American comedian Mel Brooks, Italy, 1994. Photo: Rino Petrosino/Mondadori/Getty Images
> First Person
All About Me!
Since Mel Brooks is 95, the entertainment legend's memoir is a historical record of American comedy. In this excerpt, he makes a fated decision to go into show business when he was nine. / BY Susan Grimbly / December 8th, 2021
There is nothing like Borscht Belt humour, and even though Mel Brooks honed his craft at the Catskill Mountain resorts frequented by Jewish patrons, he distinguishes his rapid-fire, impish style by calling it “New York” humour. In his memoir, the gifted 95-year-old comic has decided to write everything down – everything! – with lots of exclamation marks. He covers his sunny, if poor, Brooklyn upbringing, his stint in the U.S. Army as a radio operator during the Second World War, meeting the love of his life, actress Anne Bancroft, in 1961, and his journey to the Big Time! Whether it was theatre (The Producers), records (The 2000 Year Old Man with Carl Reiner), movies (Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs) or TV (Get Smart), he worked with the crème de la crème of American comedy. This book proves Mel Brooks can do anything. Anything! (And he’s got the EGOTs to prove it.) In the following excerpt, he talks about how he made a fated decision to go into show business.
In 1935 I was nine years old. I was outside one day throwing a ball against the front stoop of my tenement when my uncle Joe came by and said, “Mel, I’ve got two free tickets to a Saturday matinee of a Broadway musical called Anything Goes. Would you like to come with me?”
I shouted, “OH YES!” so loudly that I think I heard windows opening all up and down the street to find out what was going on. Uncle Joe knew how much I loved music because every time he came into our apartment he saw me glued to our little Philco radio listening to the songs of the day. Uncle Joe was another one of my favorite uncles, and the only uncle on my mom’s side of the family. Everybody else was an aunt. I guess because my mom, his sister, was without a husband, he helped us out every day in every way he could.
Uncle Joe drove a checkered cab, a great big beast of a machine that rumbled up and down the streets of New York. He said, “Okay, I’ll pick you up Saturday at noon to see the show.”
Let me add that Joe was the shortest taxi driver in the city. So on Saturday, when I saw a checkered cab coming down the street without a driver, I knew it was Uncle Joe.
Even back then, it was illegal for a New York cab driver to carry a passenger in his car when he had his empty flag up on the taxi meter. So whenever Uncle Joe took me anywhere in his cab, I had to hide on the floor in the back as long as his flag was up. And that’s how, on that long-ago Saturday afternoon in 1935, I went to my first Broadway musical, scrunched down in the back of Uncle Joe’s bumpy old taxi.
When we were off and rolling I shouted from the floor in the back, “Uncle Joe? How come you got free tickets to Anything Goes?” Even though I was just a kid, I knew it was one of the biggest hits on Broadway at the time.
He said, “Al the doorman at the theater is one of my pals and when I pull in for the night, I take him back home to Brooklyn with me — just like you, on the back floor.”
I knew when we were crossing over the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan because I heard the loud thrumming as the taxi’s tires went over the steel grating. We must have been getting closer to Broadway when I saw the top of the Empire State Building as we passed Thirty-fourth street. (I was just a little disappointed not to see King Kong hanging there.) Soon it was the Chrysler Building on Forty-second Street, I knew it was the Chrysler Building because of the big needle at the top. My heart was racing along with the engine of the cab as we approached the Alvin Theatre on Fifty-second Street. (Later, the Alvin Theatre would be renamed the Neil Simon Theatre — named for one of the most famous and prolific comedy playwrights in Broadway history, who also happened to be one of my co-writers on Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and a dear friend. More about him later.)
Uncle Joe parked right outside the theater. It was no problem in those days; his friend Al the doorman had reserved the space. I got so excited when I got out of the cab and saw the marquee: ANYTHING GOES BY COLE PORTER. STARRING ETHEL MERMAN, WITH WILLIAM GAXTON AND VICTOR MOORE. Wow.
When we finally got to our seats all the way up in the last row of the second balcony I got a little dizzy from the height. I should have known that free seats weren’t fifth row on the aisle. The house-lights dimmed and from the orchestra pit came the strains of the overture, an mélange of all the famous Cole Porter hits from the show. One great song after another, not only “I Get a Kick Out of You” but also “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “All Through the Night,” and, of course, the show’s wonderful title song, “Anything Goes.”
In those days the cast didn’t depend on microphones like Broadway shows do today. When Ethel Merman belted out “You’re the Top” even though Uncle Joe and I were two miles away in the cheap seats, it was thrilling but maybe a little too loud. What a voice! They said she could hold a note longer than the Chase National Bank. I thought she was the greatest thing since chocolate milk. I had goosebumps.
Anything Goes was falling-down funny. When the final curtain fell, I leapt to my feet and cheered my nine-year-old head off clapping my hands till they stung. Way up there at the top of the second balcony, I figured that I was as close to heaven as I’d ever get.
On the way home, still buzzing with the excitement from the show, I made up my mind, and from the floor of the taxi I announced, “Uncle Joe, I am not going to go to work in the Garment Center like everyone else in our neighborhood.” I knew I had bigger fish to fry. I said, “I am going into show business and nothing will stop me!”
Excerpted from All About Me! by Mel Brooks. Copyright © 2021 by Mel Brooks. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.