Gone but hardly forgotten: Encounters with comic Jackie Mason in Chicago

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And so, the comic Jackie Mason was saying, in that unforgettably distinctive pure Lower East Side New York accent (thick, nasal) of his, “And so, I may be thinking why Colin Powell is such a sensation. How does a guy become the hottest guy in America when no one knows what he does for a living? He puts on a uniform and a pair of glasses, and everybody says, ‘In this uniform, he’s a genius.’

“An idiot could have put on these same glasses, and he could have been the genius. Nobody knows what he did or what he thinks. They found a person who has a combination of qualities. He’s black and he’s not threatening, and he looks solicitous, and he talks in a modulated tone in a respectful manner, and everybody says, ‘Thanks, God, we found a Black person we could love.’”

This observation was not voiced on a stage, where Mason spent most of his professional life. Rather he was talking in the cozy quiet of the lobby bar of the Hotel InterContinental on Michigan Avenue. It was 1995 and we were drinking tea and he also said to me (during the hour we spent together, he only occasionally stopped talking to take a sip of tea), “Jews are very self-conscious about their Jewishness. They’ve been so persecuted, so they are always imagining that they are going to be persecuted again.”

Mason died last weekend in New York. He was 93 years old (sort of, he was always purposely vague about the year he was born) and though he had not been in the public eye for some years, he has been justifiably praised and fondly remembered in the media.

My colleague Chris Jones, ever astute, had this to say: “(Mason) flew the live-comedy plane pretty well for decades and most every joke landed on his target audience. And there was more self-awareness to him that many realized.”

Mason was, most of the media eulogists rightly observed, one of the last of a breed.

Of that gang the most prominent survivors are Mort Sahl, the brilliant satirist who is 94 and performs infrequently near his home in Mill Valley, Calif., and Bob Newhart, who is 91 and is active on Twitter and plans to perform live when COVID restrictions ease.

It often surprised people to learn that Mason was born (as Jacob Maza) in Sheboygan, Wisc., moving with his family to New York City at age 5. He went into the family business — his Russian-born father, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather had been rabbis, as were his three brothers. Mason became a cantor at 18 and a rabbi at 25.

Getting considerable laughter during his sermons, he began working the Catskill circuit as a standup comic. In 1960, working Los Angeles night clubs he got his first TV shot, on Steve Allen’s “The Tonight Show.” After that his performance fee went from $300 a night to $5,000 and he was on his way to being what he likes to call “a national sensation.”

But in 1964 during an appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” he made a gesture at the host that the host took to be the upraised middle finger. Though film clips of the incident showed clearly that Mason did not make that common if crude gesture, Sullivan was incensed, referring to Mason in print as “an obscene person.”

Canceled was Mason’s $45,000, six-appearance contract with Sullivan. Gone was talk of his getting a sitcom to call his own. Though he was still able to work the clubs, he had been knocked down so many rungs on stardom’s ladder that it took nearly 20 years to climb back up. That happened in 1986 when a new agent persuaded him to stage a one-man show. “The World According to Me!” It started in a small Los Angeles theater, quickly moved to a larger space in Beverly Hills and eventually became a Broadway smash.

It was smooth and lucrative sailing after that and Mason frequently visited Chicago stages. Before the Sullivan mess, he was a regular at Mister Kelly’s and then, in what is surely one of the most remarkable comebacks in entertainment history, sold out such venues as Poplar Creek, the Briar Street Theatre, Schubert Theatre, Zanies and other places.

He liked Chicago.

“I think Chicago is an orderly version of New York,” he told me. “Chicago has maybe a few less restaurants. If New York has 8,000, then Chicago has 4,000. It’s certainly enough. You can’t eat 4,000 meals a day. So, you’re not missing out.”

I saw him perform many times here, interviewed him plenty.

He was no fan of the younger generation of comics, saying, “They are not interested in politics. You talk about the things that interest you the most, and the kids who become comedians today are far more interested in why they take drugs and why they date and who they date and who they fool around with and which party they went to and the problems they have with their parents and whether they should be drinking and how much or how little. Of course it disappoints me, because any intelligent person would say this would be a much better world if people cared a bit more about what’s going on in the country.”

For a time, Mason dated a friend of mine. And though he was never married, he did have a daughter. Her name was Sheba Mason and she came here in 2017 to perform in the show her mother Ginger Reiter had written, “Both Sides of a Famous Love Affair: The Jackie Mason Musical,” at the Skokie Theatre. I wrote about that, telling how Sheba once met her dad backstage when she was a child.

She said that in later years, “We live close to one another in New York, and I would sometimes see him sitting outside a diner in the neighborhood with friends and fans. And he did talk to me once, not long ago after he had read about something I said about him in my act.”

That something was this: “Jackie Mason is a great comedian, but I wish I was the child of a better-looking comedian — like Woody Allen or Rosie O’Donnell.”

Mason was not happy and snapped at his daughter.

“That was OK,” she told me. “I was brought up not to resent him and I can’t force him to be friendly. But he is my dad.”

And was a singular talent. Politically correct? No way. But something to see and hear and remember.


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