Last night at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS, of which I am a member), Mel Brooks was honored with a celebratory screening of his iconic film, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Naturally, I was there cheering him on. You see, I have known Mel Brooks most of my life. He was born Melvin Kaminsky a few years before me and lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn while I grew up in Flatbush. We first met when I was working during summer college break as a waiter at Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskills, where Mel was the 'tummler' or nightly comic emcee. During the '50s we would run into each other while he was working as a TV writer for Sid Caesar and I was toiling as a Broadway press agent. By then he had changed his name to Mel Brooks (from his mother's maiden name, Brookman) because there was a musician named Max Kaminsky around. But we became better friends in1961-62 when I was a publicist for a Broadway show, "All American," of which Mel wrote the book. I was doubling as a manager (with Hilly Elkins) for the show's two songwriters, lyrics by Lee Adams and music by Charles Strouse (later of "Annie" fame.) As I write this, I am remembered of an evening when Mel was with Hilly and me backstage at the rehearsal of the Perry Como Variety Hour, for Como was going to introduce a song, Once Upon A Time, from our show that the boys wrote and which went on become a huge hit for the singer. Either Hilly or I introduced Mel to a young Broadway actress we knew who was also there; her name was Anne Bancroft and he married her three yeas later. They were happily married 'til she died in 2005. "All American" starred the dancer, Ray Bolger, who played a Southern science professor at a university who took the principles of engineering and taught the football team to use them and become a winning team. I distinctly remember Mel becoming infuriated at director Josh Logan, who rewrote some of it to introduce a gay element. The show ran for 80 performances and was nominated for two Tony awards. Mel at 88 is one of the few people in show business who has won all four of the major awards: Grammy, Oscar, Emmy, Tony. Imagine that!
The occasion last night was precipitated by the release after 40 years of a new Blu-ray DVD of 1974's Young Frankenstein from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. On Monday, there was a 40th anniversary ceremony of Mel putting his hand-and-foot prints into the cement of the famed TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt (I still call it Grauman's Chinese), which of course elicited lots of humor, most of it unprintable. Mel asked me last night if I noticed anything unusual about the pictures of his hands held up after the cement immersion, and then said he had six fingers on one hand! No, I had not noticed. He showed me. Don't ask.
As I approached the Academy building last night, with a seething mass of humanity waiting to get into the sold-out event, I was rescued by my longtime buddy, the producer of the movie, Michael Gruskoff, who was at the Academy along with Mel, Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman (Madame Blucher, ughh). Gruskoff led me into the Green Room where we waited for the other participants. He told me how agent Mike Medavoy in 1974 showed him the 8-page treatment for 'Frankenstein' written by Gene Wilder and Mel on the Warnr Bros. set of their "Blazing Saddles." After a meeting with Mel, Mike came aboard as producer. By then Mel had arrived at the Academy and joined us in the lobby, showing me pictures of his children and grandchildren. Mel told me that the picture had originally been set up at Columbia, but when exec Peter Guber (sitting in front of me at he screening) found out it would be shot by director Mel in "glorious black-and-white," he passed on it. Gruskoff then jumped in: "I took it to my buddy, Alan Ladd Jr., who had just become production head of 20th Century Fox. Laddy read the script, said yes, and we made the movie there." (Laddy had the flu last night but sent all his regards.) Mel then told me that it was shot on Stage 5 at Fox for about $2.3 million, and when it was finished, he showed the long 2 ½ hour version to an audience of friends....telling them that in one month it would be down to 91 minutes and be a hit. He was right. He then whispered to me: "I think that it is the best picture I ever made. Not the funniest, that was 'Blazing Saddles,' but as a writer-director the best-made one."
By then the theatre was full, the evening was about to commence. The very charming, very able newly-reelected President of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, opened the occasion with a brief speech welcoming all, and brought on film critic/historian Leonard Maltin who conducted the rambunctious hour-long pre-screening interview. Mel was in rare form, taking on the ascerbic Leachman in a long-held amusing antagonism. Maltin read two messages: one from Gene Wilder, who could not be there, and another from the retired Gene Hackman, who has a stunningly-amusing cameo in the film. All payed tribute to the late Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars and Madeline Kahn, who are merely sensational in the picture. Mel noted that he didn't want it to be either just hilarious or just frightening, but a subtle combination of both, paying tribute to the original book by Mary Shelley and the several movies made of it in the thirties. He certainly succeeded....it was a huge hit with the audience last night and will be equally enjoyable by you, your family and friends when you see it in the new Blu-ray version. So I suggest that you go to a record store (if they stlll exist) or order it on Amazon. Screen it with an audience and you will die.... laughing.
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