A few decades before "Weird Al" Yankovic recorded his first pop song parody while studying architecture in California, one of his inspirations, parodist Allan Sherman, was making history and heading to superstardom in the 1960s -- altering lyrics to American classics, giving them an ethnic twist and performing them at private parties on Long Island and elsewhere on the East Coast.
Many of Sherman's impromptu performances were in Great Neck, at the home of his friend, jazz drummer and studio musician Bobby Rosengarden. At Rosengarden's pool parties, Sherman entertained VIP guests along the likes of comedian Sid Caesar, jazz pianist Dick Hyman and comic "Professor" Irwin Corey.
Today's generation of young sleepaway campers may have never heard Sherman's classic "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter from Camp)," a send-up plea from a boy to his parents, beseeching them to pick him up from camp -- after only one day:
"Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh
Here I am at
Camp is very
And they say we'll have some
fun if it stops raining."
But 50 years ago, that 1963 song parody sold out in record time. Baby boomer parents of the era turned it into a Grammy Award-winning phenomenon when it was released, first as a single and then as part of the album "My Son, the Nut." It was Sherman's third LP in a string of successes released in just 10 months, which catapulted him quickly from relative obscurity to international celebrity.
Sherman was from Chicago, but he lived in Jackson Heights, Queens, and New Rochelle before becoming a recording star. As a TV game show producer, he rubbed elbows with celebrities and musicians, and because of his gregarious personality and gift for making people laugh, in the late 1950s he was a frequent guest of Bobby and Dorothy Rosengarden's summer pool parties at 5 Pond Rd. in Great Neck.
The couple's son Mark, who was an adolescent at the time, has fond memories of his parents' parties and of Sherman. He said that around 1958, once his parents built the in-ground pool, which had cabanas for guests to change into swimsuits, there were parties every Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
"It was very unusual to have fewer than 25 people; sometimes there were even 50 or 60," recalled Mark Rosengarden, 64, of San Raphael, Calif.
At the time, Great Neck was home to myriad show business professionals. (The Rosengardens bought the house from songwriter Kermit Goell, lyricist of the 1947 hit "Near You.")
Besides Sherman, frequent guests included actor Jackie Cooper and singer Gisèle MacKenzie, of the TV show "Your Hit Parade"; Ray Charles (not the blind singer), Bobby Rosengarden's brother-in-law and founder of The Ray Charles Singers; trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell; and Doc Severinsen, who later led the NBC Orchestra on the "Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."
Movies and music
After dining on hot dogs, hamburgers, Chinese takeout and on occasion Dorothy Rosengarden's "huge vats of baked beans or sloppy Joes or a monster salad," her son recalled, guests would head indoors at sunset. In the living room, the Rosengardens would hang a sheet and show movies borrowed from a neighbor who was a top executive at United Artists.
But there was also music -- and laughter -- thanks to Sherman. The living room housed a baby grand piano, and near it was the Rosengarden's Tandberg high-end reel-to-reel tape recording machine, which was used to capture Sherman's parodies.
In 1961, Sherman decided to switch coasts, moving with his wife, Dee, and two children from New York to Los Angeles.
"He moved into a summer rental next door to Harpo Marx," said Mark Cohen, author of the recently released biography, "Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman" (Brandeis University Press; $29.99).
Harpo was a huge fan of Sherman's Jewish parodies of Broadway musicals, such as "There is Nothing Like a Lox" ("There is Nothing Like a Dame," from the show "South Pacific"). And he hosted large shindigs attended by Hollywood elite such as George Burns, where Sherman would perform his novelty songs.
"Harpo's parties helped spread the word about Sherman, and within a year, it led to Sherman's contract with Warner Bros. Records," said Cohen, 56, a San Francisco-based writer who specializes in American Jewish culture. His is the first biography written on Sherman.
Sherman's first album, "My Son, The Folk Singer," released in October 1962, wasn't expected to do well.
"Billboard and Variety thought it would only appeal to Jewish audiences," said Cohen. "Instead, it became a national hit. . . . selling 1.2 million copies in three to four months. Warner Bros. ran out of albums!"
By the following December, Sherman had gone from entertaining guests in a Great Neck living room to performing for audiences at Carnegie Hall.
Not just for Jewish audiences
More than a novelty, Sherman's clever parodies, which were peppered with Yiddish and Jewish references, had a tremendous cultural impact on America.
According to Cohen, 'Jewishness' came out of the closet, so to speak, and that is Sherman's real legacy. "It was the beginning of an ethnic American movement, it was the rise of ethnic identity," he noted.
As an early comedic influence, Cohen credits Sherman with shaping the comic sensibilities of contemporary entertainers, such as Adam Sandler, Rick Moranis, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.
"Allan Sherman was the Larry David, the Adam Sandler, the Sacha Baron Cohen of 1963," Cohen said. "He led Jewish humor and sensibilities out of ethnic enclaves and into the American mainstream with explosively funny parodies of classic songs that won Sherman extraordinary success and acclaim."
But it was all short-lived. By 1969, his last album had been released and he had been dropped by Warner Bros., he and his wife divorced and his Broadway show, "The Fig Leaves are Falling," flopped, closing after only four performances. About a week shy of his 49th birthday, Sherman died of a heart attack, on Nov. 20, 1973, in Los Angeles.