Kochavim / Stargazing

Jewish World Review April 12, 1998 /26 Nissan, 5759

Brother Theodore

By Jon Kalish

BROTHER THEODORE, ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL monologuists alive today, is believed to be around 92 years old. Known for his dark humor and decades of solo performances, he lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. About a year and a half ago Brother Theodore fell in his apartment and hasn't performed since. I recently visited him at home.

First some background on Theoddore. He grew up in Germany, the son of a wealthy Jewish family. His parents were murdered by the Nazis and Theodore spent a year in the Dachau concentration camp. The Nazis released him after he signed over the family publishing business, which was worth millions, to the Third Reich. He came to America in the 1940's and started performing in San Francisco. But it was in New York that his career took off. In the 1960's he sold out Town Hall six times.

On an LP of a live performance at Carnegie Hall he begins one concert in his trademark professorial tone: "My name, as you may have guessed, is Theodore. I come from a strange stock. The members of my family were mostly epileptics, vegetarians, stutterers, triplets, nailbiters. But we've always been happy."

In his macabre one-man show Brother Theodore bemoaned the futility of life and heaped abuse upon his audience, prompting the New York Daily News to dub him "a genius of the sinister." He is a short man with a full head of unruly gray hair who basically made a career out of being himself and got away with it.

TV talk show hosts appreciated Theodore's ability to titilate audiences. In the 1960's and 70's he made dozens of appearances on the Merv Griffin Show. It was Griffin who dubbed him Brother Theodore because in his black slacks and turtleneck, Theodore remeinded the TV host of a priest. In the 1980's and 90's he was a guest on David Letterman's show more than twenty times.

On ones such appearance Theodore said to Letterman: "To tell you the truth, whenever I come here and sit on this chair, you know, because of your over-powering personality, I start immediately sweating like a chunk of rancid pork. All over my body.

"Would you like a tissue?" Letterman replied.

Brother Theodore performed once a week at the 13th Street Theater in the Village for 17 years. In one of his last shows at the theater he declared, "To be Brother Theodore is no bed of roses. I'm the bride at every funeral. I'm the corpse at every wedding. Each time I look into the mirror I burst into tears. Sure, sure. I burst into tears."

The man who has seen more Brother Theodore performances than anyone else is Tom O'Connor who served as Theodore's stage manager for more than 15 years.

"Many people knew of him," says O'Connor. "They knew his name but they had no idea of what he did and they would ask me 'What is the show, will I like it, should I come to see it?' And I would tell everyone 'You have to see it. If you come to see it and you hate it, you still have to see it because there is nobody else like him, there is nobody else doing what he does.'"

In the Summer of 1997 Brother Theodore fell at home. He broke his nose and his hip and hasn't performed since. These days he can barely walk and hardly ever leaves his modest studio apartment.

"I'm in perpetual pain," says Theodore. "I have arthritis, you know and, uh, I don't want really to go into it. People are not interested in my woes. They say old people talk about nothing but what ails them, you know. I lost many friends by talking incessantly about my pain. They're not interested in my pain."

Those who have followed Theodore's career are struck that the material in his act now seems to describe his real life. His line: "There is no mail at the mail box. The telephone never rings. The party is over!" seems to be an eery bit of foreshadowing.

"As Theodore has grown older, the truth of what he says in his show has sort of come home to roost for him," says O'Connor. "You know, he's always been obsessed with death. He's always been aware of what a frail existence we lead but that awareness, I think, was intellectual and I think that as the years have progressed and he's seen his physical condition deteriorate, I think, of course, he can only become more aware of how true are the things that he says in his show."

"If you said to me, 'Theodore, we pay you $20,000 and you perform at Town Hall.' I might be able to do it and afterwards, simply drop dead. The alternative is to lie safely in my bed and don't perform and have to wait three or four or five years in utter loneliness and in great pain and confusion. So I might take the risk to do it once and say 'O.K., so I die after the show.' But it's better to have the applause and die than to lie here for the next five years and end up in a nursing home forever and ever and ever."

Brother Theodore may yet perform again. A television producer has recorded him at home doing short excerpts from his solo show and is shopping a demo tape around to the cable TV networks. There is also talk of a voice over career. But Theodore recently turned down an invitation to appear on Howard Stern's radio program.

Brother Theodore is an avowed atheist but that hasn't prevented him from seeking assistance from above in jumpstarting his career.

"Dear G-d," he deadpans, "if you exist, help me. And if you don't exist, help me anyway."

JWR contributor Jon Kalish is a free-lance radio and newspaper journalist.


© 1999, Jon Kalish