The Friday night gathering of friends and admirers of Sid Caesar is fast becoming a semi-regular event. (Semi-regular is one of those terms that are contradictory. How can something be semi-regular? Either it happens on a regular basis or it doesn’t. But let’s get back to the column.) Every few weeks or so Sid has friends over to his home for an evening of food and a few laughs. It’s a relaxing get-together of what has been called Sid’s “extended family” and a wonderful excuse to schmooze and swap stories. The group varies each time depending on people’s schedules and who’s in town, but it’s always a star-studded assembly.
At the most recent soiree the guests included Janna Ritz, daughter of Harry Ritz of the legendary Ritz Brothers. Janna and her husband Richard were in from New York and brought with them some rare TV clips of her dad’s appearances on shows from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. After dinner Sid and guests gathered around the set to watch one of the true comedy originals of the 20th century. What a treat!
Harry, Al, and Jimmy Ritz started out in vaudeville and nightclubs with an act that consisted of precision dancing, tongue-twisting spoofs of popular songs, facial mugging, and slapstick. Jan Murray called them “tumult” comedians. Think the opposite of Jack Benny. They ran around, pushed, clowned, made noises, rolled their eyes, and did all kinds of shtick. However they also sang and danced beautifully. Their dances in particular were so well-timed that it looked like the three of them were attached as one. They were so smooth that they almost make the Rockettes look like stumble-bums in comparison.
In 1934, the Ritz Brothers made their screen debut in the two-reel comedy Hotel Anchovy, which led to their being signed by 20th Century-Fox as a specialty act. Sing Baby Sing (1936) was the first feature film to costar the boys, and their first starring role followed a year later in Life Begins in College. Between 1934 and 1943, they turned out fifteen features and three shorts. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the Ritz Brothers continued appearing in supper clubs and the resort circuit and made their first appearances as TV guest stars.
All three were talented, but it was Harry that was the leader, innovator, and top banana. Among comedians, Harry Ritz is considered the greatest. “This man gave comedy a whole new dimension,” Sid Caesar has said. “Harry was the great innovator. His energy and his sensibility opened things up for all of us. He had to be the funniest man of his time.” Mel Brooks has often called Harry Ritz “the funniest man ever” and absolutely idolizes him.
In an old Dick Cavett show from the seventies the camera comes in close to Harry Ritz’s face and he demonstrates how he can count up to ten with his eyeballs. It’s unbelievable and hysterical. Harry had magic eyes. Then, at the finish of the show, the brothers get up and do their precision dance routine, which brings the house down. Even late in life they still moved like they were floating in air.
You can see the influence of Harry Ritz in dozens of other comedians; Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis are two obvious examples. But Harry was never bothered by the fact that others “borrowed” the style, shtick, and bits of business from him. He didn’t complain when other comics, using his material, started playing better clubs and pulled in more money. He simply considered it flattery that they would use what he invented.
Towards the end of the evening, I spoke briefly to Janna and she told me of how one day she and her dad were walking along Beverly Boulevard when suddenly she noticed Fred Astaire walking across the street. “Look Daddy, it’s Fred Astaire.” Harry glanced over, waved to Astaire, then turned to his daughter and said, “Would you like to meet him?”
Janna couldn’t believe that her father actually knew Fred Astaire. They crossed the street and Harry introduced Janna to Fred Astaire; it was something that she would never forget. Later Fred told Janna that Harry Ritz was the best dancer he had ever seen. I asked Janna if she inherited any of her father’s dancing talent. “Not really,” she said, “but I can count up to ten with my eyes.” And then she did.