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Winter 2001

Table Talk

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W. S. Di Piero
In 1968, in a windowless cinderblock dressing room of a small college theater on Philadelphia’s Main Line, I saw Sid Caesar in his skivvies and full-calf black socks, listing on one leg while he tried to smooth his hose. Two handlers stood by. The occasion was the opening of a new theater at St. Joseph’s College, where I went to school and sometimes earned money crewing for events.

It was no small thing, seeing in the flesh the man I’d known from 1950s television. I loved Your Show of Shows and, later, Caesar’s Hour. One of his best routines was playing the dizzy, disheveled Professor Von Houdinoff, expert on magicians, who always wore a mashed top hat and held a chewed up cigar butt. The skits with his partner, the great horsey-faced comedienne Imogene Coca, were so funny and inventive that I fed off them for days. The shows were live, so you never knew what might happen. The scripts were worked out enough to seem stable, but the medium itself made them combustible. As a comic presence, he was my long-suffering Dauphin of Heebie-Jeebies, his body a wincing, slightly aggrieved shape of energy. Then there was his laugh. No great comic has a straightforward laugh. (Think of Art Carney, Milton Berle, Richard Pryor, Bill Murray.) Sid Caesar’s was squirmy, fragile, and hilariously pitiable. Television had made him one of the richest men in show business; by the age of thirty he was earning a million a year.

So why was this brilliant entertainer performing in such a punk venue? At first I hardly recognized him. His skin sagged and was so thinned out that the face looked inadequately glued to the bones. In 1982, when he published his autobiography, Where Have I Been, I learned that the Philadelphia gig happened during his lost years. He was by then so far gone on Equanil and Seconal (in the A.M.) and booze (from noon on) that he was drunk or stoned practically all day every day. The serious drinking started when Caesar’s Hour was canceled in 1958. He hit bottom in 1978 and decided to dry out. So he went to Canada. Finally clean and sober, he couldn’t remember much of what had happened. Big chunks of time, years on end, were erased. Once in a while a fact would float by. About going to Australia in 1975 to do a movie called Barnaby and Me, he said: “I don’t remember anything about the trip or picture. I lost a whole continent.”

Memory is so opportunistic. Sid Caesar was just a hoot and a dream image when I was a kid, but over the years he somehow became in my imagination an all-purpose image of comedic play, homo ludens American-style, pinched by self-consciousness. Balancing on one leg in that dressing room, he was someone else. Seeing him in the flesh, I lost him, lost at least my mental image. Irrational and self-serving as it was, I felt a vague betrayal, not just of my own good faith but of all that is comic. I didn’t know that while I was watching him he was unconscious, which may have been a cockeyed blessing, since he wouldn’t remember the humiliation or the pain of falling out of time. In his sense of things, he wasn’t even there.

W. S. Di Piero is the author of Skirts and Slacks, Shooting the Works, and other books of poetry and essays. He lives in San Francisco.

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