NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of the leader of a New York institution - the dean of the Friars Club, Freddie Roman.
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You would hope that the dean of the Friars Club would have a few thousand great stories to tell. Ladies and gentleman, Freddie Roman.
“There was Red Buttons and [Milton] Berle and Buddy Hackett, and Alan King introduced me to them, ÎThis is a new comic, a new member of the club.’ And Buddy Hackett said, ÎJust what we need, another new comic,’” he says.
“Henny [Youngman] was interesting,” Roman continues. “He would come in every day for lunch and sit at the front table by the entrance to the dining room, and his opening line was, ÎI want a table near a waiter.’”
Freddie Roman is so beloved as the president of the Friars Club that they changed the two-term maximum bylaw for him.
"Eleven years ago I became president for two years,” he says. “I'm like the Fidel Castro of comedians - I'm president for life."
For most of us, the image of the Friars Club brings to mind the old expression “everyone's a comedian.” But the club was actually started in 1904 by 11 press agents.
Still, when Roman first took over as dean in the mid-90’s, he looked around and saw a lot of old comedians and not enough new ones. The club needed some new lifeblood.
“So I put in a new category called 'working performer,' where if you are a working performer, not necessarily comedians - singer, dancer, whatever - as long as you make your living performing you can join the Friars Club with no initiation fee, no dues for six months, and if you like it you stay and then you become a regular member," he says.
More than 100 performers became new members. You can find all types at the club on East 55th Street, like Patty Hearst.
Patty Hearst? For most people the Friars Club and Patty Hearst are not two phrases that go together.
“She's a member of the club,” says Roman. “She's become an actress and she joined the club, and whenever she is in New York City she is here. And she is a lovely lady. We tease her all the time about carrying a machine gun, but she checks hers at the door.”
Yes, the Friars Club is a place where members come to eat, relax and schmooze. But the club also sends performers to hospitals and nursing homes, and supports several arts related charities.
Still, it is known to the outside world primarily for its roasts, where just about anything goes.
“You've got to go in knowing that you're going to get nailed, including my son, who flew in from California to nail me,” Roman says. “He said, ÎMy father was a terrific comedian, and he still is. He's a wonderful human being. But I wish I was Shecky Greene's son, because Shecky Greene took his son to hookers.’”
Roman became dean of the Friars Club just after he appeared on Broadway in his show “Catskills On Broadway,” his homage to the hotels and bungalow colonies upstate that in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s served as a breeding ground for so many successful comedians.
“Literally, you could do 2-3 shows on Saturday night - 9, 10:30, and a late one at midnight — at a bungalow colony,” he says. “Those were our comedy clubs. That's where we got a chance to ply our craft and got paid for it. It wasn't like you had to do it for nothing. So you didn't get rich, but you could make a decent living at the beginning.”
Freddie Roman, born Fred Kirschenbaum, grew up in Jamaica, Queens, the son of a shoe salesman. But his uncle and grandfather owned a place in the Catskills called the Crystal Spring Hotel, and gave the kid a chance to emcee on summer nights.
“He was thrilled because he didn't have anyone to do it, and he didn't have to pay me. It was perfect,” he says. “So here was this precocious, little, chubby 15-year-old kid, and I became the emcee of a hotel in the mountains. I would introduce the acts, we’d play games with the guests, and it was a great experience."
But as a young man in his 20’s, married with two kids, Roman had to give up his love of the stage.
“I left show business and went into the shoe business working for my father,” he says. “Then I opened my own store, and it was highly successful. Everything was terrific, except I hated it. I [did not] give up hope. I had stopped thinking about it the first few years I was in the shoe business, because I had an obligation to make that work, and I never really though about show business much."
He sold the store, started selling life insurance and mutual bonds. Roman says it was strictly a coincidence that his region for selling was the Catskills.
On one trip, he went to see the owner of a place where he used to perform, the Homowack Lodge.
“I walked back in said, ÎHello, I'm up here selling mutual funds,’ and he said, ÎGet up and do 20 minutes tonight,’” he says. “And I did it for nothing, and he said, ÎThis is what you should be doing. You come here every Tuesday.’ And that's how it all exploded. It was a miracle."
Roman didn't have to sell life insurance much longer. He started playing all of the hotels and bungalow colonies in the Catskills, and eventually Las Vegas.
“Early on I was a kid and I didn't know how funny I really was. Now I could observe myself from a distance and see that I knew what I was doing,” he says. “I was a good writer. I could write stuff, and it worked."
Roman started playing Vegas at a fortuitous time, because his beloved Catskills were dying, never to return to the popularity of the post-war years.
“It's terribly sad,” he says. “You drive up there today and it's like ghost towns. I'm really angry about it too because the State of New York for 30 years has made the Catskills a political football about legal gambling. If gambling had come in 30 years ago, the mountains would be thriving today.”
Roman turns 69 this year. He's been married for 47 years, and he's still performing, up next locally at Westbury Music Fair in August.
He can be quite serious when talking about his work and helping out young comics. But it's almost always with a wink and a smile.
So let's close with one more story, about the occasional perils of trying to make people laugh.
"Just before I go on the owner of the hotel comes on and says, ÎLadies and gentlemen, before I bring on the comedian, don't forget this is Memorial Day weekend, and we honor the thousands and thousands of troops that passed away to make our lives better. Please, we're going to play ÎTaps,’ and the trumpet player [plays],” he says. “And two ladies are crying, because I guess their relatives died. [Then the owner says], ÎAnd now welcome Freddie Roman.’”
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
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