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Enter Laughing, Again

As L.A.'s Friars Club celebrates its 50th anniversary, members lovingly recall the bawdy old days. But will young Hollywood embrace its shtick?

September 22, 1996|Claudia Puig | Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

Milton Berle is holding court in the Milton Berle Booth in the Milton Berle Room of the Friars Club. He's reflecting on 50 years with the Beverly Hills organization on the eve of its anniversary bash, reliving the night when vaudevillian Harry Einstein killed, then died.

Einstein--the father of comedian Albert Brooks best known by his stage name, Parkyakarkus--was performing at a 1958 tribute to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

"He'd been sick and a lot of people had said, 'Don't do it,' but he was really the smash hit of the evening," Berle recalls. "He got a standing ovation. As he arrived at the table, he sat down next to me in his wheelchair. They made him stand up and take another bow because the applause was so sustained. As he sat down for the third time, I looked at him and his face was turning colors. I'm sitting to his right. He took a breath and went boom and hit my shoulder, dead. I heard a lot of 'oohs' and 'ahs' from the audience. They guessed what happened. I never saw so many pillboxes thrown out from the audience.

"So I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, take it easy; just a little accident here.' Backstage about eight top physicians were in a tumult, working on him. They used scissors, knives, forks, I don't know, and they tried to revive him and they couldn't. . . . Desi was crying. He was so beside himself, and so was Lucy and so was everybody. He said, 'We're grateful for this wonderful tribute, but we can't go on.' We were all betwixt and between.

"Tony Martin was on the dais, so I told him to sing a song and what do you think he sang? 'There's No Tomorrow.' I went over and grabbed him by his coat and said 'Tony, sing another song!' "

Welcome to the Friars Club, a place where lore and legend rule.

And who better than Berle, legend incarnate, to assume the role of ringleader?

Berle became a member of the Friars Club in New York in 1926, after sneaking in to have lunch at an underage 12 in 1920 at the behest of Eddie Cantor, who suggested that he dress up in long pants and a fake mustache and muscle his way in. Berle did, sitting at a table with Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan.

These days when the 88-year-old comedian--the club's ceremonial head for 23 years--walks into the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, the entire place seems to rise in greeting, primed for laughter and good-natured insults.

"Hello, Mr. Berle, you were terrific on television the other night," a club member tells the comic regarding his appearance on the Emmy Awards telecast. "You were never better."

"As long as you don't say, 'You'll never be better,' " Berle fires back.

Berle's official role at the fraternal organization established by entertainers is "abbot emeritus," having passed along his abbot title three years ago to Steve Allen, a fitting progression considering that Berle, as a teenage vaudevillian, was Allen's baby-sitter.

"And I don't think I ever got paid either," Berle jokes.

The one-liners reverberate off the walls of the club's restaurant. Even members who are not entertainers by profession indulge in merciless banter.

Besides telling jokes, Friars Club members also host celebrity "roasts" famous for their off-color humor and all-male guest lists. Some of the older members pass the time by playing cards while younger members go to the club to network. The club also hosts "smokers"--cigar smokers' fests drawing a wide spectrum of ages.

The club's glory days are recorded in photographs displayed throughout the three-story building. There's Frank Sinatra donning an apron to serve spaghetti to his cronies. Here's one of George Jessel, Jack Benny and Sinatra singing their hearts out in friars' cassocks.

And there's a story to go with each. The time Phyllis Diller donned men's clothes and a mustache and sneaked into a roast. Or the night Johnny Carson christened an ice bucket at a roast for Buddy Hackett.

"I was on the dais and Johnny was the emcee," recalls comedian and radio personality Gary Owens. "Fifty people to introduce takes a long time. . . . Nature called. I was seated behind him, about maybe 20 feet from him. Stanley Kramer and Roman Gabriel and I were seated together. Johnny popped under the dais so nobody could actually see him, but we saw him zip up afterward. It took a few seconds, then it started going around the room what Johnny was doing and he got a standing ovation."

Things have been toned down in recent years.

On a night not long ago the club went so far as to include a table of retired Catholic priests.

"It's not as wild as ever," Allen says. "Though it's assumed it will be an evening of vulgar humor, the average Friars roast is something you could bring your mother to without her being unduly affected."

Its origins, though, were anything but tame.

The West Coast club's founding involves some of that era's most illustrious names. As the story goes, one August night in 1946, Jack Benny, George Burns and Jessel found themselves with no place to go after a short-lived boxing match at the Hollywood Legion Stadium.

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