In March 1973, I drove onto the Burbank lot of Warner Brothers to begin a polish of my script Black Bart, the second title of the phenomenon that morphed into Blazing Saddles. (The first was Tex X, rejected due to the studio’s reluctance to have an “X” leering from the marquee.) I was 28, simultaneously awestruck and giddy, my heart racing, but as I passed through the studio gates, an immense sadness engulfed me and tears began to run down my cheeks. This reaction was at once surprising and entirely logical, because while I drove alone in my rented Camaro, a ghostly passenger sat beside me—my father Rudy Bergman, whose turbulent but not atypical history had led me to this piercing moment.
Rudy Bergman was a German-Jewish refugee, born in Laupheim, Germany, on November 14, 1911. He was a tall, shy, funny man who often referred to Hitler as “my travel agent.” He had fled Deutschland in 1937, arriving in New York with no money and no prospects; America was not then in the deepest morass of the Great Depression, but it was still on life support and work was scarce. My dad was initially routed into a holding pattern of menial jobs, at one point selling Fuller Brushes door to door, a task for which he was spectacularly ill-suited. Shlepping a sample case and ringing strange doorbells was a considerable comedown for a person born into relative prosperity, but my father found the situation more comic than tragic, and it left no scars. Rudy was a man for whom bitterness was an unknown sensation.
I say that he knew relative prosperity. Middle-class Jews in Weimar Germany lived not extravagantly but very, very well, with far more domestic help than I ever experienced in my years as a hotsy-totsy writer-director. Laupheim was a small but not insignificant town in Southern Germany and its bourgeoisie employed battalions of maids and nannies and laundresses; parents basically saw their kids at bath time, in a snapshot of togetherness before or after dinner. Rudy was the eldest of the three children born to Paula and Edwin Bergmann, the part owner of Bergmann Wigs, a producer of hairpieces and associated products that exists to this day, more than 80 years after the Nazis seized its Laupheim factory. In fact, some performances at the Metropolitan Opera still utilize ancient Bergmann wigs. (The second ‘n’ was dropped when my father arrived in New York.)
The Bergmanns were an interesting bunch. My grandfather Edwin, who died when I was two, was intrigued by photography; my grandmother Paula, who was not permitted, in the custom of the time, any profession whatsoever except for curating headaches and joint pain, revealed herself later to be a spectacular and witty correspondent, writing hilarious letters in her second language. The star of the family was my father’s younger sister Margaret (Gretel), a world-class high-jumper whose racial banishment from the German Olympic team on the eve of the 1936 Games became an international cause célèbre that eventually inspired both a documentary (HBO’s Hitler’s Pawn) and feature (Berlin 1936) film. She died in Queens in 2017 at age 103, by then lionized in Germany (with stadia named after her) and very much at peace after years of anger at her stolen opportunities. After Gretel immigrated to the U.S., she became an American woman’s high-jump and shot-put champion, despite never having thrown the shot in her life! Unfortunately, she exhausted the family’s athletic genes.
While aunt Gretel was a budding sports star, Rudy was living a relatively unfocussed and, dare I say, frivolous existence. Photos of the time feature my dad and his pals blearily wielding beer steins in their beloved Zum Ochsen saloon or lounging on bucolic hillsides with a variety of smiling women. His memories of Germany were unfailingly pleasant, even after his brutal displacement. In truth, he had lived a more leisurely and unstressed life pre-Hitler than his own kids did in the scrappy lower-middle-class world of 1950s Queens.
Rudy took a while finding himself, cushioned by the family’s comfortable condition. After fruitless stints in business schools in Neuchatel, Switzerland, and Frankfurt, he turned to music, believing that his passion for piano might be more than a phase. He studied the instrument under the Hungarian composer Matyas Seiber at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, which maintained a jazz department until the Nazis shuttered it in 1933. It was a turning point; those lessons, however brief, ignited a creativity that was at his very essence. A life in business was simply not for him. My dad was an ingenious fellow, endlessly curious and enthusiastic, whether playing Gershwin tunes, painting, or taking (and developing) remarkable black-and-white photographs in both Germany and New York that formed an indelible record of refugee life in the 1930s and ’40s.
I’m not claiming that Rudy was some kind of Leonardo, but he was a particular type of artistically inclined immigrant who, either by genetic inclination, too-cushy childhood, or just a born-lucky Weltanschauung, instinctively shied away from ambition. It just wasn’t in him, as it hadn’t been in the makeup of his father, either. The Bergmanns were basically reticent people, even superstar Gretel. But in his early twenties, with a mercantile career clearly not in the cards, Rudy had to figure something out.
Enter Carl Laemmle.
Laupheim was also the hometown of Herr Laemmle, the genial founder of Universal Pictures. That turned out to be not merely a lucky happenstance for my father, but also an important factor in launching my black sheriff and me on the road to Burbank.
“Uncle Carl” Laemmle was an authentic pioneer of the movie business—and a far more benevolent soul than founding ogres like Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, or the Warner brothers. Laemmle had immigrated from Laupheim to New York in 1884 and almost immediately entrained to Chicago. He was then 17. After working as a bookkeeper for a clothing manufacturer, Laemmle abruptly pivoted and purchased a small movie theater in Chicago. He acquired an immediate appetite for this electrifying blend of art and commerce and headed for Southern California to make his fortune.
Despite his full embrace of Hollywood and its palmy lifestyle, Laemmle never forgot Laupheim or its beery inhabitants. Blessedly, he was a soft touch; thanks to his largesse, my father gained employment at Universal Pictures in Berlin (the famed UFA), doing odd jobs and loving both Weimar Berlin and the louche ambiance of movie work. I can testify that once one has lived and breathed on a movie set, the rest of life can seem wan and low-stakes, lacking the minute-by-minute fizz of film production. So it is not surprising that Rudy developed a crush on show business that lasted for the rest of his all-too-short life.
Exiting Germany gained urgency once anti-Semitism was codified by the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935—which, for openers, stripped Jews of their citizenship and forbade intermarriage. At this juncture, Rudy once again turned to Laemmle, who provided an affidavit vouchsafing that my father and his fellow Jewish townsmen were guaranteed jobs in the U.S. and would not become wards of the state.
By offering his assurance in this way, Uncle Carl saved the lives of at least a thousand people, whose situation became increasingly dire as Hitler’s race war escalated in lethality and it became obvious that the Western democracies had no more appetite for Jews than the Nazis.
Thus, I owe my life—and hence my children and grandchildren’s lives—to this mild-mannered soul with a fortune built from a multitude of coins dropped by Americans famished for this new entertainment. Those early moviegoers, in their derbies and flouncy dresses, the boys in knickers and newsboy caps, lined up to drop their nickels into the pocket of Uncle Carl, who ultimately used this amassed small change to do more tangible good than the leaders of the so-called free world.
Rudy was all too cognizant of his debt to Uncle Carl and remained so for the rest of his life. A 1931 biography of Laemmle by John Drinkwater held an honored place in my family’s bookcase, and Laemmle’s name was pronounced with reverence throughout my childhood and beyond. He was a kind of patron saint, underscored by the fact that my mother, born in the Black Forest town of Kippenheim, had no Laemmle watching over her and was helpless to prevent her parents’ deportation and subsequent gassing at Auschwitz (events excruciatingly detailed in Michael Dobbs’s recent book, The Unwanted). My childhood apartment was small and the Holocaust took up a great deal of space. It wasn’t spoken of all that often, but it was as much a part of our home as the wallpaper.
What did my dad do once he retired the Fuller Brushes? He realized that he possessed a marketable skill, particularly in a country moving almost unconsciously into wartime: He was fluent in German and English. Be a translator! Rudy had a terrific ear, related to his musicality, and also a gift for mimicry. He had learned English at an early age, and when he arrived in New York, he placed a dictionary next to the toilet to increase his vocabulary. By 1940, he claimed to have begun dreaming in English, which he identified as the landmark moment of his assimilation.
With this skill, Rudy found work at the New York Daily News, listening to German shortwave broadcasts and translating them for the news desk. The Daily News in the 1940s had a daily circulation of more than 2 million copies, rising to a nearly unimaginable 4.7 million on Sundays. My dad was suddenly the ears for millions of New Yorkers, but as the war ended, he moved beyond the largely mechanical work of translation to the Radio-TV desk. Now a newsman proper, he became infatuated with the Runyonesque world of New York’s mightiest tabloid—a universe of underpaid and wisecracking journalists, press agents hyping their clients, and ink-smeared typesetters working on massive linotype machines in Dickensian conditions. Despite the abysmal wages, he loved this all-so-metropolitan world.
As I learned to read, I began to recognize my dad’s name in print, bylining his columns and reviews, and it was a thrill each time, as it is merely to write “Rudy Bergman” now, 49 years since his death, with the magical belief that I can summon him back to life, a cold coal suddenly glowing red. I joyously recall a morning in junior high school when outraged girls began castigating me for Rudy having referred to Elvis Presley as “Elvis the Pelvis” after an early appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. They read my Dad’s column! Sadly, it didn’t give me much social traction; then again, at age 11 and barely over five feet tall, nothing would. But it was a portent of frothy, showbiz fun in the offing.
More important, my father’s love of comedy became a kind of ongoing seminar for me. He was the first person in New York to notice Ernie Kovacs’s revolutionary performing style; as a result, he and Kovacs established a friendship that endured until the comedian’s fatal 1962 automobile crash. One day, Rudy appeared on Kovacs’s live afternoon TV show, introduced as a critic who had “graciously volunteered” to observe the broadcast. I had gained permission to skip school and watched in wonder as my dad appeared, bound in ropes and roughly dumped behind a typewriter. Rudy played along, deadpan, as the prop-loving Kovacs continually cut to him during the broadcast, once with a clothespin attached to his nose, another time with smoke billowing from his typewriter.
Rudy’s ambitions went well beyond journalism. He wrote comedy, submitting sketches to Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, all politely rejected, and then began writing gags for another Jewish exile, the wondrous pianistic comedian Victor Borge. He and my Dad were made for each other, with their shared refugee sensibility and love of music and wordplay. Also, my father worked cheap, which Borge happily obliged.
At the time, the Dane was starring in Comedy In Music, a one-man show that ran for three years on Broadway. It was my first experience at the theater, and it was both sidesplitting and entrancing. To watch this brilliant combination of verbal wit (the famed “phonetic punctuation” routine) and physical comedy (falling off the piano bench) was a revelation to nine-year-old me. And the laughter! That roar from a live audience, the helpless submission to a surefire gag, was the first taste of a drug I would be addicted to until this very day.
Borge’s timing was extraordinary. Years later, I had the pleasure of working with George Burns, who had encyclopedic comic knowledge. When I brought up Borge’s name, George flatly declared that only Jack Benny had better timing. The best routine that Rudy wrote for Borge relied entirely on timing. It was the “self-winding watch” bit. While playing Liszt, Borge abruptly paused and began rotating his left wrist, explaining that he had just purchased a self-winding watch. A laugh. He resumed playing, still ruminating about the watch, explaining that the hotel operator phoned him nightly every few hours, awakening him to wiggle his wrist. But that wasn’t all: Because said operator also possessed such a watch, Borge periodically had to wake himself up to phone her back! He then catalogued the watch’s myriad features—telling time in different zones, cataloguing sunrises and phases of the moon, before announcing, “It is now low tide in Honolulu!” Rudy sold this gag—used in perpetuity by Borge and included in his classic Comedy in Music album—for a total of $150.
If the experience was not all that remunerative for my father, it was certainly intoxicating for me. On Saturdays, Rudy and I would take the Flushing train into Manhattan to visit Borge after his matinee performance at the Golden Theater and deliver some fresh material. We would sit in Borge’s dressing room, listening to the explosive laughter from below. At about four o’clock we would hear thunderous applause, and then Borge’s poodle would run up the stairs and into the room, followed by the Dane himself, unfastening his black tie. As cheap as Borge was, he was unfailingly kind and funny to me. One weekend he invited us all to his massive estate in Connecticut, where I developed an immediate and futile crush on his daughter Sanna. When I played my first piano recital at Turtle Bay Music School, he immediately called our Corona home and accused me of stealing his act.
I felt entirely at ease around him, and I have no doubt the experience conditioned me to feel social comfort around the high and mighty of show business, an experience that proved invaluable once I was put in a writing room with the likes of Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor as my very first professional experience. Even Marlon Brando, whom I directed in The Freshman, could be handled once I discovered his fatal weakness for Borscht Belt comedy. I had been inoculated against awe.
When I decided to pursue a writer’s life, instead of that of a history professor, my old man was entirely supportive. As long as I didn’t become a newspaperman, he was content. (Talk about prescience!) When he read the 90-page novella called Tex X, he proudly told my mother: “The little shit writes better than I do.”
When I sold the story to Warners in late May of 1971, he was over the moon. I took the E train out to Forest Hills to celebrate with him and my mother and to bid them adieu before a long-planned trip to Italy. One week later, I received a postcard from Rudy, simply saying, “How’s Tex X?” If he never was going to make it to Hollywood, his kid was.
That postcard was our last communication because on June 14, 1971, he collapsed and died in Genoa. Years later, reclined on my analyst’s couch, I wondered if my success was in any way connected to Rudy’s demise, if the acceptance of the Bergman name by Warner Brothers meant that he was now free to go. I prefer to think that he just had a bad heart, but the two events are forever comingled in my mind. In any case, I do not doubt his presence in my Camaro on that sunny March day in 1973. From Laupheim to Burbank, the circle had been closed.
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