On Sunday I attended Cyd Charisse’s funeral at the Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City. Cyd Charisse, America’s favorite shiksa, being buried in a Jewish cemetery? Oh yeah, her husband Tony Martin was Jewish—born Alvin Morris to Russian Jewish immigrants. When I arrived at Hillside on this oppresively hot day, I saw the graves of Jewish celebrities wherever I looked: Al Jolson, Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, the Three Stooges, Michael Landon, Shelley Winters. I admit I never imagined Cyd Charisse joining their ranks. It was strange to walk into the small chapel at Hillside and see Cyd’s rose-covered coffin sitting in between two Hebrew passages from the Bible carved into the walls on either side. But I guess the actress had never converted because it wasn’t a Jewish ceremony. The service was officiated by Dr. Gary Alan Dickey, Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Church in Westlake Village. It was a fairly small group, maybe 120 people. I was sitting in the back surrounded by a bunch of older men and I couldn’t help but listen to their conversation before the funeral began. Turns out this was a group of MGM dancers, probably the very ones who appeared with Cyd in her classic numbers in “The Band Wagon,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “Silk Stockings.” It was hard to equate the youthful dancers from those films with this group of men in their 70s and 80s. They all seemed to love Charisse and talked about the memories they had of her and Tony over the years.
It was a poignant, serious service. Cyd’s son from her first marriage, 66-year-old Nico Charisse wept as he said good-bye to his mom. The actress’s agent told how he used to park Charisse’s car on the MGM lot when he first arrived in town at the age of 16. He told the story of Cyd auditioning for Tommy Tune when she made her Broadway musical debut in 1992’s “Grand Hotel.” Tune was so impressed with her he exclaimed, “I should be auditioning for YOU!” She got the part and when they got back to her dressing room, she whispered to her agent, “Do they realize I’m 70 years old and have to get on point?” But she did do it, and was great in her only Broadway appearance. A few other friends and Cyd’s assistant talked about what a classy, wonderful lady Cyd Charisse was.
It was hard not to think of all the people who would’ve spoken at her funeral if they were still alive. Certainly Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as well as directors such as Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, writers like Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and close personal friends such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. This is one of the only drawbacks of living so long—less wonderful people from your life to speak at your funeral! The surviving stars of the MGM years were on hand to pay their respects. I was especially moved when Esther Williams arrived in a wheelchair. Esther and Cyd are exactly the same age and made several films together early in Cyd’s career, most notably “Fiesta” and “On an Island With You.” In both films, Cyd had steaming hot dance numbers with Esther’s love interest Ricardo Montalban. Charisse usually played Williams’ rival, and for some reason MGM seemed determined to cast Cyd as a Latina. Take a look at this clip to see Cyd during her sexy Latina phase seducing Esther’s boyfriend. ¡Ay, carumba!
Oscar-winning actor George Chakiris was there. Just last week Leah and I attended a special screening of “West Side Story” and Chakiris doesn’t look that different today although he was minus the Puerto Rican bronzing gel and the high-waisted pants. Did you know that the Greek Chakiris played Riff in the stage version of the musical before switching gangs to play Bernardo in the film? Before “West Side Story,” Chakiris appeared with Cyd in two of her films from the 1950s, “Brigadoon” and “Meet Me in Las Vegas.”
Towards the end of the service, I was stunned when Dr. Dickey said that we would all be given the opportunity to say good-bye to Cyd one last time. They removed the dozens of roses from the top of the coffin and slowly opened the heavy lid, something I never thought I’d see in a Jewish chapel. This while one of Cyd's friends stood up and sang an a capella version of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Oy. They had us walk up to the coffin, row by row, starting in the back where I was sitting, to pay our last respects. I admit I was terrified as I walked past Esther Williams and Tony Martin and approached the coffin. It was hard not to choke back tears as I stood over the deceased but still beautiful face of Cyd Charisse, knowing that we were the last people who were ever going to see it in the flesh.
When I got home, I found out two other well known people had died that day, although they couldn’t be more different from each other or from Cyd Charisse—George Carlin, a true comic genius, in my opinion, and lesser-known funny lady Dody Goodman, best remembered for her role as Louise Lasser’s mother on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a show both of Kendall’s parents worked on back in the mid-1970’s. It was Goodman’s ear-shattering voice that was heard at the beginning of every episode shouting “Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!” Goodman first rose to fame as Jack Paar's ditzy sidekick when he was the host of “The Tonight Show.”
Having my “six degrees of separation” disease, my brain instantly started clicking to find ways to connect these three public figures. There are probably dozens of ways to do it, but here’s what immediately came to mind: Do you remember young George Carlin’s odd, freshly scrubbed appearance in Doris Day’s final film, “With Six You Get Eggroll.” This 1968 film belongs in a time capsule. It was about a Brady-Bunch type blended family led by Doris and Brian Keith, and included a very young Barbara Hershey as the couple’s 18-year-old daughter. In an attempt to appeal to young people, we see Doris going to a night club to see the rock band the Grass Roots and we meet Hollywood’s version of hippies played by a pre-MASH Jamie Farr and William Christopher. And to hip things up a bit more, George Carlin makes his film debut as car hop Herbie Fleck. Oh boy. This was the comedian’s second acting appearance. He appeared the year before on an episode of “That Girl” and later said that his acting really sucked. In this film he said his acting sucked a little less. Co-starring with Carlin in this film was the wonderful Pat Carroll, mother of our friends Kerry and Tara, and a regular on Danny Thomas’s “Make Room for Daddy.” Where did Danny Thomas get his start? Opposite Cyd Charisse in “The Unfinished Dance.” Take a look at the colorful trailer from this freakish film in which Cyd had to dance with young Margaret O’Brien whose star was already beginning to wane at the age of 10.
How about Dody Goodman? Let’s see. In 1980, Charisse had one of her last big acting roles in a ghastly TV movie called “Portrait of an Escort.” She starred with Edie Adams who played a ruthless madam tormenting young Susan Anspach. In much earlier days, Adams, the former wife of Ernie Kovacs and the sexy Muriel Cigar Girl to us Baby Boomers, made her Broadway debut in “Wonderful Town” playing Eileen Sherwood opposite Rosalind Russell’s Ruth Sherwood. This was a musical version of “My Sister Eileen” and was a huge hit. Also making a big splash in this musical was a crazy comedian by the name of Dody Goodman who played a saucy street walker named Violet.
Am I losing it? Should I be talking about George Carlin’s incisive social commentary instead of trying to find ways to link him to other dead celebrities? More of these connections are springing to mind but I’ll spare you my insanity. Maybe I’m missing the most obvious ones—for all I know, the three of them appeared on the same episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show” one Sunday in the late 1960s. As different as Cyd Charisse, George Carlin, and Dody Goodman were from each other, I can certainly say that all three were unique break-the-mold individuals who made incredible contributions to their respective fields. They will be missed by many.