Editor's note: Comedian Billy Crystal's first appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1975 jump started a career in television, movies and theater, not to mention a dozen turns as Oscar host. But it all began here on Long Island, in his parents' home on Park Avenue in Long Beach, where he grew up with two brothers and extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins who later became fodder for his stand-up routines. In 1991, a few weeks after the release of his movie, "City Slickers," Crystal shared his memories of his hometown.
This story was originally published in Newsday on June 18, 1991
Billy Crystal and his brothers -- the Crystal Boys, as they became known -- were like a comedy team that always played to a packed house.
GRANDMA Susie, the matriarch, was not in good health, so she and Grandpa Julius decided to move from the Bronx out to the Island. The place they picked was Long Beach, which was more like a resort than anybody's hometown. It was the Healthiest City in America -- at least that's what the sign said.
So the Gablers, whose roots were in the Ukrainian seaside, came out in '48, followed by Susie's sisters, Hilda, Mildred and Bertie, and a couple of years after that she sent for her children. She helped buy one little cedar house on Park Avenue for her son Danny and his family. And right next door, alongside Max and Harry Kimmelman's candy store, she found one for her daughter Helen and her husband, Jack Crystal, and their three sons, Joel, Richie and the cute little one, Billy.
Long Beach became a throwback to the old country -- family everywhere and the sea on the horizon -- and the Crystal Boys, as they became known, were like a comedy team that always played to a packed house.
"It wasn't like going to Grandma's house, it was like going to a block party, 40 or 50 people always for dinner," Billy Crystal says now. "I'd get up on the coffee table and imitate my relatives. That's how I started to perform. And Cousin Edith would give us payment in dimes. 'Now don't lose it,' she'd say. 'OK, I'll put it right here,' and I'd stick it to my forehead, and when my head was filled up with coins the show was over. When they came to our house, my room, which I shared with my brother Richie, was the coat room, and that became the wardrobe room. We'd put on their coats, get on the table and do stuff. I was always the one running to the bathroom trying to get away from somebody who was mad at me."
They are, for Billy Crystal, sweet memories, and not just because he got a lot of good material out of it. By now, of course, the coat room is a Bit, and Cousin Edith's dimes are a Routine, and all the mishpocheh have melted into the generic Old Jewish Relative. He is, on-screen, what he basically is in life: a sentimental, unglamorous but very funny baby boomer from the suburbs. With his Long Island cadences and his innocent smirk, it's easy to go back about 30 years and imagine a little wisenheimer soaking up the comic possibilities of the relatives from the Bronx and the sun-gooped ladies at the beach club and the lightness of being a child in the suburbs in the '50s.
But wholly apart from a mega-career born in a tiny house next to Kimmelman's candy store, Crystal, now 43, loves to wax nostalgic when he talks about his hometown and the 26 years he spent there. Not one of those suburban kids in a hurry to escape, Crystal didn't leave Long Beach until he was 28, married with a child and at a point in his fledgling career when the inevitable Hollywood undertow was pulling his VW bug onto a moving van in front of his last Long Beach home, a second-floor apartment a block from the beach.
"It was a really comfortable place that I think about a lot," Crystal said during a recent visit to New York. "It's where I grew up, it's where I developed, it's where I fell in love, it's where my first child was born, it's where so much of what has shaped me has happened. You can't take that out of you. I think that's why I've been able to weather some storms in my life, because I had this sense of myself that has to do with being home."
Crystal remembers his youth with an affection you can't always count on from children of the postwar suburbs. Maybe it was because Long Beach was a different kind of suburb. "It had this really great setting. You had the bay on one side and the ocean on the other. During a football game there was Reynolds Channel and the marshlands behind you and birds flying and cranes and stuff. It was a very soothing place. You'd go to sleep at night, and you'd hear the ocean. Wintertime was almost better. Something about the four o'clock sun, something really beautiful."
Now when he thinks about Long Beach, Crystal thinks of the football games he and his brothers and friends played on their knees during midnight snowstorms on the grassy malls in the middle of Park Avenue -- even the cops stopped to watch. He thinks of summers on the beach and how cool it was under the boardwalk. He thinks of hanging out in the old World War II submarine watchtower, rising from the boardwalk, where he gagged on his first cigarette when he was 12. He thinks of Central School, which has since gone condo, and of Long Beach High: of being a "band geek" and a four-letter man who played second base and first clarinet and who was voted Best Personality of the Class of '65.
He thinks of his idols: Long Beach's high school basketball hero, Larry Brown, and, of course, Mickey Mantle -- "All the times I spent in the backyard being Mickey Mantle, walking like him, thinking my knees hurt. I was a little Jewish kid with an Oklahoma accent." He thinks of Gino's Pizza and the Laurel theater and Beachburger. He thinks of wearing out sneakers. He thinks of a time when Nikes were missiles and the silos came out of the ground next to the high school every day at noon, pointing east, and nobody thought too much about it. He thinks of the friends who are still his friends, and of the characters who made his family a cast. He thinks of the night his mother and father went out bowling and his mother came home a widow.
The Long Beach of his childhood is still in sharp focus in his mind's eye. "When we first moved there," Crystal says, "Long Beach had cable cars and cobblestone streets, Spanish architecture and the beach. No matter where you were you could see the ocean. There was a boardwalk filled with rides and Skee-Ball, and there was horseback riding on the beach. It was like Santa Barbara. It was the last stop on the Long Island Rail Road, and you felt like you were going into a little resort community. There weren't that many people there until the summer, when all of a sudden everybody was there."
The Crystals moved to Long Beach in 1950, when Billy was 2, Richie (nicknamed Rip) was 4 and Joel was 8. By the mid-50s, when the family had moved to a two-family house a couple of miles east on Park Avenue, the Crystal Boys were famous in the family for their living-room routines. "I got three sons," their father would say, "and not one of them is a straight man."
Jack Crystal was a wiry, good-natured man devoted to his wife and sons. He had gone into the Gabler family business, Commodore Records, a store and a record label specializing in jazz. Besides managing the store in Manhattan, Jack Crystal also produced jazz shows, giving his sons a thorough jazz education and populating their world with the biggest names in Dixieland, some of whom brought their instruments with them to the boys' bar mitzvahs. "Our house," Billy Crystal says, "always smelled of brisket and bourbon."
But Jack Crystal saw it was comedy that appealed most to his sons, especially Billy, who as the youngest and smallest was always struggling for attention. "My dad recognized how funny we were and how much we liked it," Crystal recalls. "He'd bring all the comedy albums home with him from the store, and we'd memorize them: Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez, Ernie Kovacs' Nairobi Trio. The three of us couldn't wait to get over to somebody's house to put something funny on our faces. If we knew there was a Passover or something happening, we'd prepare. You can't go out cold. Pass the bitter herbs, but before I do, here's a story. I'd read my section of the Haggadah as somebody else, much to the consternation of the relatives. I would do Jessel doing the Four Questions."
Laughter kept Crystal and his brothers close. "You had three very energetic children in a very little place," Crystal says. "It must have been unbelievable. Dinnertime was pretty wild. We loved making each other laugh. It was good stuff. There was the occasional mashed potatoes and peas in the nose, but that was too easy."
Helen Crystal, an exuberant woman, would egg the boys on. One Valentine's Day, before their father came home, she grabbed a stick of red lipstick, decorated the boys' faces and drew Cupid's arrows across their bare chests -- Happy Valentine's Day to dad. And when the Crystal Boys went on the road -- if they had a Thanksgiving gig at Grandma's -- their mother was sure to pack a suitcase with masks and costumes. Two years ago, when their mother turned 75, the Crystal Boys reunited for a surprise party and a living-room show.
When Crystal thinks of the '50s and early '60s, he recalls it through the eyes of a kid captivated by the relatively sophisticated stuff coming out of the big 21-inch Magnavox in the living room. "The Honeymooners," Bilko. Steve Allen -- big in the house. Skelton, Ernie Kovacs. The house was filled with these guys. If Jonathan Winters was on Jack Paar, my dad would let me stay up late to watch that. And I would take my chair and put it next to the set, so there'd be Paar, Jonathan Winters, Dodie Goodman and me. My first memory was Sid Caesar, doing the famous 'This is Your Life' parody that they did with Howard Morris just grabbing Sid's leg and dragging him. That's how I used to go to bed, I'd grab my dad's leg, and he'd drag me to bed like Sid Caesar."
Despite their proximity to the music world, the Crystals were a family of modest means. "One summer we rented out Joel's room to two stewardesses. We'd take turns peeking in to see them getting dressed."
His mother, now a snowbird who winters in Miami Beach, still lives in the house on East Park Avenue the rest of the year. The old Magnavox is still in the garage. "My mother doesn't throw away anything. There's also two cousins in the garage, hanging around from Passover."
Crystal has always been surrounded by pals. He met his best friend, David Sherman, on a softball field in sixth grade-- Billy was pitching; David was batting--- and 32 years later they are still close friends. Sherman followed Billy out to Los Angeles and started his kidney practice there; in 1988, he had a cameo as a surgeon in Crystal's movie, "Memories of Me." It is one of several enduring friendships between Billy Crystal and people from Long Beach who knew him before he became Billy Crystal. One of them is his wife, Janice.
"We all really loved each other, and four or five of the friendships are still really strong," Crystal says. "At our 20th reunion in '85, we all went back out to Laurel Beach and had a beach party, and all of our kids were the same age that we were when we met. And the kids looked like us, or at least had the essence of us. And here we were walking around using words like minoxidil and prostate, some of us were in cabana suits, a real sign of middle age, you know black socks and sandals, looking like our relatives from the Bronx. And I remember one of my friends, Piggy was his nickname, calling his son, and when his son turned around I saw Piggy's face."
Life in high school for Crystal was a series of uniforms: from basketball to baseball to soccer to marching band to whatever he was wearing for the annual "Swing Show," an extravaganza starring your emcee again this year, Billy Crystal! There was also the "Class Night" show, which he wrote and directed, and the annual musical comedy. In the '65 school yearbook, he's seen playing the lead in the sneakers of the day -- black tops, white bottoms. The yearbook reports, "Performances by Cheryl Straus, Billy Crystal, Cathy Tash, Lee Nelson, Steve Sabbeth and Laurie Miller were totally enjoyed by the enthusiastic audiences, none of whom will forget the wonderful presentation."
"One year I did a Frankenstein routine and adapted it for Long Beach, and the place went wild," Crystal says. "That was the first time I got up in front of a large group by myself in a formal setting. I always felt that was what I wanted to be. I was an OK student -- I could have been a really good student but I had a different agenda. I wanted to be in show business or I wanted to be a baseball player."
He was a slick-fielding second baseman and varsity captain his senior year, and although he might have taken the Yankees over the Oscars had the option existed, basketball is what he remembers most. "Friday nights were a big thing during basketball season. There was an unbelievable buzz in town about the game that night. And being on the team you felt like a celebrity, you'd walk around in your tie and jacket and your bag that said Long Beach Marines on the side. It's not unlike getting ready for a show. You start at 5 with stretching, then you get your tie on and nobody can talk to you. I wasn't going to play, but you never know. The gym looked like a little airplane hangar, and it felt like it seated 25,000 people at the time. And boy, the place was electric."
Crystal's romantic recollections are interrupted by one horrible memory. One night in 1963, when he was 15 and the last son still at home, Billy's parents went to their weekly night at Long Beach Bowl. After bowling a 200 game on Lane 13, Jack Crystal suffered a massive heart attack and died. "I'll never forget," says his mother. "We watched Red Skelton, which we never missed, and then I was finishing up in the kitchen, and Billy and his dad were wrestling on the daybed. And then we went bowling, and that was it. I had to come back to Billy and awaken him to tell him his dad didn't come home with me."
"He died on a Tuesday night, and the next morning his car wouldn't start," Billy says. "He drove it every day of his life."
But at that age, life could do nothing but go on. And Crystal was enchanted by the prospect of a life in show business. In his hometown he could routinely encounter people who lived in the world that beckoned him. Years later many of them would become his friends. "The first time I saw Sammy Davis, it was at the Lido Hotel, where a lot of performers used to come. I worked there as a busboy, making like $20 for the day. Sammy Davis was my Michael Jackson. Steve and Eydie had a house in Lido, and Carol Burnett had a place. Alan King, the first time I saw him was in a little Italian restaurant called Russo's. He's very close to me now. Al Kelly, the double-talker, used to live in the Jackson Hotel. Friday nights, he'd go to this kosher restaurant called Marron's, and you'd hear him ordering, double-talk, with the waitress: "I'll have a fine with a drell and poimin, with a leetle slice of bleave hove." And she'd say, 'The usual?' And he'd say, 'Thank you.' "
On Sunday mornings in summer, Billy and Rip would bundle the papers at Julie Kantor's store, the Cozy Nook, and wait on the street with a stack for Cab Calloway, who had a place on Blackheath Road. "I've since told this to Cab, and he thought he remembered. I'd wait outside, and Cab had this big white convertible, and he'd be coming in from work at about 6 or 7 a.m. in a tuxedo with the tie just hanging, and he had that hair swept back blowing in the breeze."
In those years, summer meant the Malibu Beach Club: "The people with lotion playing almost full-contact Mah-Jongg games. The girls in bikinis. There was an urgency to seeing one of our schoolmates in a bikini."
One of the girls was Janice Goldfinger, the daughter of a Brooklyn variety-store proprietor who had been a year behind Billy at Long Beach High. She was the reason he decided not to go back for his second year at Marshall University in West Virginia. "I was in love with her then, and I'm in love with her now," Crystal says.
They went to Nassau Community College together, and then Billy transferred to New York University. Commuting into the city, he saw another side of suburbia.
"I remember getting on the 7:55 out of Long Beach, with the businessmen, with the garment center people, with the smoking, and the briefcases on the lap playing gin and the animation and the crowding and the people and the trains and how these guys do this every day, how it was wearing people down -- you could just see it. The good part was when you left the city you were in Long Beach. Something really great about leaving the Oceanside station, then Island Park and then it was a really slow, wobbly trip over Reynolds Channel, then you could feel the air change, you could smell the sea, and you could hear it, then you were there."
In 1970, after his high draft number (354) virtually assured he would avoid the Vietnam War, Billy married Janice at Leonard's of Great Neck, and they settled into the upstairs apartment of his mother's house. Later they moved to an apartment building called Crystal House -- amazingly, no relation. When their first daughter, Jenny, was born in 1973, Janice was working at Nassau Community and Billy was one third of a comedy group called 3's Company, which, with its road expenses, gave Crystal a negative income that year. He did some substitute teaching and took care of Jenny. "I was Mr. Mom before its time. I would be on the boardwalk with her, me and the women. I loved those years."
When his manager persuaded Crystal to go solo and his career started to take off with appearances on the "Tonight Show" and in "All in the Family," he decided to move west.
"I didn't leave Long Beach until Aug. 2, 1976. It was hard leaving, very emotional. I was cleaning out my closets, and I found my four-letter sweater. To earn four letters was a big deal. You got the blue sweater with the white trim, while the plain letter sweater was the white with the blue trim. I got it, and I really wanted it bad. So we're moving, and Janice says, 'Get rid of this stuff. C'mon, it's a new beginning.' I said, 'But it's my sweater.' She says, 'It's a high school thing, where are you going to wear it?' So as we're driving away, I see this guy picking through garbage, and he's wearing my sweater. This guy on Shore Road, it's got 'Billy' on the side, the 'LB,' and he's looking for more stuff. That still bothers me. I want my sweater."
Crystal doesn't go back to Long Beach often. When he's in New York, he's usually on a tight schedule and prefers to stay in the city. But sometimes, he says, he needs to go there. "When I go back I still feel comfortable walking around. Most people just say hi like they used to. Occasionally I'll slip in there on the Long Island Rail Road. I made a little secret trip out there two or three years ago. I just went out for the day, just walked around, went to the boardwalk, got a slice of pizza. It was a cold day in winter and I just needed to walk around there. I went to my old house, I still have the key, and I walked around in there for a little while. Then I turned around and got back on the train."
'WE NEVER BOMBED IN THE LIVING ROOM'
Sitting on a bench behind Long Beach High School, Reynolds Channel as a backdrop, Joel Crystal is the picture of a suburban high school teacher: blue sweater and khaki slacks, a stack of papers rolled up in his hand. It's fifth period. "I still have about 27 minutes," he says.
Crystal, 49, has been teaching art for 27 years in the school district that graduated him and his two younger brothers, Richard (known as Rip), now 45 and an executive with Hearst Publishing in California, and Billy, 43, who went into the entertainment field and now lives in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
"We were known as the Crystal Boys," Joel says almost wistfully, recalling those golden years when the brothers performed in living rooms throughout the metropolitan area.
While Billy and Rip were young men who went west, their big brother never wandered far from the world of their youth. Joel lives four blocks from the house where he and his brothers grew up, still walks the boardwalk, still hears the class bells of a school that will soon graduate his second child.
"I'm very happy doing what I've done for 27 years," says Joel, an easygoing, unjaded man who has never lost the lean, athletic build of his youth. "I was an established teacher long before anybody knew who Billy Crystal was. In the beginning I was very nervous for him. After all those years with him, I got that vicarious feeling. We never bombed in the living room, but what did it matter? Now he does the Oscars, and he carries it off as if he's still in the living room."
Billy and Joel were especially close growing up, despite the six-year difference in their ages. "I was sick with mono my last two years of high school and was homebound," Joel says, "so I looked for entertainment inside the house. We had this old reel-to-reel and Billy, who was then 10 or 11, would come home, and we'd do routines. We'd do all the routines we heard on the comedy albums. We were lip-syncing way before Milli Vanilli."
When their father died suddenly in 1963, Joel, then 21, had to become the family breadwinner and got a job at Long Beach Junior High. He stayed close to home while his younger brothers pursued careers in entertainment. Rip performed off-Broadway, had brief moments in movies and cowrote with Billy the short-lived "Billy Crystal Comedy Hour" in 1982. Billy and Rip persuaded Joel to develop a stand-up routine when he was 29. "I went to the Comic Strip one night," Joel says. "I bombed." He never went back.
Now, Joel has an annual gig, not unlike his brother's on Oscar night: He's the toastmaster at the yearly retirement dinner of the Long Beach Classroom Teachers Association.
Joel met his wife, Barbara, an English teacher, at the Malibu Beach Club, the same place where Billy met his wife, Janice. They all worked there as counselors in the summer.
Now Billy is in a different world. Joel often finds himself visiting Billy during some public event, like the opening of his brother's new movie, "City Slickers," earlier this month in New York. "You don't have a private visit anymore," he says, driving along Park Avenue during a tour of his brother's early life. "A quick hug and hello and then you end up talking to 'Entertainment Tonight.' You learn to fade into the background and let whatever happens in his business happen."
He says this with more acceptance than regret. His brother's success thrills him. "If anybody is living out his dream, it's Billy Crystal," he says, with not a trace of envy. "You shake your head -- your brother's picture is on the cover of Life magazine."