Airs Vanish As
Burns, Callas, Buttons Baste Grant's Roast With Laughs
It has been the subject of universal
concern that the Friars Club, long a stronghold of show biz, has
been veering in new directions. Via its annual "man of
the year" and "entertainer of the year" dinners the
club had been reaching into the more stratospheric areas of the body
politic and the economy. It seemed it was losing its common
The roasts of yore have been turned
into testimonials, and it was readily believed by many that Sunday
night's soiree to honor Cary Grant at the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria,
where a capacity crowd of 1,200 congregated at prices ranging from
$250 to $1,000, would be in the testimonial class - dignified and
perhaps with a touch or so of genteel humor.
However, those with that belief
didn't recon with the likes of Grant, who got the entertainer of the
year award, and toastmaster Frank Sinatra. Tried and true
vaudevillians, concentrated toward the close of the program, turned
this affair into one of the more laugh-laden Friars shindigs of
recent years. The turnaround started with George Burns,
accelerated with Charlie Callas and reached an apex with Red
Buttons. Many, including Sinatra, had tears of laughter
running down their collective faces by the time Buttons wound up
with a combination tirade and tribute to the guest of honor.
For many, being close to such a
distinguished dais seemed reward enough for attending.
However, for the veterans of these affairs the bonus came with the
unrestrained laughter brought on by the vet troupers.
Burns hadn't expected such a fine introduction from a competitive
singer. But, that being the case, he harkened back to the era
of Fatty Arbuckle and Adolph Zukor, and through convoluted thinking
brought himself up to the contemporary era and explained why his
style is so much like Sinatra's.
Callas emulated George Jessel,
wearing what could have been Jessel's USO uniform or that of a
toastmaster-general. Copying the vocal style of the late
comedian. Callas opened with direct addresses to Pia
Zadora, Cohen the Barbarian and Brother Friars. He said he had
cut short a clubdate in Falkland Islands with Alvino Rey just to be
at the affair. He also spent considerable time commiserating
about what would happen if Sinatra were alive today. The
outrageousness of his statements, coupled with his ridiculous
uniform and an irreverent zaniness, brought the dais to its
Red Buttons got immediate attention
when he recalled a conversation between couture manufacturer Jerry
Zipkin and Nancy Reagan, who asked what one wears to a
recession. He said Cary Grant was there when they took Ray
Charles to a program by pantomimist Marcel Marceau, and he was also
there when they went back to Stevie Wonder's house to rearrange the
furniture. Buttons pointed out that no dinner was given to
Amelia Earhart when she ured that they stop looking for her and find
her luggage, and also that , "If the Pope was Italian, he would
have shot back." When Israeli bellhops refused to handle
pigskin luggage, Grant was there. When Bella Abzug had a
showing of her designer jeans, he was there. No dinner was
given to Moshe Dayan when he donated on of his eyes to CBS.
Helen of Troy was a hooker from upstate New York. These one
liners created an incessant flow of laughter.
New York Gov. Hugh Carey started the
parade of tributes to Grant with touches of humor. Grant, ne
Archie Leach in England, was a gymnast who for a time made a living
as a stilt walker at Coney Island. It was a recurring theme
from time to time during the proceedings.
A major gaffe was having Jack Valenti
back to back with Rich Little. Valenti made a pleasant speech
in which he strung titles from many of Grant's pics into a brief
spiel. It was the plan of Rich Little, who followed Valenti,
to do that also. In the old vaude days this was known as a
Gregory Peck gave a classy spiel on
his friendship with Grant, and Howard Cosell had spontaneous
ideas on how badly the dinner had been going up to that point, and
his barbs didn't lift it out of the doldrums. Tom Brokaw was
more effective in pointing out that Cosell's comment was akin to
inviting an Argentine general to Buckingham Palace.
There were some moments of
cleverness, such as Sammy Cahn's parodies on the affair. One
of them was sung by Sinatra in his windup. There were also
songs by Peggy Lee and Joe Williams. After Williams' recital,
Sinatra in mock contemptuousness said, "Show Off."
Cy Coleman also chimed in with song, doing an English music hall
song, appropriate for a tribute to British-born Grant. Tony
Bennett also moved the crowd to great applause.
Sinatra's major concern as
toastmaster seemed to be to keep the proceedings moving and to get
as many speakers and entertainers on within a time limit, and that
he did very well. His concern with the affair sometimes
overshadowed his own lines and other contributions.
Grant started to do some
recollections and provide comment. He seemed to have cut off
his prepared remarks when it seemed that very little could be done
to follow Buttons, Callas and Burns. He ended gracefully and
accepted the gifts and plaudits the Friars had to offer.
Appropriately enough, Metro-media
topper John Kluge, a guest on the dais, had his WNEW-TV carry the
Grant-Sinatra epic "The Pride and the Passion" on the 2:30
a.m. show. The evening was over by then and both principals of
the evening could enjoy their 1957 cinematic effort.
Friars' dean William B. Williams was
gracious in his introductions. Per usual, the club's executive
secretary Walter Goldstein, his able assistant Jean-Pierre Tebot,
and dinner chairman David Tebet handled details excellently.