As I was planning my father's memorial service for today I called his good friend and fellow comedian Freddie Roman, to arrange for a room at New York's traditional show business mecca – The Friar's Club. I told Freddie I needed a DVD player so the guests could watch some of my father's old performances. "We'll get a BIG screen," Freddie said, "so he doesn't look too short."
"I'm 5-foot-five," my father used to tell the audience. "That's after teasing my hair." But, according to my father, Bobby Shields, short people had many advantages over tall people. Women should prefer short guys like him, he said. "Big, tall guys sweat a lot. With me, a little talcum powder, I'm good for the week." I cleaned that line up a touch. But not much. My father was a very clean comic. I can't remember him ever uttering a dirty word, on stage or off.
I spent some time thinking about what image most defined my father. And then it came to me: a sweat-drenched tuxedo shirt. I watched his show hundreds of times when I was growing up. And every time I went back stage, after the show, the tuxedo shirt he worked in was soaking wet. It didn't matter if he was performing for 2,500 people or 25. He worked just as hard no matter what size the audience. He soaked every one of his shirts.
That effort, that energy, that sweat, helped explain what made it possible for Bobby Shields to go from a poor shoeshine boy in East Harlem to a successful stand-up comic. He wasn't a big name. But he got big laughs. And he made a good enough living to enable my warm, vibrant, devoted mother to be a stay-at-home mom for me, their only child.
She handled that assignment with incredible devotion, and constant watchfulness. I remember coming home from high school a couple hours late one day and there she was on the phone finishing a conversation with these words: "It's OK officer – he just arrived."
I remember sitting pretty close to ringside with my mother when I was around 10-years-old in the ultimate New York nightclub, The Copa, when the deep, gravelly voice of the Copa capo Jules Podell announced, from somewhere off stage: "Ladies and gentlemen, the comedy star of our show, Bobby Shields."
The place was packed. Not for my father. For Tom Jones, with whom he toured for several years. So many women in the audience wanted to get their hands on Tom he had to be run down the aisle on the shoulders of two lines of body guards and thrust upon the stage which the bodyguards then surrounded to protect Jones from his adoring fans.
It's a challenge to make people laugh when they're hyperventilating for the closing act. But the laughs my father got at the Copa were, as usual, thunderous. "The other night, in the middle of my act, a woman in the audience started screaming: 'TOM, I WANT YOU, TOM, I GOTTA HAVE YOU!.' I said TAKE ME! She said 'I WANT TOM JONES. WHEN I WANT TOM THUMB I'LL CALL YOU.'"
And there lies another secret of Bobby Shields' comedic success. Anyone who knows my father will tell you – he was a cute man. Actually, more than cute. Adorable is the word my mother-in-law used to describe him.
"I don't mind when women call me short," he joked. "What bothers me is when they turn me upside down to see if I was made in Japan."
When I visited him in the hospital last week someone had left the TV in his room on a station featuring a gesticulating preacher. Aah, the preacher routine. It paid for my college education. My father was a natural preacher. And he was so likeable, people would laugh even if they didn't like what he had to say. On the pollution of second-hand smoke, which he detested: "I have some advice for smokers," he would tell the audience. "When you smoke a cigarette, inhale deeply, and keep – it – inside."
When my father went into preacher mode the audience hardly needed prompting to become his congregation. "I want you to take your evil alcohol and cast it into the river." 'RIVER,' the audience would respond. "Then I want you to take your evil tobacco and cast it into the river. And take your evil WOMEN and cast THEM into the river...And tomorrow mornin' we goin' swimmin'."
Almost every day some news story reminds me of one of my father's routines. When gas prices recently shot through the roof I remembered his routine from the days of runaway inflation. "I went to a gas station and asked for ten dollars worth. The guy said 'why don't you take a whole gallon."
When Fidel Castro finally stepped down, I remembered my father's 1960 comedy album "The First Cuban at the U.N." My father would come on stage with a black beard and a machine gun and channel the new Cuban dictator. "I AM NOT A COMMUNIST. I NEVER WAS A COMMUNIST. I NEVER WILL BE A COMMUNIST ... I AM A RUSSIAN DEMOCRAT!"
It may sound, from some of these samples, like Bobby Shields was a one-liner type comic. But he wasn't. He wove together stories from his life and from his observations rooted in reality. The punchlines were exaggerated, but plausible. And you just have to SEE him perform to know why audiences loved him. Watch this video to see what I'm talking about. If, for some strange reason, you don't find him incredibly entertaining, please don't leave a comment below. Take my father's advice to smokers. Keep it inside.
As I mentioned, the sweaty tux shirt was a defining image of my father. My father's defining image of his own father was a mouth full of nails. My grandfather was a shoemaker. When he repaired a shoe, he'd keep the nails in his mouth and take them out one by one to hammer in the heel. "One day a guy came in to rob my father's shoe store. My father nailed him against the wall – p-p-p-p-p-p." Again, it wasn't far from the truth. Someone did try to rob my grandfather's store when he was in his seventies. My grandfather decided to fight – and wound up in the hospital. Tough as nails.
If you think about it, everyone you know and love has an image which helps define them. My maternal grandmother's, Bubbi's, was a thimble. She was a furrier's seamstress who was paid by the hour. She sewed faster than the other ladies, but didn't get paid extra for the quantity. A good deal for her boss. "My mother-in-law visits us twice a year," my father would joke. "Six months each time."
My father died days short of his 86th birthday. He didn't die in his home town of New York. When my mother, Sonny Shields, who put so much of her own sweat into caring for my ailing father, suddenly died nearly three years ago, we moved my father down to Atlanta. The south. Another reminder of a Bobby Shields routine: the notorious small town southern speed traps which, my father joked, were set for unsuspecting northerners:
“A cop pulled me over. He told me 'man, you were goin' so fast I could hardly keep up with you.'
I said, ‘why don't you get yourself a car like the other officers.’
He said, I'm gonna have to write you up a ticket.
‘But officer, I was only going 10 miles-an-hour.’
He said, ‘well you in a nine mile zone.’
Nobody hurt. Nobody ridiculed. Clean.
There was his airline routine, when the jumbo jet he's on is in trouble and quickly losing altitude. The pilot gets on the speaker system and reassuringly points out the various sites to the passengers. "If you look outside, above the plane, you can see the bottom of the George Washington Bridge."
I could go on with his material. I did once, live, on stage, when I was in college. "How did you do?" my father asked me after my show. "YOU did great" I answered. That's what I'd like to say to him now. You did great.
If my father had his way, he would have been performing until the day he died. I don't know a single comedian who stops performing voluntarily. But Parkinson's disease stole his choice. Even with Parkinson's, with which he was diagnosed more than 20 years ago, he continued to perform for a number of years.
Shortly after I met my wife to be, 15 years ago, I took her to one of my father's last shows, a packed house at The Grand Ballroom of Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. I hadn't watched him perform in several years. I was upset to see him hunched over, leaning against the wall for support, waiting to be introduced after the opening act finished.
It was especially hard to comprehend knowing that it was Bobby Shields' dynamic, athletic, lindy-hopping, that got him into show business in the first place by winning contests that were his day's equivalent of "So You Think You Can Dance." I was concerned he wouldn't make it up the stairs to the stage.
But as soon as those words came over the speaker system, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Comedy Star of Our Show ..' It was like he'd been given a shot of adrenaline. His Parkinson's shuffle sped up. And he gave one of his classic, drenched-tuxedo performances. I'd never heard my wife-to-be laugh so hard. She passed the litmus test. Good thing - for me.
The last time I saw him perform was at our wedding, in 1997. I introduced him. He shuffled up to the stage, cued the band, and, you can see and hear the results for yourselves on that video link above.
Even after he stopped working, Bobby Shields didn't need a nightclub to entertain people. On one visit to Atlanta with my mother, when he was barely mobile, he arrived at the airport, got out of his wheelchair, grabbed its handles, and walked the empty wheelchair through the airport shouting "Help, I've lost my patient."
As I watch our three young children now, Pop Pop's grandchildren, I shouldn't be surprised to see my 5-year-old daughter creating her own rhythmic raps and comic riffs; I shouldn't be surprised to see our 8 year-old-son "working a room" (or a playground) and leaving children and adults smiling or laughing; I shouldn't be surprised when our 11-year-old daughter weaves modern, ballet, and hip hop moves into her own original captivating dances.
The other night she was dancing to a Kanye West song. Her choreography blew me away. I just looked at her and said "Can you imagine what Kanye West would have said if he had just seen you dance?" Without missing a beat, she answered, "Yeah, he'd say, 'Yo, Beyonce dances better.'"
How about that. Pop Pop's three grandchildren are spirited, funny, adorable, musical, dancing, charmers. And each one has an uncanny sense of timing. They've got something inside them. They've got Bobby's Blood.