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National Perspective | AMERICAN ALBUM

Real Kramer travels down hallway to success

A former comic who inspired a character on TV's 'Seinfeld' is now becoming a viable tourist draw.

December 26, 1996|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — OK, trivia fans: What do the Empire State Building, Broadway, the Statue of Liberty and Kenny Kramer have in common?

Give up?

In New York, they are all tourist attractions.

In the case of Kramer, it's the proximity theory of success. Sometimes, you can make a very good living just by living across the hall.

But more about riches through cozy real estate later.

Millions of TV viewers around the world know Kramer--the affable, lanky bachelor with a scheme each show who bursts through the door of Jerry Seinfeld's apartment each week.

That Kramer is based on the life of a real Kramer--Kenny Kramer, a 52-year-old former stand-up comic and jewelry manufacturer who, without an ounce of trepidation, launched a reality tour in Manhattan based on the hit sitcom and his own unique lifestyle.

Fueled by "Seinfeld" fever, and the real Kramer's penchant for publicity, the tour in just 11 months has become a hit at the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"It was insane how the world responded to the fact there was a real Kramer," said Kramer, the tour entrepreneur. "Phones were ringing off the wall. The fact I thought up this scheme is very Kramer, if I say so myself."

Not only is Kramer riding the "Seinfeld" wave (it's the No. 1-rated show in the country), he also is benefiting from New York's brighter image in out-of-town eyes.

A sharp drop in crime, the Yankees' World Series win, South America's strong economy and other factors have helped lure visitors. More than 25,447,000 people--a record--traveled to the city in 1996.

Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer (played on TV by the actor Michael Richards) are familiar figures overseas, where "Seinfeld" is syndicated. Many people who take Kramer's tour are foreign fans.

"People love 'Seinfeld,' " said Shane Armstrong, 26, a copywriter from Brisbane, Australia. "Angst is international."

In January, just before the tour started, Bobby Allen Brooks--the real Kramer's partner--was nervous.

"Bobby, I am the real Kramer. I don't have to do an act. I am going to do myself," Kramer said. "I am going to be in the moment."

Clearly, this is Kramer's moment.

"Only in America, I'm famous because I lived across the hall from a guy who had talent," he told tour members before they boarded a bus to view such "Seinfeld" landmarks as the restaurant on upper Broadway that is replicated in the series.

The talented tenant who was Kramer's neighbor was Larry David, who created the sitcom with Jerry Seinfeld.

Seinfeld already was successful, having appeared on the "Tonight Show" and David Letterman. David was less successful. Like a traveling salesman schlepping a suitcase, David carried neurosis on stage with him. Anxiety, not dust balls, resided under his bed.

David took risks. But in the face of rejection, he could explode. Other comics watched whenever he went on stage, not knowing whether they would witness a mega-hit or a meltdown.

One night, David was heckled by a cute girl, Kramer told the tour. The audience sided with the girl. Finally, standing in a puddle of humiliation, David confronted his tormentor. "You know the worst part about this is I would still date you," David said.

"Jerry idolized Larry," Kramer explained.

After arranging to meet in a comedy club, Seinfeld and David took a walk, winding up in the cereal aisle of a supermarket. They started making little jokes about cereal.

"Larry turns to Jerry and says, 'Look what we're doing in here. We're making jokes about nothing. Let's do a whole show like that,' " Kramer related.

*

They started writing the pilot in David's apartment. Kramer, a close friend of David's--they even shared the same pair of good black pants--kept popping in. It seemed to Seinfeld that across the hall in Kramer's apartment, a party was always in progress.

"Beautiful women were going into the apartment. Land mammals were going into the apartment right across the hall," Brooks told the tour. "Jerry could not believe the scene."

Kramer became a character in the TV show.

"What's the difference between Kramer and the Hezbollah?" Brooks asked, referring to Kramer, the party animal turned tour director. "The answer is the Hezbollah has to actually leave their apartments to get hostages."

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