September 8, 1922, is the birthdate of Sid Caesar, the comedian who was one of the first great stars to emerge from the new medium of commercial television in the late 1940s and ‘50s. “Your Show of Shows,” Caesar’s program with Imogene Coca, broadcast live on Saturday nights between 1950 and 1954, was so popular that Broadway theater owners in New York appealed to NBC to reschedule it to another night, as their Saturday night ticket sales were suffering.
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Isaac Sidney Caesar was born in Yonkers, north of New York City, the youngest of the three sons of Max Ziser and the former Ida Rafael. Both emigrated to the United States from Dabrowa Tarnowska, a town a little north of Tarnow, Poland.
Max and Ida owned and operated a 24-hour luncheonette in Yonkers, above which the family lived. Sid helped with waiting on table from an early age, and got into the habit of imitating the accents and mannerisms of regular customers. Far from being offended, diners enjoyed his routines and encouraged him in them.
At age 14, Caesar got a summer job playing saxophone in a band, the Swingtime Six, at a Catskill Mountains resort hotel, which also gave him the occasional opportunity to perform in a comic sketch. His aspiration, however, was to be a professional musician.
After graduating from Yonkers High School in 1939, Caesar got a job as an usher at New York’s Capitol Theater. In the meantime, he was accepted to New York’s Juilliard School, but, lacking the money for tuition, was only able to audit classes there.
Tars, spars and comic interludes
in 1939, Caesar joined the U.S. Coast Guard and began playing in a service band, before being discovered by composer Vernon Duke (author of the standard “Autumn in New York”), with whom he began writing musical reviews for the Coast Guard. Still in service, in 1942 Caesar met Florence Levy. They married the following year, and would remain together until Levy’s death in 2010, having three children.
In 1945, Caesar performed comic interludes in a musical revue for the Coast Guard, “Tars and Spars,” written by Duke and Howard Dietz, and directed by Max Liebman. It is said that Caesar’s filler routines received more applause than the songs. Caesar not only toured nationally with the show, but also appeared in a 1946 movie version.
His TV career got its start with an invitation to appear regularly on the “Admiral Broadway Revue.” Ironically, that show was cancelled by the sponsor after a half-year, a victim of its own success, as Admiral was unable to keep up with the demand for television sets engendered by the ads that accompanied the show.
Writing team: Mel Brooks and Woody Allen
“Your Show of Shows,” Caesar’s most well-known program, premiered on February 25, 1950 and ran until 1954 in nearly 160 90-minute episodes, broadcast live.
He wasn’t a stand-up comic; instead, Caesar and his fellow actors – who included, most famously, Imogene Coca – performed sketches that looked at the foibles of contemporary life and showcased his pantomiming skills, his rubbery face, his famous double-talk and made-up languages. The show’s writing team included such comic legends as Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner.
When Caesar died, Reiner told Variety that he “was without a doubt the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could ad lib. He could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh.”
The pressure of the show took its toll. As Caesar himself told The New York Times decades later, “Sunday was our only day off, and I used to stand under the shower and shake.” He became addicted to alcohol and sleeping pills, and finally, in 1977, blacked out onstage.
Caesar went into therapy, some of it self-administered, and began exercising and eating only healthy food. He returned to the stage and the screen, performed on TV and in opera, and wrote two memoirs.
Sid Caesar died on February 12, 2014, at the age of 91.