'Catskills' comics share mountains of laughter

February 28, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

When "Catskills on Broadway" was still on Broadway, an unexpected guest dropped in one night.

"This is the best timing story!" roars Freddie Roman, the borscht belt comic who originated the idea for the hit revue, which is currently on tour with its quartet of New York stars -- Dick Capri, Mal Z. Lawrence, Louise DuArt, and, of course, Roman himself. It begins a one-week run at the Lyric Opera House on Tuesday.

"A pigeon got into the theater," Capri interjects -- more out of enthusiasm than an attempt to steal Roman's punch line.

Undaunted, Roman continues, "When I was on stage to open the show, I saw something drop past my face. Louise DuArt comes on, and the pigeon whacks her right on the head. Dick goes on. Nothing happens to him. Then Mal Z. Lawrence, the pigeon got him right on the lapel. Then 10 minutes later, the pigeon got him on the other lapel. We came out for the finale. We came out with umbrellas."

"Mal said, 'I'm glad elephants can't fly,' " adds Capri.

Though Roman and Capri share the stage nightly, when this interview took place, they were not only in separate rooms, they were in separate cities. A conference call originating in Baltimore linked Roman at his apartment in Boynton Beach, Fla., with Capri at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, the third stop in a tour that also includes Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and eventually London.

It was Roman and Capri's first conference-call interview, and despite the occasional irresistible urge to jump on each other's punch lines, they were exceedingly polite -- almost deferential toward each other.

This is hardly surprising since Roman and Capri have been friends for almost 30 years.

They were introduced by their mutual manager and subsequently played some of the same hotels in the Catskill Mountains, opening for some of the same stars, including Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. Capri kids that Roman deserves the Nobel Prize for keeping peace between comedians, but Roman insists any competition between the pair is friendly.

And while the names Roman and Capri might appear to suggest Italian locales, only Capri is of Italian ancestry. Roman, whose legal name is Kirschenbaum, is Jewish, like most of the Catskills' clientele in its heyday, as well as most of the comics who got their start there, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar.

As it happens, "Catskills on Broadway" is half Jewish (Roman and Lawrence), and half Italian (Capri and DuArt). That brings up the question of the difference between Jewish and Italian humor.

Roman and Capri approach this subject very tentatively. The problem is that analyzing comedy is a tricky, if not dangerous, business. Instead, they each offer a sample joke.

Capri: "We were Catholic. We were kind of liberal. We had a cross on the wall, but nobody was on it."

Roman: "I do the Jewish toast, which is 'l'chaim,' and I tell them that 'l'chaim' means 'life,' and I have a cousin who's serving l'chaim now in San Quentin."

Families, religion and especially religious holidays, self-deprecation, and, oh yes, food. These are staples of both brands of comedy, which turn out to be more alike than different, say Roman and Capri. "Basically both ethnic groups are very close, family-oriented and the basic interests, very similar," Roman explains.

However, Capri, points out, though there may not be a difference in substance, there is a difference in style.

"For a Jewish audience, I do the same material that I do all over the country. There's just a certain rhythm you have to have, a certain energy. . . . When I first went to the Catskills, I didn't have the rhythm," he says. "It's an energy level you have to work, not necessarily Jewish material. It's a way of working."

"Thank you, Dick," Roman pipes up. "I'm glad I learned something."

Roman dreamed up "Catskills on Broadway" before Jackie Mason showed up on the Great White Way. But, he explains, "I really got nowhere with it because people said this is not going to be viable on Broadway. Then as soon as he opened, it brought so much credibility to the idea, we did it as a one-nighter and seven weeks later we opened on Broadway."

Suddenly they were stars -- after toiling away for decades in the Catskills, or as opening acts on the road. (Both performers have appeared repeatedly in the Baltimore area; Roman remembers opening for Gary Puckett & the Union Gap at the former Club Venus in Parkville, and Capri's credits include Blaze Starr's 2 O'Clock Club in the 1950s.)

Actually, Capri came to the Catskills a bit late. The son of a grocer from Reading, Pa., he appeared at Playboy clubs and various other clubs around the country before going to the Catskills in the late 1960s and 1970s. Incidentally, he also changed his name -- from Crupi. And though he won't give his age, Roman is quick to say, "He's older than I am, and I'm 55."

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