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The Variety Arts Library Doubles as an Old Jokes Home

JACK SMITH

August 08, 1991|JACK SMITH

Milt Larsen, proprietor of Hollywood's Magic Castle, is a man who likes a joke. He has tens of thousands of them on file in the basement of the old chateau on a hill above Franklin Avenue.

They are part of the Society for the Preservation of Variety Arts library that he moved from the old theater building, at Olympic and Figueroa, when his Variety Arts Center was forced to close on New Year's Eve, 1988.

Mostly stuffed into cardboard boxes, the unique collection now resides in several basement rooms of the castle, sharing space with Larsen's collection of the magic arts.

The librarian, Dick Mentzer, works patiently in the tomb-like rooms to make order out of chaos, organizing thousands of books on the variety arts and finding places for such unlikely mementoes as hats that once belonged to Robert Benchley, Adolph Menjou, Walter Winchell, Gene Fowler, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

In a carton marked "Winchell" is the old gray fedora he wore crushed on his head when he made his "Good Evening, Mr. and Mrs. America" radio broadcasts to the nation. When the lid is lifted from another box, feathers from Hopper's hat pop out like living things.

I found Mentzer alone in the library the other morning, sorting books. It seemed that almost everyone who had ever starred in show business had had a biography or autobiography published. Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Red Skelton, Jack Okie, Fred Allen, Ed Wynn . . .

Recently widowed, Mentzer enjoys working among the dusty memorabilia, nourishing his own memories. "Trouble is," he said, "nobody remembers Milton Berle any more. They don't know who Lunt and Fontaine were. They played the Biltmore so many times."

Nobody remembers the Biltmore either, I thought.

I asked about the joke files. He showed me several banks of steel card files and shelves of bound files. They contained thousands of jokes typed on 3x5-inch cards or 8x10-inch pages, all categorized as animal, doctor, political, sports, marriage, kissing, and boy-and-girl jokes, among many others.

I slid out the first file and pulled out a card under animal jokes. Are you ready?

A woman says a mouse went into her husband's mouth when he was asleep and he swallowed it. A man advises her, "Hold a piece of cheese in front of his mouth and the mouse will come out." Later, the woman is discovered waving a fish in front of her husband's mouth. "I told you to use cheese," the man says, "not a mouse!" The woman says, "Yes, but I have to get the cat out first."

OK. I laughed.

There was a boat file: A passenger runs up to the captain and says, "Is my wife forward?" And the captain replies, "Well, yes, a little."

Most of the jokes were about the war between the sexes. The kissing file was thick:

"He's always out kissing some girl." "I'd like to see him out-kiss me. . . . "

"The way you keep kissing me makes me pant." "The way you pant makes me keep kissing you. . . . "

"What would I have to give you for just one kiss?" "Chloroform. . . ."

"Suppose some real ugly-looking fellow tried to kiss you. Would you object?" "Try me and see. . . ."

"Do you believe in free love?" "Have I ever sent you a bill?"

The library contains scripts of many old radio shows and early television shows. There are eight volumes of Eddie Cantor scripts alone. In one script, Eddie is expecting a reporter from Look magazine to interview him. He tells his emcee, Jimmy Wallington, that his wife, Ida, is out of town, so he asked Central Casting to send him a wife for the interview.

Eddie leaves and the girl from Central Casting shows up. (It's Eddie, of course.) He tells Wallington, "Hello, handsome. I'm the gal they sent over to be Eddie Cantor's wife." "You?" says Wallington. "Miss, you look a little young to be the wife of Eddie Cantor. Are you the oldest girl Central Casting could find?" "No--the bravest" "Well, have a seat, Miss." "Honeysuckle Hanson's muh handle, suh." "You got a mighty nice handle, ma'am, and the rest of your luggage ain't bad, either."

Pretty bad, but hardly worse than today's situation comedies.

In a 76-volume bound file collected by Snag Werris, a radio and TV writer, I found a nude category. And I'll bet that if I looked in the right place I'd have found this one: "Who was that lady I seen you with last night? "That was no lady, that was my wife."

The library will be open to the public, by appointment.

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