Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Writer Talks About Milton Berle’s Cock

A Writer Talks About Milton Berle’s Cock

A couple years ago, during the Christmas break (I was a senior at UofT), I was in the library at my grandparents’ complex in Florida, poring through boxes of donated books, looking for something to read. Library might not be the right word; it was a room where snowbirds’/retirees’ books went when the owners died away from home. If you’ve ever had to do it, you know it doesn’t pay to ship books anywhere. So they were just donated to this resident-administered library/reading room. (There are fifteen buildings in the complex, and about five-thousand apartments. So we’re not talking about a small space—this was half-way to the Toronto Reference Library.) It’s interesting what kind of books old Jews carry with them when they move to or winter in Florida. You get the usual selection of potboilers and Grisham, but there’s also some good stuff. I’d picked up copy of Goodbye, Columbus, and a Modern Library Giant edition of Eugene O’Neill’s plays, and I was looking at a hardcover Bernard Malamud book—The Tenants, a shitty collection of stories—when my grandfather walked in and asked me if I’d found anything. I showed him what I had, and he scanned the shelves, finally picking out another find: a bio of George and Ira Gershwin.

We were about to leave when a short, thick old man, probably in his late seventies, walked in and grabbed my grandfather’s arm. He just walked in the room, through the leaden non-automatic door, and speared my grandfather like he was grabbing a spawning salmon. They exchanged a friendly greeting, and my grandfather directed the guy at me, introducing the man as his friend Irwin. Irwin was one of those old men with ridiculously thick wrists and a grip that kind of takes your hand and squeezes it like it's a pickle jar being opened. But even though he had fifty-plus years of doing god knows what with his forearms, I was able to fight back against his palm and kind of push his locked wrist back toward his body. That impressed him, and he decided to stay and talk to me. Of course I had no idea who the hell he was, but I’ve never turned away from the opportunity to talk to a boisterous Jewish grandfather with clear New York ties. They all have at least one good expression in them, and they’ll usually use it within the first couple exchanges. In terms of writing dialogue, idiomatic, mangled ethnic aphorisms can’t be imagined; they have to be experienced.

“Good handshake,” he said. “Not like a dead fish. So many guys just give you a dead fish.”

This is where my grandfather stepped in and told me who Irwin was. His real name was Irwin Sheinbaum, and he was, as I’d inferred from his accent, from New York. When my grandfather said Sheinbaum, the guy immediately said, “Shine!” So he’d changed his name to Shine, and my grandfather explained that was because he was a gag writer during the fifties and early sixties. A lot of Jews changed their names to work in radio and television, but you don’t really see WASP-izations too often among writers. (Although, there are guys like Goody Ace who’re the exception.) Anyway, Irwin was a writer, not a performer. And though he didn’t want people to call him Shine, he still wanted them to remember that he’d been Shine. My grandfather’s name is Copper, but two generations ago it was Corpowitz. Beyond vanity, surnames have no meaning for Jews. So Sheinbaum/Shine wasn’t unusual.

This story’s about Milton Berle’s dick, so I’ll get to the point. Sheinbaum wrote gags for Berle’s nightclub act right after the Berle-Buick Show went off the air in the 1956. Berle was playing big rooms in Vegas and clubs in New York, and he needed material for his act. Sheinbaum had written for Jack Carter, George Jessel, and a bunch of other guys like Danny Thomas and Jan Murray. It was Murray who showed Berle a few of Sheinbaum’s lines; Berle liked them, invited Sheinbaum to meet him for lunch, and told him he’d pay him twenty-five bucks for every gag he liked. Sheinbaum was supposed to submit a typed list of jokes; Berle would read them, cross out the ones he didn’t like, and pay Sheinbaum for the ones he kept. Sheinbaum didn’t watch Berle perform, and it turned out that Berle was using the crossed-out jokes with a few words changed and moved around. That’s when they parted ways. Sheinbaum says he sold about thirty jokes to Berle, but Berle probably used about fifty-five.

So Sheinbaum was telling me all this, and I was smiling, nodding my head, basically urging him to go on. I didn’t know how much he wanted to say, but it was a helluva story. When he got to the part about going separate ways, he stopped. And I thought he was finished. But he took a deep breath, looked over my shoulder, and said, “The guy was a fucking schmuck. My friend Alfie told me he was using one of my jokes. Alfie was a comic; a nightclub guy--you know, the one who'd go on after the place closed, and sometimes--before. One of the ones he didn’t buy, Berle was using. And he knew he didn’t buy it because I fucking told him he didn’t buy it. It was a good joke. It was about...," and here he sucked his teeth,

"A Jew with an addictive personality talks about how he gets hooked on everything. Once he does something, he has to do it again. You know, like smoking, drinking, screwing. Everything that's done to him or that he does...he has to do over and over again. So he's in bed with his young wife one night--their wedding night, their first time together--and it's dark, and they're making love for the first time, and she's moaning and groaning and grunting and screaming--she's in some serious pain! After, she turns to him and says, 'Jack, you know, honey, I hope you don't mind me asking, but, well, why aren't you circumsized?' He looks at her, embarrassed, and says, 'I was, Frannie; why do you think I have to use my thumb?' 'Oh,' she says, kinda shocked, taking it all in. 'Well... then do me a favour and cut your fucking nails!'"


That was a good joke. I was pissed off. So my friend Alfie heard him tell this...use this line, and he came and told me. So I went to see Berle. At the club. Right before his act. He was sitting around shining his shoes, and I walked in the dressing room. I told him I knew he was using the joke, and I told him I wanted the twenty-five bucks. He said it was an old joke, and he’d changed it anyway. It wasn’t the same joke I’d written. So I told him to fuck off. And he knew what he was and what I was, so he didn’t have to do anything. The money was nothing to him, but he didn’t want to admit he was wrong. The big guys never wanted to admit they'd taken anything. They thought that the joke was never as important as the guy who told it. So they could do anything and get laughs. That was their attitude. Anyway, I was standing there, and I told him, I told Berle, that I wasn’t leaving. So he told me, fine, I could stay there. What the hell did he care. And he stood up, and he was wearing boxer shorts, the ones with the slit down the front, you know. He wasn’t wearing pants—they were on a hook on the back of the door. And when he stood up his dick came out of the slit on the front of his shorts. And he kept talking to me like he didn’t know or didn’t care. And his dick was just flapping against the front of his shorts. It was so fucking big I kept looking down at it. And I think he knew that, because he kept talking. He knew the longer he talked, and the more I kept looking at his dick, that I’d eventually say fuck it and just leave. But I knew that, so I just stood there. I grew up with five brothers. We had one bed for all five of us. I'd seen a lot of dicks. A dick wasn't anything new to me. Mind you, nothing like his. I guess it was supposed to be intimidating. All of the sudden,” and here Sheinbaum walked over and grabbed my arm, “he comes over to me and takes his dick in his hand, and waves it at me. Just waves it at me. It was the size of this.” Sheinbaum took my copy Modern Library Giant and traced his fingers down the spine. “What is that? Seven, eight inches? His hand wasn’t even half way up on the shaft. And he was waving it at me and laughing. I just turned and walked out. It wasn’t worth it.”

He paused again.

“And that was soft. Who the hell knows the other way. The funny thing is his balls weren’t even that big.”

So I just thought I’d post that reminiscence. Berle’s dick seems to be an inter-generational thing, and this might be the only record we have of its actual length. Eight inches flaccid—according to Irwin Sheinbaum.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Geat story! I heard he couldn't stop telling the kids at SNL about it, like it was his last and best schtick...Btw, if you get back to those boxes of books, David, check every damned one of them, those old folks loved to hide greenbacks in them!

Anonymous said...

The old Hollywood gossip-columnist, Jim Bacon (who may still be living?) wrote a book @ 1977, called "Hollywood Confidential", I believe, and in it he talks about Berle's big 'un. Bacon also wrote an earlier book and Milton's wang makes an appearance there as well.

 
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