Life and Laughs At the Oasis

By Hank Rosenfeld

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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When Irving Brecher did his stand-up act for a room of retired physicians at Beverly Hills’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center it didn’t go so well.

“They smiled,” 91-year-old Brecher recalled, “but didn’t want to use up their energy laughing.”

But like anyone with a vaudevillian’s instincts, Brecher was able to use the debacle to his advantage. His next performance was held at a Los Angeles branch of the Oasis Institute, an educational organization designed to enhance the quality of life for so-called “mature adults.” There he regaled the assembled with tales of his previous torment.

“I never should never have accepted the invitation,” he announced, recalling the crowd of unamused doctors. “Those are people who have practiced medicine and, by retiring, have saved thousands of lives.”

It killed.

In the showbiz sense, of course. Brecher — who, hair askew, looks like a combination of Harpo Marx and Albert Einstein and walks with the help of his Invacare walker, Old Rolls — once wrote two movies for Harpo and his brothers. Now, although nearly blind from glaucoma, he still speaks with the warm, edgy timbre of Groucho as he tells stories of his old pals Benny, Berle and Burns. He punched up — “spiked” was the word back then — the script for “The Wizard of Oz” in 1938 and, in 1943, convinced Judy Garland to act in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” for which he penned the screenplay. While creating television’s very first sitcom, he discovered Jackie Gleason.

Who knew? Very few, but all this makes Brecher more than your normal club comic. He’s a treasure from the 20th century — “one of the three fastest” quipsters, according to Groucho and humorist S.J. Perelman (the others were George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant). After vaudeville gag-writing, radio, theater, and television and screenplay writing/directing, Brecher is now pursuing a new career: stand up comedy. He’s on the circuit: playing the Friars Club and Hillcrest Country Club, birthday benefits and funerals. And he’s now a part of the entertainment program at Oasis, a program of Jewish Family Service — a 150-year-old L.A.-based social service agency. This Oasis branch holds its sessions in a West L.A. mall above a Robinsons-May store. The walls are decorated with posters designed to inspire. (“Expand your world,” one reads.) For three bucks a session, students can engage in “Intermediate Computer,” “Pilates” and even “Chocolate — A Healthy Vegetable.”

The audience may seem a little gray and the subject-matter a bit dark, but macabre humor has, in fact, been Brecher’s stock-in-trade for some time.

In the early 1940s, he wrote “The Life of Riley,” a radio comedy starring William Bendix, and added a “friendly undertaker” character named Digby “Digger” O’Dell. “I’d better be shoveling off,” was one of Digby’s sepulchral catch phrases. The show’s sponsor, the American Meat Institute, flipped its bun.

But within two weeks, mail began to pour in from elderly people: They were thanking Brecher for taking the grimness out of death. Digger and one of Riley’s expressions — “What a revoltin’ development this is!” — caught on nationwide. AMI caved.

Eventually Brecher created versions of “Riley” for screen and television, but its star, Bendix, said that television never would last. Brecher needed a replacement and remembered a comedian he’d seen at the Hollywood nightclub Slapsy Maxie’s: a thin, hungry fellow named Jackie who owed everybody money and was reportedly unreliable. Brecher hired him — his last name was Gleason — welcoming him to the new medium with a set of golf clubs, which, he learned, were promptly sold to the prop man. When Gleason’s bad teeth kept whistling on the soundtrack, Brecher paid half the dental bills. “Jackie got tears in his eyes,” Brecher recalled. “He picked me up and said, ‘You’re the nicest Jew I ever met!’”

Eventually the show was canceled, just as Brecher earned an Emmy for it.

“Mr. Brecher’s a sweetheart,” said Oasis student Miriam Baron, 80, in pink hat and shawl, after seeing his presentation. “He’s been there, done that, with everything! Let him stay well. That’s the main thing.”

“Why, Irv, you’re just a kid!” added her classmate, Fred Hofeld, 97.

So what’s the difference between the Cedars-Sinai doctors and the Oasis students?

“These people are alive,” Brecher told the Forward over half a pastrami sandwich and a cup of soup at Junior’s Deli, across Pico Boulevard.

Hank Rosenfeld tells stories on public radio’s “Weekend America” and is publishing a book with Irving Brecher.

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