffee and was about to eat some nice smoked sturgeon and a slice of rye toast. A slender, tanned hand reached in and grabbed a piece of sturgeon. “Hey!” I shouted, turning around. It was George Burns.
“I wanted some of yours,” he said. “You know, the non-members’ food – it always tastes better."
“You're a real comedian.” It was one those quick sarcastic reactions you snap out if you grew up in certain parts of Brooklyn. I should never have said it. I mean I was staring right at George Burns. I felt worse when he took very little notice of it.
“A comedian? No, I'm a straight man, that's why I wanted yours.”
“Mr. Burns, whose breakfast is this?”
“If you were eating it, kiddo, it would be yours . . . I just stopped by to tell
you you’ve got a good agent.”
“What? . . . Mr. Burns, you stopped by to tell me my agent is good? And, uh, how do you know this?”
“Well, for one, apparently he’s booked you into the Hillcrest for breakfast.”
“That’s funny,” I said, and I meant it.
“Thanks, kiddo.” He was staring longingly over my plate. “Oh, and second, Swifty Lazar is my agent, too, so he’s a very good agent. And third, he sent me over some of your material.”
“How was the third?” I asked, trying to appear as blasé as possible, while at the same time attempting to ward off a colossal stroke.
“I’m here, aren’t I? I could use another joke writer. See, that way when
Groucho insults me I can tell him, ‘You wouldn’t talk that way about me if my
new writer was around.’”
“Are you hiring me Mr. Burns?”
“You know, if you don’t mind maybe I could have another small piece of the sturgeon there? Kiddo, hire is kind of a strong word; but sure, think about it.” He took a fair sized bite of sturgeon and grabbed some toast while he was at it.
His mouth half-full, he said, “Let me tell you something: It takes all types to make people laugh. See, for instance, a comedian says funny things, and a comic says things funny. And like I said, I'm a straight man – you’re a joke writer. And that's how it goes.” Then he went directly after another piece of the mostly polished off smoked fish.
Well, I did say it was the best breakfast of my life, not the biggest. And I did think about his offer. How thoughtfully is open to question since I gave him my answer just as he was finishing off the rest of my plate.
“Mr. Burns you’ve got yourself a new writer if you want one.” I said, and grabbed his hand and shook it. . . . after that, I always called him Nattie.
Bio: Henry F. Mazel has written for The New York Times, published a novel, Murderously Incorrect, as well as having written numerous stories and articles. His play, Life and Other Games of Chance was produced on Theatre Row in New York City. He is a member of the Writers Guild of America and The Mystery Writers of America. He also teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York.
Will Trade Coffee...
by Carolyn Wolfe
Hung in my kitchen, centrally located, is a 1940's style sign picturing a bright red coffee pot, white coffee cup and bold black lettering that says " Will Trade Coffee for Gossip."
This sign is an open declaration to an inner truth that almost every woman knows:coffee and gossip-a delicious combination!
Taking for granted that women like to talk about men, add a good latte' and you will uncover many of the most profound truths known to man (or woman). The coffee shop has taken the place of the barroom for a place to meet, greet and compete-who can add the most flavors, spices, add-ons and combinations in their caffeine?
Did you know that you can actually tell the tone of the conversation from the coffee that was ordered? Is it strong, spicy, a double? Must be man trouble! Is it sweet, light and creamy? Must be something romantic is brewing (pun intended).
The sheer joy of coffee and female companionship keeps us coming back time after time.
You must admit, there is something entirely feminine about the coffee shop that reminds us of our roots. The intimacy of the kitchen atmosphere, complete with the brewing coffee, pastries and spices mingling in the air, is the perfect place for a homey chat about men, kids, relationships, troubles and of course men!
Coffee shops have a way of drawing people together. Think of the Paris cafe' society where all the artisitc elite met and made history! Here we have the coffee society, where women meet to gossip, commiserate, or celebrate love, life and the pursuit of a good cappuccino!
Now I know there are some of you out there that think I have forgotten the other sex, and that they too like a good cup of Joe! Not at all, as a matter of fact, my favorite sitcom, "Frasier" had the two main characters, the brothers, often meeting at a local coffee shop and sharing many touching moments over their unique coffee selections.
However, this little article is about women, coffee and gossip! If any of you men would like to write an article about your coffee shop experiences, I would love to read all about it.
I would then have to share my conclusions over a double-iced vanilla latte', with my girlfriends of course! See you at the coffee bar!
*This was first published in the Piece of Mind section of the Winchester Star on May 4, 2005.
Bio: Carolyn Wolfe is a published poet/writer whose book "When The Moon Speaks" was published in 2007. She has a children's book series, The Unhappy Little Dragon currently under consideration for publication. Her work has been published in "Little" and "Literary" Magazines and she currently resides in the Winchester, VA with her husband Scott and many animal companions.