When diehard Mel Brooks fans walked into the legendary Radio City Music Hall on September 1, 2016, we were greeted with the soundtrack from “Young Frankenstein” and “High Anxiety” as well as Blazing Saddles Trivia. We were there to watch “Blazing Saddles” before a talk back with the master of comedy himself, Mel Brooks. The lights dimmed, and the cheering started, and that memorable song with the whip sound began to play while the huge WB logo came up on that remarkable screen. The cheers felt like we were at a concert more than a movie. Then, like a who’s who of comedy legends, the credits began to roll and cheers accompanied each of them as if they were all in the audience with us.
But unfortunately, we’ve lost them all.
Apart from Mel, who is still as sharp as he was in 1974, every principal player in that cast has passed away. The cheering continued when each character appeared on screen. Big applause for Cleavon Little’s rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” Screams for Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn and Mel Brooks. An applause break for Count Basie in the middle of the desert. Collective laughter for horse punching, old lady beating, toll booth collecting, song & dance routines, cattle, dumb townspeople, and food fights. And of course, when Bart looks into the camera and tells us “the drunk in number two must be awake,” a roar shot up for the man who proved that there should be a comedy category for acting at the Academy Awards. He was one of the most gifted performers of his generation, but Gene Wilder never got a golden statue.
Then, the iconic film was over, and the icon walked onto the stage to a standing ovation. The last time he was at Radio City was when his groundbreaking musical “The Producers” won the most TONY Awards in history. He made sure to point out that “Hamilton” has more nominations, but he still has the most wins.
At 90 years old and with his small frame and sparse white hair, he appears to be a frail old man. Then he opens his mouth. Witty, sarcastic, sharp and with a memory like a steel trap, Mel delivered every story straight out to the audience while standing center stage. He tells the same stories over and over again so if you’re a fan, you’ve heard them all before, but somehow they never get old.
The story of growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and paying $18 a month for rent. The story of walking down the street with Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart when 3 nuns walk by and Mel says “take off those costumes girls, the sketch is OUT!”
The story of meeting Anne Bancroft and how, as a Broadway star earning more money than him, she always passed him cash under the table at a restaurant so he could pay the check. He tells these stories as if they happened yesterday when some of them happened 85 years ago! He took questions from the audience and had a mic drop moment when he was asked “boxers or briefs” and without missing a beat he answered “depends.”
He’s as endearing and charming as ever. He told Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn stories. He shared memories of his mother, his wife, Sid Caesar, and performing in the Catskills. He praised the talents of Richard Pryor, Cleavon Little and Marty Feldman. He sang for us (still in key), and decided at one point that he was having so much fun he wanted to walk around the chairs on stage (which he did).
He ended the night and waved goodbye, then he ran off stage so he could come back again for an encore. He waved again, got flowers from the first row and went off again. Then he came back out again. And as I watched him exit the stage for the last time, I knew I had just experienced a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Being in the same room as my hero, and listening to him talk about his masterpiece. I’ll never forget that night, and when he leaves us, I’ll never forget him.