Saturday, December 18, 2010

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DANNY SIMON


For five grand and glorious years, I was a student of a comedy genius. His name was Danny Simon. Few people have been such an influence in my life as he. Danny was a sweet man who also could be tough as fingernails on a black board. But that was good for you. That made you learn. That made you work harder than you might off. As a librettist and playwright today, I call upon his principles and his rules of writing every single day of my life. That was especially true the day when I pitched a "Golden Girls" to the producers of that show, I slew them with this one: I was asked by them to come up with a funny premise for two of the characters of the show: Sophia and Dorothy. Thinking like crazy I thought about a showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" which my then room mate at the time had gone to see the night before at midnight. So I blurt out "Sophia and Dorothy are caught in a Rocky Horror Picture show line" Now you may not know that once you would get into one of these lines there is (because of security reasons) no getting out. You get into it-- you stay in it) The producers smiled and said "That smells funny!" Ah, ha, I thought, Danny had used that term all the time in class. So I continued. "Dorothy and Sophia are caught in a "Rocky Picture Show line and are compelled to go into the theatre with all of these crazy kids. The producers kept smiling. Then one of them asked me "What would Sophia say after she was forced to watch this odd classic?" In my best Sophia voice at the time I blurted out "All of these crazy kids pointed at me and went "Virgin, Virgin". That's like pointing at Queen Elizabeth and saying "Pretty, Pretty." They were on the floor. Danny Simon was my hero and now I am good friends with his ex- wife Arlene-- and she's a hoot all by herself! Danny's daughter Valerie was also my special friend. Born in 1918, Danny began as a delivery boy before he got a job of doing publicity which brought him into contact with those who would help launch him and his brother into the celebrity sphere. Danny and Neil got a job writing for the Robert Q. Lewis Radio Show and went on to write for comics like Milton Berle, Henry Youngman, Dick Shawn and others. They were hired to do the Phil Silver’s Arrow Show by a young producer, Ernie Gluxman. As Danny says, “from then on, we never stopped working.” Next it was with that classic Hollywood personality Tallulah Bankheard in a nine-year stint with his brother as one of the funniest comedy writing teams in New York. Neil wanted to stay in the Big apple, so when Danny left for Hollywood, Neil featured him in Come Blow Your Horn, the first of six plays that featured his brother. Meanwhile, Danny found plenty of opportunity in California. He became the head writer for the Danny Thomas Show, crafted humor for Ann Southern and, as he says, “went from show to show doing over twenty-five different ones including Carol Burnett.”
Danny’s success at being a writer inspired others to hire him to direct in theatres around the country. He brought down the house in Plaza Suite with Carol Burnett and George Kennedy and he took a play he wrote and directed, Catch a Star, to the Broadway stage.When a friend asked him to come and talk to his comedy writing class, Danny was “very nervous because I never went to college and I was sure the students would laugh at me.” Indeed, they laughed. But not at him. Instead Danny became a popular comedy writing teacher, traveling to locations around the world to teach at colleges and training institutes. Now, that he’s moved to Portland, his one regret is that he had to discard over 2000 adoring letters from his students. Though there was'n’t enough space in his apartment at the Rose Schnitzer Manor, for the letters, there’s plenty of room for accolades. Like the one from Woody Allen who said, “I learned a few things on my own since, and modified some of the things he taught me, but I learned about comedy writing, unequivocally, from Danny Simon.” Danny knew the secret of comedy. He used to say that you should “write with the sense of humor you were born with.” He loved Everybody Loves Raymond because the show’s humor came from the personalities and was then stretched. The best comedy is exaggerated truth that fits the character. Everything starts with the truth.”With a twinkle in his eye and a charming smile, the Danny used to say that this comedy writing technique worked for his brother, too saying “Neil writes about people he knew and understood and he is much funnier that I am...he has a brilliant sense of humor.” The brother’s success doesn’t come from one liners. Theirs is a brand of humor that emerges from characters who tell outrageous, yet believable stories.
Ernest Borgnine, Don Rickles, Vivian Vance...the list goes on and on. But Danny is not content to rest on his very many accomplishments, he’s busy at work, starting a senior theatre company in the retirement home. He has many good actors to choose from because Phil Silver’s cousin and others who love performing also live there. Whatever happens with the theatre company, Danny is happy. In his understated, writer-type of way, he says, “It’s been a nice life.” Thanks, Danny, for adding so much humor to ours. Thanks, Danny for being the very best teacher that I ever had. I will keep your principles alive.

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