Rejuvenating the Leftie Spiel

Rejuvenating the Leftie Spiel

Professor Irwin Corey at Village Vanguard in time for an acceptance speech

There are at least 250, 000 people reportedly headed this way, from all over, to express an opinion regarding the occupying power that takes over Manhattan for four days starting Monday.

There is only one of Irwin Corey, and he is already here.


“HowEVER!” said Professor Irwin Corey, the World’s Foremost Authority, as he contemplates the leadership of these United States. Whenever Irwin Corey takes a breath and says “HowEVER!”—and he’s been saying it for more than 60 years now, in and out of places like the Village Vanguard—you know that he’s off on a new lunatic spiel of non sequitur, ultra sequitur, and/or parabolic sequitur that makes no sense whatsoever except that it makes perfect sense.

“Our country?” he said. “One of the reasons Russian ballerinas and Cuban baseball players defect to the United States is because the United States is the most defective country in the world.”

“Presidents?” the Professor said, or exploded, “I remember them all. George Washington was one of our first presidents. He was known as the father of his country, an amazing feat considering that decent transportation was at a minimum at that time. Our government put up a tremendous erection in his honor, but it wasn’t Jewish because it had a little tip at the end.

“The best president we ever had was Millard Fillmore. Two weeks after he was elected, he went on vacation. Four years later they looked and found that he was dead. One of the good things about our presidents is that most of them are dead.

“Bush? I’d rather be a son of a bitch than a son of a Bush,” said the little old silken-haired political philosopher, and he’ll be saying it again, and many other things along the same lines, during four nights next week at the historic Village Vanguard, Seventh Avenue at Perry Street, in tribute to the Republican National Convention. Lorraine Gordon, widow of Vanguard founder Max Gordon, brought him in.

At the Vanguard he’ll be wearing his no less historic attire of black tie and four-foot-long-trailing tuxedo over sneakers, but now, interview time, we find him at his day job—well, nights and matinees job—as Court Clerk in Larry Gelbart’s “Sly Fox” at the Ethel Barrymore on Broadway. Here in his dressing room between shows last Saturday, he’s again in a tuxedo, but without the long tails or the sneakers.

There was a time when you could not turn on the tube without catching Irwin Corey assaulting the brains and laughter glands of Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, Jackie Gleason—and this, mind you, given that Irwin Corey was perhaps the most overtly, unapologetically radical radical (read: old leftist) ever to hit the airwaves—if you could grasp the wit within those house-of-mirrors sequiturs.

So imagine what he’ll do with Bush, once he gets going. As for instance: “Did you know that until 1824 this country had no popular vote? And they’re going to bring democracy to Iraq?

“Bush was the one that said: ‘Seventy-five percent of the people in Iraq want peace and security… and when we find those people we’re going to bring them to justice.’ He SAID that!”

Well, maybe.

A visitor to the dressing room during all this was Dr. Martha Friedman, psychotherapist, author of “Overcoming the Fear of Success” and a friend of Corey’s since, they reckoned, 1948, when they had had children in the same nursery school.

“This man,” Friedman remembered, “came and sat down next to me while there was a fight going on at a parents-and-teachers meeting, the way there usually was. He said: ‘Is that person speaking a good guy or a bad guy?’ I said, ‘A bad guy.’ He stood up and started to denounce her. I thought I was sitting next to a crazy man. He offered to give me a lift home. When we go out, there’s a block-long Cadillac sitting there. I let him drive me home, and we’ve been friends ever since.”

She also remembered this: “My husband Chick was in the construction business. At one time he ran out of money, and was very depressed. Irwin came by and said: ‘What’s the matter?’ The matter was that Chick couldn’t meet a payroll. Irwin said: ‘That’s all?’—and pulled $2,000 out of his pocket. It saved us, and when we could, we gave it all back.”

The Professor, there in his dressing room, came in at the end of the story with a flourish: “… and it wasn’t $2,000—it was $5,000!”

He can give the exact date of his very first appearance at the Village Vanguard: October 20, 1942.

Had Max Gordon discovered him?

“Well, nobody discovered me. I was there all the time. I was in a play with Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives, and Guthrie was found in a bar, all mushed out, so I had to take his place. For Max Gordon, I auditioned three days, and on the Friday he said: ‘You’ve got the job.’ After four weeks, Paul Petrov, who did the murals on the walls of the Vanguard, was standing next to Gordon, who pointed to me and asked Petrov: ‘What do you think? Is he funny?’ Petrov said: ‘How much are you paying him?’ Max said: ‘Forty dollars a week.’ Petrov said: ‘He’s funny, keep him.’ I got a raise to $60 a week.

“Then I got into ‘New Faces of 1943.’ I missed the first show at the Vanguard, so Max took back $10. I said: ‘I don’t need this [the Vanguard], so he gave the money back, and for four weeks I was making $60 uptown and $60 downtown—$120 a week! We moved into an apartment where the Longacre Theater is now, and men kept calling and asking: ‘Is Mary there?’… ‘Is Louise there?’… ‘Is Clara there ?’… ‘Is Gloria there?’”

Irwin Corey and his wife Fran have a son named Richard, who’s a painter, and a grandson named Amadeo—“for Modigliani”—who, at seven, is something of a poet and an artist himself. Evidence, freely supplied by grandpa: One poem—“My kitten has / two green eyes / one tale / four feet”—and one gold-star-winning school paper, with drawings, on What Lives in Washington Square Park: “Cockroaches, Squirrels, Lady Bugs, Butterflies, Spiders, Birds, Trees, Ants, Snails.”

On the dressing-room mirror, reproductions of two famous photographs: That naked, napalmed little girl running, screaming down a road in Vietnam, and the pistol being fired, blank range, into the head of a suspected member of the Vietcong. “The man who shot him used to live next to us in Great Neck. He was a general. He had nine children,” said Irwin Corey—who doesn’t forget or forgive anything.

Next to all that is a photo of Fidel Castro.

“[John] Kerry is Jewish, you know. Robert De Niro is Jewish. His mother is Jewish, so he’s Jewish. Stallone is Jewish, same way. Elvis Presley’s mother was Jewish. Castro’s mother was Jewish. Her name was Ruiz, a Jewish name. Disraeli was Jewish. Jesus was Jewish.

“But Moses wasn’t Jewish. He was Egyptian, and not only Egyptian, but black. And he created the Jewish religion.”

In his dressing room, Corey acted out Moses hurling the tablets and thus shattering the Ten Commandments.

The sneakers?

“That started when somebody stole my shoes one day at the Vanguard. And then everybody copied it. Woody Allen, everybody.”

The HowEVERs?

“That started when I fell off the stage at the Vanguard” — hands indicating an eight-inch drop—“and got back up and started over with ‘HowEVER…’”

Lots of people have copied that too.

Irwin Corey was, he declared, born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1914, though elsewhere you can find a 1912 date he ascribed to “when I went to get a driving license as a kid” and added two years to his age.

In any event, consider this. The man has been doing eight Broadway shows a week at the Ethel Barrymore. He had planned to use the dark night on Monday to hit the Vanguard at 8 p.m., scheduling the other performances next week for midnight. Had “Sly Fox” not announced its closing for this Sunday, August 29, on Wednesday of next week Professor Irwin Corey would have done a matinee and an evening performance and then headed downtown to take his midnight whacks at George W, Bush & Co. At age 90, apparently, Corey will be able, after all, to take it just a little easier. Okay, so 250,000 people are on their way thisaway. HowEVER…

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