The History of Mel Brooks, Part I

Tells Difference Between Jelly Jars and Yahrtzeit Glasses

Showman of Showmen: Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.
Courtesy of Pamela Barkentin Blackwell
Showman of Showmen: Mel Brooks is the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

By Curt Schleier

Published May 13, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Ironically, it was Mel Brooks who asked the first question: “So, how long have you been working for the Jewish Daily Forward?”

Then he wondered aloud how I spell my name, and he graded my response. “You got all the letters right,” he said, and laughed when I ask for extra credit for getting them in the proper order: “That’s funny.”

Brooks, 86, is one of only 11 people to have won the grand slam of show business — an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. But despite the accolades, the fame and the riches, he still seems to be that little boy from Brooklyn, just as curious about you as you are about him.

On May 20, the Public Broadcasting Service will premiere “Mel Brooks: Make a Noise,” an extraordinary American Masters special that traces his remarkable career. Less than three weeks later, on June 6, the American Film Institute will honor Brooks with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Still, his conversation with the Forward seemed less an opportunity to promote than to reminisce.

“It’s like a big deal, second only to the Oscars,” he said of the AFI honor before quickly moving on to discuss his remembrances of things past: his mother and her friends drinking coffee from yahrzeit glasses “because coffee was always in a yahrzeit glass, never in a cup. Ever. They used to have these jelly jars. The jelly jar was for tea, and yahrzeit glasses were for coffee.”

Brooks’ father died when Mel was just 2 years old, leaving his mother with four young boys.

“We lived on the fifth floor in the back of a tenement. We were incredibly poor,” he said.

Spending just $2 for a High Holy Day ticket was considered “frivolous.”


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