Overweight Sensation

The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman

by Mark Cohen

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Hardcover, 353 pages, Brandeis University Press, List Price: $29.95 | purchase

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NPR Summary

Mark Cohen argues for Allan Sherman's legacy as a touchstone of postwar humor and a turning point in Jewish American cultural history.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'Overweight Sensation'

On August 6, 1962, Joe Smith of Warner Bros. Records was out to dinner in Los Angeles with his wife and father-in-law when he played a tape of Sherman's first album, My Son, the Folk Singer, recorded earlier that day.

"A guy at the next booth said, 'What is that? I want twenty-five of those. I'll write you a check,'" recalled Smith. "We thought we had something."

They had something big. Sherman's album hijacked a collection of folk songs, took them on a joyride through his Jewish imagination, and turned them into a hit album that left critics wondering what was going on in this country. When the record was released in October reviewers at Variety and Billboard agreed My Son, the Folk Singer was funny. They also agreed it ribbed an American world that would hardly feel the jab. Turning "Frère Jacques" into "Sarah Jackman" might be funny to us, but it would not be funny to them, was how the thinking went. Billboard predicted sales among "New Yorkers, Los Angelenos, and other big cityites." All were euphemisms for Jews. Variety agreed Sherman's customers were "mostly along the Miami-Catskills axis." Yet the album revealed that when no one was looking the line between Jews and everyone else had blurred. Everybody loved "Sarah Jackman."

Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman
How's by you? How's by you?
How's by you the family?
How's your sister Emily?
She's nice, too.
She's nice, too.

By the end of October 1962, three weeks after it appeared, Folk Singer had sold almost 400,000 copies and was one of the fastest selling albums in history. By early November sales hit half a million, and in December surpassed a million. When the album sold big in Atlanta, Georgia, Billboard had to admit that it was out of its depth. America was changing. "Today's mass-communications media — such as TV, movies, radios, newspapers, magazines — are raising sophistication levels, apparently, and removing some of the 'regional' or 'ethnic' limitation to national popularity."

The highbrow Saturday Review saw in Sherman's success evidence of something more profound. It opined that, "periodically a bard arises in the land whose hitherto uncelebrated talents seem a convulsive expression of a long-suppressed general emotion." That long-suppressed emotion was ethnicity, as the groundbreaking book Beyond the Melting Pot made explicit a year later. The ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s was on its way, but the country needed a volunteer. Some group had to lead the charge and wave the banner for those who had funny last names and relatives that spoke mangled English. Folk Singer said the Jews would take that job.

Sherman was just what everyone had been waiting for.

Too Perfect

Usually, anyone waiting for Sherman found him to be late. This time circumstances forced him to show up early.

In June 1962, Sherman was characteristically pursuing two career opportunities simultaneously and working to undermine at least one of them. To replace his Your Surprise Package producing job that ended in February, he contacted Steve Allen about producing the upcoming Steve Allen Show. On May 23, 1962, Daily Variety announced "Allan Sherman Named Producer of New Steve Allen Show." A week later, on June 1, Sherman signed an Exclusive Artist's Recording Agreement with Warner Bros. Records.

"Bullets said to us that he had a guy, Sherman," said Joe Smith, then head of promotions at Warner. "I had heard Allan, and thought it was interesting. Stuff was Goldeneh." All of Sherman's hustling — the house party performances, the Harpo gig, the Conkling party — had paid off. He had a contract. The music package was within sight.

But it was hardly a guarantee of success, never mind stardom. His Warner contract, engineered by Bullets, was, understandably, modest. Sherman was an unknown, overweight thirty-seven-year-old performer of his own Jewish song parodies. Woody Allen's 1984 film Broadway Danny Rose, about a hapless talent agent, has clients like that. So did Warner Bros. Records. "We had no artists," said Stan Cornyn, a retired top executive who started at Warner as a writer of liner notes when the company was founded in 1958. "Stereo was a niche for us. Polka in stereo, Hawaiian stuff in stereo." The idea was to sell between 8,000 and 10,000 records.

Sherman's contract called for first album royalty rates that topped out at 5 percent for sales in excess of 30,000. A number beyond that was unthinkable. Warner guaranteed one record between July 1, 1962, and June 30, 1963, and two more over the next two years. A record a year is a meager output, and Sherman's royalty rate further limited the possibility of riches. If his first album sold 30,000 copies he would gross about $8,000. Then he would have to pay Bullets, who took Sherman to the cleaners on the deal, demanding 20 percent of his royalties. Ten percent was his standard fee as personal manager, and he argued for the additional ten percent because it would have gone to an agent if Sherman had one. He did not have one. So instead of that 10 percent ending up in Sherman's pocket, Bullets claimed it. In an echo of his mother's scheme to mastermind his marriage, Sherman could not defend himself against single-minded adversaries that pursued their goals without conscience or scruples. He did not even tell Bullets to talk with his lawyers in New York, at Becker and London. That firm took another 6 percent. Sherman's decision to remain childlike into adulthood was expensive.

Still, he found himself in an ideal situation. He was signed with Warner and was the producer for Steve Allen, creator and host in 1954 of the Tonight show and one of the most famous and respected men in television. Sherman had realized his dream of getting a record deal for his Jewish song parodies, and he also improved his position in the television industry. In the 1950s, he wrote and performed his "Goldeneh" parodies while producing I've Got a Secret. Now he could record a parody album a year for Warner Bros. while working for Steve Allen. Both his creative and fiscal needs would be fulfilled. It was perfect, which is a condition no self-destructive person can bear. Just like in college, and at Goodson-Todman, Sherman sawed off the practical limb that supported him.

"We did meetings during the day, and in the evenings Allan and I toured the clubs, listening mostly to jazz, ostensibly scouting talent for the show," said writer Jerry Hopkins about their time together on the Steve Allen Show. Hopkins was Steve Allen's "kook booker," the one who drummed up offbeat characters for the show. "When the bars closed at 2, we'd then go to a big club on Santa Monica Boulevard, for an early breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, scrambled eggs and lox. So it was closer to dawn than midnight when our day ended." This schedule was more than Allan could bear. He was not up to it, physically, and never arrived at work before 10, and then, Hopkins recalled, "seriously out of breath from the one flight of stairs, and threw himself on the couch in his office, where he gasped for breath."

That was not the worst of it. Sherman could not break his Vegas gambling habit, and after he started on the show he concocted a story about needing to speak to a bandleader there. "He lost his money, plane ticket, everything," said Golden. "Dirty, disheveled, he took a bus back. He called me to pick him up to take him to the meeting they were already having."

Despite these infuriating lapses, Sherman's affability and generosity made guest appearances. "He was extraordinarily friendly and kind to me," said Jerry Goldstein, who got into television production thanks to Sherman giving him a gopher job on the Steve Allen Show. And Hopkins counted himself as Sherman's "new best friend." But Sherman was not doing his job. "He sat there telling jokes but not telling us what to do," said Win Opie, the show's assistant director. "He had no creative input to the show at all." Not content with benign neglect, Sherman actively undermined Steve Allen. "He was sitting in the front row and yelling at Steve" during taping, remembered Milt Hoffman, Sherman's associate producer. "Calling attention to himself while Steve was performing." Word got back to Westinghouse, and the show's sponsor sent Joel Chaseman, an experienced producer who had worked for newsman Mike Wallace to investigate. "When I got to the Steve Allen, to put it in the kindest possible light," Chaseman said, "Allan Sherman was just not terribly engaged with the process." The two men had lunch at the Formosa Café, a Chinese restaurant popular for decades with the Hollywood stars whose photographs blanket the walls. "And I asked Allan about a lot of this stuff and he had a variety of non-replies. He was funny and cordial and friendly and nonresponsive."

Three weeks after the announcement of Sherman's hiring came the announcement of his firing. "Oust Producer from Allen's New TV Alley" read a top headline on the front page of the June 19, 1962, Daily Variety. "Allan Sherman has been axed as producer of the new Steve Allen TV show after functioning in that capacity for first week of taping," was the lead. Sherman claimed in his autobiography that Westinghouse planted the story as revenge for his agent insisting Sherman receive full payment as per his contract, regardless of his brief engagement, and that the story left him stranded and alone as a disgraced pariah. The charge seems true. Billboard ran a benign report that Sherman resigned, and gave the minor news the minimal coverage it deserved. But Sherman ignored Westinghouse's efforts to salvage the Steve Allen situation when he was not doing his job, or even showing up. "In his book, he wrote that Westinghouse was evil," Golden said. "Quite the opposite. They called the house and asked for him." And he was no pariah. "He was really more interested in being a talent," Hoffman said.

Excerpt from Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen. Used with permission from Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England.

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