Monday, June 23, 2008

Joel Levy Speaks: The Story of Bob Hope's "Toronto" Joke Writer

A friend of mine, Joel Levy, has been reading this site. He's a Renaissance Lit. specialist who, recently, attempted suicide. As a kind of therapy, his girlfriend had been encouraging him to write his autobiography. Joel listened. He wrote.

After the ensuing suicide attempt, he was confined to a hospital bed. All he could do was read and write, and the doctors ordered that he not touch a book. So he started scribbling, and, yesterday, when I visited him at Mount Sinai, he handed me the following story. "It's about my grandfather," he said. "Murray Levine. He wrote jokes for Bob Hope. If I have to write another word about myself, I'm eating crushed glass.

"David," he added, "I can't take many more days."

So, as a favour to my friend, I'm going to serialize his work. This is the story of his grandfather, and I post it here in hopes of keeping him alive long enough to write the conclusion.

I guess this is the shallow pit that separates comedy and tragedy. But Joel is my friend.

He calls this work, "It's Sad."

It's Sad
By Joel Levy
Part 1

Born in Toronto, I fleshed out my identity through stories. It was a difficult thing to do, my older, more experienced models formed in the late-1940s of post-War New York and Montreal. No one had ever come where I came from. And in a city of five million-—Canada’s economic hub, the centre of the world-—that was strange. It was as if, walking the battlements of the new old Fort York, nothing had happened here. No one had been born here, had risen from here. It was a city accessible only through paper. Everything had been built over, paved over; whole streets had been torn down. Land had attained such a value that people had been purged from the city, some staying to be squeezed into the small spaces of Yonge Street condominiums. So I cloistered myself in old stories, tunnelling into the past, exposing and creating the past through the telling and retelling of things that, as I later came to believe, had never actually happened.
My grandfather’s favourite story—-and one that probably had the largest influence on my own life—-was about Murray Levine. Levine, as my grandfather told it, was a joke writer for Bob Hope. The best. No one could touch him.
My grandfather's name was Murray Levine.
This was in the early-late ‘50s when Hope was travelling the world doing command performances for royalty, prime ministers, presidents, and GIs. Working hundreds of nights a year, Hope tore through material. He wasted jokes, wadded and burned jokes, spit out jokes with such rapidity that a whole congregation of writers was enlisted to churn out gags for his stops in Oakland, on campus at Penn State, or in a club down the road from Royal Albert Hall. Hope’s network was like an underground cell of resistance fighters. No one writer knew who Hope’s other writers were. They sat—-some of them literally in the dark-—waiting for Hope’s call. Many of them had binders of jokes, file folders of jokes. Indexed, colour-coded tabs organized punchlines into alphabetical order. Some arranged their material by subject. B: Books (cross-indexed with W: Writers); E: Eskimos; F: Food, Ford (Cross-indexed with W: Women Drivers), Foreplay. Thousands—tens of thousands of jokes sitting in bottom drawers all over the world.
Murray Levine was Hope’s Toronto writer. His specialty was writing C’s—California, Canada, Cancer, Candy. Those were jokes no one else could do. He’d been to Hollywood once, and had hated it. The experience left such an impression that he spent the entire flight back filling a legal pad with shaggy dog stories, one-liners, finely tuned stories that doubled back and kicked its subject in the testes. When the plane landed by an enormous Quonset hut in the west end nowhere—just outside of Toronto—Levine had enough material for three nightclub acts. Finding an agent in the person of Jilly Goldstein, who brought acts like Jan Murray and Pat Cooper to little steakhouse-nightclubs at King and Jarvis, Levine managed to sell off the jokes in ten-gag blocks. Eddie Cantor took ten, Jack Benny, who broadcast out of Anaheim, took twenty—and wanted more. Goldstein begged him, taking him for a hot dog in the stink and sweat of Kensington Market, where Levine lived with his mother-in-law, wife, and young daughter.
“Murray,” Goldstein started, wiping his brow with a ketchup-stained brown paper napkin, “they’re offering fifty dollars a joke. Fifty dollars. How’re you gonna turn down forty dollars?”
Levine pivoted on his heel, taking in Goldstein. Jilly was an exceptionally thin man, a flat sheet of rolled aluminum whose nervous energy manifested itself in extended one-fingered scratching of the nape of his neck, just where the ropy muscles of his shoulders met the raised tendons that bordered his Adam’s Apple. He should have been enormously fat, a balloon of a man with a gut from which to draw his arcing nervous energy. Goldstein, who otherwise had a full head of combed brown hair, had a small bald spot on the right side of his scalp, just above his ear, about the size of a nickel, where the roots had been dug out by a perspiring index finger, its nail sharp and unfiled. Hair could never grow there. When people asked, he told them he’d been burned as a child.
“Forty dollars?” Levine asked. “I thought you said fifty.”
“Minus my commission.”
“I’ve gotta make a living too.”
“Look, Jilly,” Levine said. “No more California jokes. I don’t want to think about California. I don’t want to write about California. No more California.” He paused. “I’m from Toronto! Aside from a couple weeks ago, I’ve never even been to the West Coast.”
“What happened in LA?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What were you there for? Al Finewax told me you were trying to sell a script?”
Levine laughed. “Nothing like that.”
“You were auditioning for a part?”
“So what? Is this suddenly a secret? It’s such a big deal that you can’t tell me?” He looked at Levine, at the small creases around his mouth. “Forget it. I don’t want to know.”
“I was looking at a citrus grove.”
“A citrus grove? Like lemons? You wanna farm lemons?”
“Grow them.”
Goldstein took off his hat, waving it in the air. A cab pulled over, Goldstein waving him off. “You’re a comic, Murray. What do you want with this farming bullshit?”
“Don’t you think it would be nice to go outside in the morning, pick an orange off the tree—a tree that belongs to you—and eat it?”
“I buy an orange down the street, Murray. It costs three cents.”
“Helen and her mother don’t like the city.”
“She doesn’t like the noise.”
“And LA. That’s where it happens. So you move there and work. Great.”
“She doesn’t like the business. She wants something more steady.” Levine smiled.
“How old are you, Murray?”
Levine had served in the RCAF, flying sorties over Munich, having his pitching shoulder forever ruined by a two-inch bottle cap of fuselage sent rocketing by a flak burst. Never in his life had he considered himself young, but he knew Goldstein would try to convince him that he was just a kid. Don’t get too down, he’d say. It takes time. Success takes time. You’ve got years ahead of you. Just slow down and let’s do some good work. Together.
Death had not happened to Jilly Goldstein as it had to Murray Levine. Neither man was sentimental. Goldstein’s parents, two Greenies, had died five days apart. His father had gone first, falling on an icy stoop, hitting his head against a limestone step. His mother, seeing her husband fall, hearing the crack of his bare scalp against rock, had suffered a small stroke. A capillary burst and closed; a small clot formed, travelling up the sealed tube. Lodging in her brain, it cut all electrical impulses to her heart. She died on a Tuesday night. Saturday, just after Ace Bailey had tripped in the neutral zone, allowing Red Kelly to arc around his prone body, flipping the puck into the waxed twine of visitor’s net, Morris Goldstein wheezed, coughed, clenched his fist, and died.
Goldstein lifted his father’s hands, kissing their smooth knuckles. As a paper hanger, he’d used those knuckles to smooth out creases, to encourage air bubbles to the tops, bottoms, and sides of huge broad sheets of adhesive-backed print. The fine hairs of his hands had been polished off, their roots dying, killed or plugged by a combination of glue and sweat. It was like a trail through the park where the kids walked their bikes, where the grass would never again grow.
He had kissed those hands, touching them for the first time in thirty-five years. The tubes and beeping, humming devices of the hospital room were miles away from his childhood. It wasn’t his father who was lying there, dead. It was someone else. Someone in a different world. Where were the too-small shoes, their one pot, the broken cutlery? What an incredible distance. “My father was not a warm man. The last time he shook my hand was when I was a bar mitzvah. I forgot what he felt like. These hands…” He laid them on his father’s chest and turned to his wife, catching himself. “Don’t be stupid, Jilly.”
“No,” she said, “that was nice.”
“He was a prick.”
“He was your father.”
“Yeah, well…I’m hungry.”

To Be Continued...

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