Recently, in places where elderly people come together to remember and talk about what they remember, the conversations are colored by the name of Shecky Greene.
Only those of a certain generation know this name; Even fewer can remember seeing him on television, and even fewer can share memories of what he said and did on stages of places like him. Mr Kelly’s on Rush Street, at the Mill Run Playhouse in Niles, or at various Las Vegas outposts.
These journeys back in time, the last death Obituaries in local newspapers included some details of his career, a few ups and downs, but mostly failed to focus on the man’s importance. It belonged to a time that was now completely gone.
As Greene wrote in Gerald Nachman’s entertaining and illuminating 2003 book, “Seriously Funny: Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” he “had to get your attention in every way possible… hold your ear, they had to make verbal and visual noise.” Nightclub goers were out to laugh, and few were fussy about who they were laughing at.”
It’s a difficult life, even now, in comedy, which Nachman describes as “the most dangerous profession in the world.”
“It is harder than other art forms because there is no shield to hide behind; no book, no canvas, no camera, no orchestra, no script, no co-stars, no choreographer. It’s just you and your jokes; If the action fails, you have failed… The comedian is the whole show, the flesh and blood work of art.”
Greene was as big as any nightclub star in his day. He was the one who opened for Elvis in Vegas, opened the new Mill Run Theater in 1970, and earned as much as $150,000 a week in Las Vegas in the 1960s.
He drank too much and had problems, such as once driving his car into the fountain in front of Caesars Palace in Vegas. Later in life, he would realize that he had some mental illnesses and that he could calm down with medication. He achieved modest success in television and film and was happily married to Marie Musso for almost four decades. He played some Vegas, and Vegas was where he died.
But his roots were firmly here since 1926 when Fred Sheldon was born in Greenfield and raised on the North Side (Sullivan High School) and remained close to many people here throughout his life.
“I have great memories of Shecky,” said his son, Marc Schulman. the late Eli SchulmanOnce a well-known restaurateur and founder of Eli’s Cheesecake Company, of which Marc was the long-time president. “She and my dad were very close, real friends, just not like celebrity ones. “I knew him since I was born and I remember many nights sharing the same table with my father.”
Both were World War II veterans and shared a deep Jewish heritage. They also shared a passion for ponies. As Greene noted in an interview, as a young man he “had a silent partner to support – I discovered how to bet on horses.” (The late Chicago business owner and philanthropist Joseph Kellman named one of his racehorses a showman.)
Greene and Eli were friends even before 1962, when Schulman opened Eli’s Stage Delicatessen on Oak Street in the Rush Street nightlife district. It has become a hangout for many stars who stop by for late-night dinners after performing at Mister Kelly’s and other nearby clubs.
Among them were people like Woody Allen, Bobby Short and Barbra Streisand, who stopped by for late-night dinners and lively conversations.
I met Greene through Eli; He was also a regular visitor to Schulman’s later restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steak, on Chicago Avenue, where Lurie Hospital was later located. He was an extremely entertaining speaker and storyteller. Since he was Eli’s friend, the name Sinatra came up frequently. Greene was Sinatra’s opening act in Las Vegas and elsewhere until their strong personalities clashed and fell out.
Indeed, one of Greene’s most memorable routines was about “how Sinatra saved my life.” It focused on Sinatra being beaten by five men in a hotel lobby until he said, “Okay, guys, that’s enough.”
Greene insisted the story was true and also had some interesting things to say about the watch Sinatra gifted Schulman, who wore it with pride. But it’s hard to catch him in print while sitting next to the comedian or even watching his show. His style was almost improvisational, energetic, and full of treats like impressions, manic physical routines, stories, and singing. He seemed very eager to please. As he once told a newspaper reporter, “I had no action. I’m making it up as I go along.
You can find brief examples of this online, that oasis of immortality, where laughter still echoes after life is gone.
“He was one of a kind,” Marc Schulman said. “It was here when my father died (in 1988). He was very upset, and as a token of his deep love for my father, he asked if he could give me one of his shirts for Eli’s burial. That’s what we did.”
This wonderfully caring gesture meant a lot to Marc and his family, and he stayed in touch with Greene in the following years by phone and occasionally sending her cheesecake. “I think they and their friendship represented a kind of sentimentality that seemed to have vanished, to be completely gone,” he says now.