Freddie Roman, stand-up staple of Borscht Belt circuit, dies at 85 – The Washington Post

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Freddie Roman, a stand-up comedian who became a staple of the Borscht Belt, the Catskill Mountains region where vacationing Jews enjoyed heaping portions of chopped liver, nature (but not too much) and a barrage of one-liners, died Nov. 26 at a hospital in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 85.

The cause was a heart attack, his booking agent Alison Chaplin said.

Mr. Roman, who joked that his cholesterol test came back as “9-1-1″ and the state fowl of Florida was the “Early Bird,” was among the dozens of Jewish comedians who honed their craft at resorts in rural New York and Pennsylvania that catered to a mostly Jewish clientele.

Some of the comedians who performed there — Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Jackie Mason and, later, Jerry Seinfeld — went on to huge careers in television, movies and cable TV specials.

Mr. Roman was not one of them.

Though he appeared six times on NBC’s “Tonight Show” and opened once for singer Frank Sinatra, Mr. Roman spent most of his career telling jokes on smoky stages in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. He also served as the longtime dean of the Friars Club, a New York comedy institution.

“No doubt about it, he could definitely make a crowd laugh,” said Robert Klein, the New York comedian and fellow Friars Club member who appeared on the TV show “Will & Grace.” “He was not groundbreaking, but he was funny and he was true to his craft.”

Mr. Roman’s jokes were quintessential Borscht Belt, poking fun at stereotypical Jewish culture — bickering spouses, overindulgence in food, hypochondria, and a lot of complaining. “My humor,” he once said, “is basically exaggeration of real life.”

One of Mr. Roman’s favorite bits was about his parents retiring to — of course — Florida.

Two weeks after they moved, Mr. Roman calls his father to ask how it was going.

“I love it,” his father says. “Why didn’t you tell me to do it before?”

Then Mr. Roman calls back again two weeks later.

“Get me the hell out of here,” his dad says. “I’m married to your mother 48 years. I’m retired four weeks. In these four weeks, I talked more to that woman than I did in 48 years. I have nothing left to say to her.”

Many of the Jewish comedians who performed in the Catskills changed their names so they could get gigs outside the Borscht Belt. Leonard Schneider became Lenny Bruce. Mendel Berlinger became Milton Berle. And Fred Martin Kirschenbaum became Freddie Roman.

He was born May 28, 1937, in Newark and raised in Queens, where his father sold shoes and his mother was a homemaker. Mr. Roman’s family owned the Crystal Spring Hotel in the Catskills. When he was 15, Mr. Roman pestered his uncle to let him skip some busboy shifts and emcee for the nightly entertainers.

“He could save maybe $40 a week!” Mr. Roman told The Washington Post in 1991. “And the guests would think, ‘Isn’t that cute? He’s 15; he’s adorable! Look how he talks so nice.’”

Mr. Roman continued his emcee gigs, including during his summer breaks from New York University, where he met his future wife, Ethel Harris. After graduation, Mr. Roman opened a shoe store in Queens and started a family in New City, a hamlet in New York’s Rockland County, where he and Ethel raised two children.

On weekends, Mr. Roman performed stand-up in the Borscht Belt, eventually selling the shoe store to focus on comedy full time. One of his early gigs was at Arele’s, a Queens joint that called itself the world’s only kosher nightclub.

He also worked the Hawaiian Cottage in Cherry Hill, N.J. Torches burned in the parking lot.

“I remember the owner,” Mr. Roman told the Philadelphia Daily News. “… Used to walk around the club in a suit with a parrot on his shoulder. As you were sitting there eating the baked ziti, you could watch him walking around with the parrot. I guess the parrot made it tropical.”

When he started doing regular gigs in the Catskills, Mr. Roman performed at three or four resorts a night. The crowds could be tough.

“The one thing about the Jewish audiences in the mountains, you had to be good,” Mr. Roman said in an interview before a 2014 show. “If you weren’t good, they let you know. They didn’t boo. They were very respectful. They just got up and walked out. And if you were no good, at the end of the night you were working to 200 chairs.”

Mr. Roman got his big break in the early 1970s, when he landed a Las Vegas gig at the Desert Inn. He wound up spending 18 years in Vegas, performing 12 weeks a year at Caesars Palace and the Riviera Hotel.

Between gigs in Las Vegas and then Atlantic City, Mr. Roman continued performing in the Catskills. But by the 1980s, the Borscht Belt resorts had all but vanished following the rise of air travel and other all-inclusive resorts around the country modeled on the Catskills, including in Las Vegas.

But the echoes of the Borscht Belt lived on. In 1991, Mr. Roman conceived and was featured in the revue “Catskills on Broadway.” Mr. Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence, Dick Capri and Marilyn Michaels revived their old Catskill routines. The show lasted a year and a half before touring the country.

“The title of the show ‘Catskills on Broadway’ deserves a truth-in-advertising award,” New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow wrote. “With these four stand-up comics at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, you pay your money and you get the jokes, unless you happen to miss the punch lines because of the laughter.”

For decades, Mr. Roman longed for a staring role in TV or film, but he had to settle for smaller parts in NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” the film “Finding North” (1998) and the Amazon streaming show “Red Oaks.”

In addition to his wife of 63 years, Mr. Roman is survived by a daughter, Judi Kirschenbaum Levin; and four grandchildren. His son, TV producer Alan Kirschenbaum, died in 2012.

Mr. Roman was also known for his roasts at the Friars Club, where in 1999 the roast table was turned on him.

“When I was born, Freddie Roman was getting his first hair weave,” the comedian Steven Scott said. “Judging by the average age of our dais tonight, it should be on the History Channel.”


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