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Mon June 3, 2013
Hello Muddah, Hello Drama: The Brief Bloom Of Parodist Allan Sherman
Originally published on Mon June 3, 2013 5:53 pm
The summertime novelty tune "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" has been pouring out of radios for 50 years now. In late July of 1963, Billboard magazine reported that fans were "actually breaking down doors" of record stores to buy the song about the pains of summer camp.
The man behind the sensation was a short, plump guy with a crew cut and big glasses. Allan Sherman had been a TV producer who'd entertained his friends with song parodies for years. He collected them on an LP called My Son, The Folk Singer — old favorites rewritten with a contemporary suburban Jewish audience in mind. It was never expected to appeal to the general public.
To everyone's surprise, Sherman's humor did translate. By August 1963, three Sherman albums were on Billboard's Top 100 chart. Writer Mark Cohen has written a book about the short-lived success of the musical satirist. It's called, somewhat cruelly, Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.
"I think Sherman was a very interesting pop-culture figure, at a moment when ethnic identity was first blossoming in America in the postwar period," Cohen tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We had had a long period of Americanization, and Sherman appeared just at the moment when that was beginning to end."
That moment in the "blossoming" of American Jewish identity included the success of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein and Saul Bellow. But for Sherman, Cohen says, success was an uneasy fit.
"The year of extraordinary fame that he enjoyed from the fall of '62 to the fall of '63, when his three My Son albums all went gold, was an extraordinary moment that made his life a success — for him, at any rate — before things went fatally wrong," Cohen says. "Sherman was an extraordinarily hungry man, for all sorts of experiences. And that included drink, lots of food, lots of women, lots of gambling. I'm forgetting all the vices, 'cause he covered them all."
The irony, Cohen says, is that Sherman was born to a home that shunned its own Jewishness. His mother, Rose Sherman, and father, Percy Copelon, both came to the country as children and were respectively raised in Chicago and Birmingham, Ala.
"They were very unstable people who were really not capable of raising a child," Cohen says. "His mother had to send him to her parents, and in his grandparents' home, he discovered the world that his mother left behind. And he decided, 'This is what I want in life.' "
Other Jewish figures from Sherman's era, like Mel Brooks, went on to lasting fame and far greater mainstream appeal. Cohen says that Sherman — who died at 48 in 1973 — was ultimately limited by the very thing that brought him joy.
"Sherman was much more greatly damaged," Cohen says. "I often think about [a] wonderful little poem I discovered that he wrote when he was in junior high school: 'Humpty Dumpty sat on a train / singing "Bei Mir Bistu Shein.' He was a damaged, fragile Humpty Dumpty, who could be made happy by singing Jewish-oriented songs."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This summertime novelty tune has been pouring out of radios now for 50 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO MUDDAH, HELLO FADDUH!")
ALLAN SHERMAN: (Singing) Hello, Muddah. Hello, Fadduh. Here I am at Camp Grenada. Camp is very entertaining, and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.
SIEGEL: In late July of 1963, Billboard magazine reported that fans were, and I quote, "actually breaking down doors," unquote, of record stores to buy the song about the pains of summer camp. The man behind this sensation was a short, plump guy with a crew cut, big glasses and a surprisingly small nose. He had it fixed. Allan Sherman had been a TV producer who had entertained his friends with song parodies for years. He then collected them on an L.P. record called "My Son, the Folksinger." Old favorites were rewritten with a contemporary suburban Jewish audience in mind. It was never expected to appeal to the general public.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHTICKS AND STONES")
SHERMAN: (Singing) I'm upside down. My head is turning around because I got to sell the house in Levittown. Oh, salesmen come and salesmen go, and my best one is gone I know. And if he don't come back to me, I'll have to close the factory. Give me Jack Cohen and I don't care.
SIEGEL: To everyone's surprise, by August of 1963, three Sherman albums were on Billboard's Top 100 chart. Mark Cohen has written a book about the short-lived success of the musical satirist. It's called, somewhat cruelly, "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman." And Mark Cohen joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
MARK COHEN: Thank you. Glad to be here.
SIEGEL: Allan Sherman was funny, and at the time, he was a very big success. But an almost scholarly book about him? I mean, what can we learn from this man's story?
COHEN: Well, I think Sherman was a very interesting pop-culture figure, at a moment when ethnic identity was first blossoming in America in the postwar period. We had had a long period of Americanization, and Sherman appeared just at the moment when that was beginning to end.
SIEGEL: And it's a real moment certainly in the life of the American Jewish community, not just pop culture, Leonard Bernstein, the novelist Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. There was a more frank depiction of what it was to be Jewish in America and often a funny depiction.
COHEN: Right. And that was one of Sherman's big themes, was trying to own some of the Jewish cultural products that Jews offered to America without, as I jokingly say, asking for a receipt.
SIEGEL: I remember the Allan Sherman days, and this is part of my favorite Allan Sherman song called "Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE HANDS WITH YOUR UNCLE MAX")
SHERMAN: (Singing) Shake hands with your Uncle Max, my boy, and here is your sister Shirl, and here is your cousin Isabel. That's Irving's oldest girl. And you remember the Tishman twins, Gerald and Jerome. We all came out to greet you and to wish you welcome home. Meet Merowitz, Berowitz, Handelman, Schandelman, Sperber and Gerber and Steiner and Stone, Boskowitz, Lubowitz, Aaronson, Baronson, Kleinman and Feinman and Freidman and Cohen, Smallowitz, Wallowitz, Tidelbaum...
SIEGEL: You know, the problem for people who are not of a certain age is they don't know the Irish tune that this was satirizing.
COHEN: That's true, but I also remember hearing the song before I understood that it was a parody of an earlier Irish tune. That didn't diminish my enjoyment of the song. But once I did learn it, it became even more brilliant.
SIEGEL: The story of Allan Sherman apart from his great success, he'd already been successful as a television producer. When he became a huge success - this is the classic did success ruin Allan Sherman. The answer is absolutely, totally, fatally. He had a heart attack at a fairly early age.
COHEN: He died before he turned 49, but, of course, the year of extraordinary fame that he enjoyed when his three "My Son" albums all went gold made his life a success for him at any rate before things went fatally wrong.
SIEGEL: So what went wrong?
COHEN: Well, where do I begin? Sherman was an extraordinarily hungry man for all sorts of experiences, and that included drink, lots of food, lots of women, lots of gambling. I'm forgetting all the vices because he covered them all.
SIEGEL: Here's the great irony or perhaps it's more predictable than that about Allan Sherman, which is he ends up becoming this guy who makes jokes about being Jewish in America in the 1960s. In his own family, his parents were terrible to him, ran from their Jewishness. He was ultimately raised by his much more happily Jewish grandparents.
COHEN: He was born as Allan Copelon, and his mother, her maiden name was Rose Sherman. His father was Percy Copelon. His mother raised in Chicago. His father raised in Birmingham, Alabama. They were very unstable people who were really not capable of raising a child. And so his mother had to send him to her parents. And in his grandparents' home, he discovered the world that his mother left behind. And he decided: This is what I want in life.
SIEGEL: In my very small sample of people under 40 that I've checked, Allan Sherman's humor is not all that accessible. You'd have to transport yourself back to 1963. For example, this parody which has, I think, one of his funniest lines ever written.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BALLAD OF HARRY LEWIS")
SHERMAN: (Singing) I'm singing you the ballad of a great man of the cloth. His name was Harry Lewis, and he worked for Irving Roth.
SIEGEL: You have to assume that Jews in New York are deeply involved in employment in the garment industry - cutting, sewing, selling - that this is what employed the better part of a huge Jewish community.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, ""THE BALLAD OF HENRY LEWIS")
SHERMAN: (Singing) Oh, Harry Lewis perished in the service of his Lord. He was trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored.
SIEGEL: He worked awfully hard for that joke.
COHEN: That was a pretty darn good pun.
SIEGEL: There are people from those days, like Mel Brooks, who went on, who survived, who became bigger than they were in the early 1960s. Allan Sherman, I don't know that, you know, that people remember him or know that much about him these days.
COHEN: No. That's very true. Sherman was much more greatly damaged. I often think about that wonderful little poem I discovered that he wrote when he was in junior high school: Humpty Dumpty sat on a train, happily singing Bei Mir Bistu Shein. He was a damaged, fragile Humpty Dumpty, who could be made happy by singing Jewish-oriented songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARVEY AND SHEILA")
SHERMAN: (Singing) Harvey and Sheila, Harvey and Sheila, Harvey and Sheila moved to West L.A.
COHEN: He said the Christian name of this song is "Hava Nagila." He felt Harvey and Sheila was really closer to the truth about American Jewish life than "Hava Nagila" itself.
SIEGEL: Mark Cohen, author of "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman," thank you very much for talking with us about him today.
COHEN: Robert, thank you very much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARVEY AND SHEILA")
SHERMAN: (Singing) Oh, that Harvey, he was really smart. He used his noodle. Sheila bought a white French poodle, went to Europe with a visa, Harvey's rich, they say that he's a VIP. This could be only in the USA.
CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.