Feb 13, 2014

Sid Caesar's Gay Connection

Sid Caesar died a few days ago, at age 91.   I knew him as a mugging, elderly guy in some 1970s comedies, such as Silent Movie, The Cheap Detective, and Grease, but he was one of the pioneers of the television industry.

In February 1950, the former Borscht Belt comedian and stage actor became the headliner in Your Show of Shows, an anthology of music and comedy that presaged Saturday Night Live 25 years later.  I'm not sure if Show of Shows meant that it was superior to every other program, or that it included a variety of "shows."

Other performers included Imogene Coca (later to star in It's About Time), Carl Reiner (creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show), Mel Brooks (left),  future voice artist Howard Morris, and a huge selection of current and future celebrities, including Charlton Heston, Jackie Cooper, Eva Gabor, June Lockhart, Wally Cox, Eddie Albert, and Bob Cummings.

It lasted until 1954, and hasn't been rerun (many episodes are lost), but there are videos of many of the sketches.

Caesar and Coca play the Hickenloopers, a bickering couple.

A German-accented Professor (Caesar), an expert on everything, is interviewed by a reporter (Reiner), a precursor of the Two-Thousand Year Old Man albums.

There are parodies of movies, tv commercials, game shows, even ballets and operas (Die Grosste Shau in der Welt).  

A lot of heterosexual yearning, and not a lot of gay content, just some jokes about gender-transgressions: a woman with muscles and a moustache, a man named Sheila.

And substantial beefcake; Caesar had an impressive physique for the 1950s, and stripped down for such parodies as the beach scene in From Here to Eternity ("From Here to Obscurity") or the "Stella!" shout in A Streetcar named Desire ("A Trollycar Named Desire").

In 1954, Sid Caesar moved on to dozens of guest shots in movies and tv programs, frequently playing "himself" and racking up Emmy nominations.

Knowing him only from the homophobic movies of the 1970s, I naturally assumed that he was as homophobic as other men of his generation.

But then, researching this post, I stumbled onto a blog post, "My Seder with Sid Caesar," about a Passover Seder at the Friar's Club with a number of comedians, including Estelle Harris, John Byner...and Sid Caesar.  Theo Bikel, officiating, announced that “A religious man was once overheard saying that gays and lesbians have an much of a place in the Jewish tradition as an orange does on a Seder plate."  So he put an orange on the Seder plate.

The blog has only one entry, and it's not signed, but still -- Sid Caesar was participating in a pro-gay Passover Seder.

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