Obituary: Arnold M. Auerbach

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The Independent Culture
LIKE ITS English counterpart, the Broadway revue is all but extinct. Unfortunately, Arnold M. Auerbach, whose flair for gusty satire made him meat for that form of entertainment, came to revue in its last years.

Auerbach's was hardly a rags- to-riches story; his father was a prominent Manhattan doctor. After attending an exclusive private school, Arnold studied at Columbia University, where he co-edited the campus magazine Jester and wrote humorous articles for it. Another contributor was his classmate, the future novelist Herman Wouk. Together they wrote two variety shows and soon decided to become professional writers.

After graduation, Auerbach wrote two plays, and, although neither was a success, he was undaunted. "My record may have been puny", he later wrote, "but my ambitions were full blown: to bowl over Broadway as a wit and satirist; to become, eventually, a Moliere; plus, perhaps, a dash of George Bernard Shaw".

To subsidise his theatrical work, Auerbach considered writing radio comedy. Luckily his father had a patient whose second cousin was the wife of the man known as "the Tsar of the Gags". David Freedman, the highest paid and most prolific comedy writer of 1930s broadcasting, was then providing scripts for six weekly series, with the help of voluminous, cross-indexed joke files.

Freedman hired Auerbach to ferret out humour from magazines, newspapers and books, thereby swelling the files, which Auerbach described as "the Augean stables of humour". One day he was handed a copy of Jester, the college magazine for which he had written. "It struck me," he wrote, "that I might be the first grave-robber to rob his own grave". Eventually he decided to forsake the Freedman quip factory and team up with Herman Wouk to turn out more creative comedy material.

They wrote a sample sketch and approached Fred Allen, one of the top radio writer-comedians of the day, described by Auerbach as "keen-witted, literate and incisive". Allen hired them, and they remained with him for five years. With the coming of the Second World War, Wouk entered the Navy and Auerbach the Army.

Assigned to the Army's Special Services Division, Auerbach wrote shows for the troops, including a complete revue called About Face. Also creating soldier shows were the composer Harold Rome and the former Hollywood leading man Melvyn Douglas, who wrote in his autobiography: "The war was winding down, and Harold and Arnold had a notion that a musical based on the wartime experiences of returning servicemen might do well on Broadway."

After the war, Rome wrote the songs and Auerbach and Arnold B. Horwitt the sketches for the revue Call Me Mister (1946), which Douglas co-produced with Rome's lawyer Herman Levin, later the producer of My Fair Lady. The cast of Call Me Mister consisted of such ex-GIs as Jules Munshin and such ex-USO troop entertainers as Betty Garrett, and the show ran for 734 performances - an all-time record for a large-scale Broadway revue. The 1951 film version - with storyline added - starred Betty Grable and Dan Dailey.

The revue Inside USA (1948) included an Auerbach sketch (based on a New Yorker piece by George S. Kaufman), in which Jack Haley instructed fledgling waiters in the art of avoiding the diner's eye, bringing him the wrong dish and interrupting him just as he's about to finish telling his beautiful dinner companion a joke.

Auerbach's most uproarious contribution was the sketch satirising the then recent Chopin biopic A Song to Remember. Beatrice Lillie memorably played Madame Lapis de Lazuli, the most fascinating woman in Vienna ("Oh, they are so tiresome, these young students! Last night at the Kalzenhof, they were at my table till six o'clock, drinking beer from my slipper, I came home foaming at the feet.") By merely exposing a shoulder or an ankle, Madame de Lazuli inspired musical masterpieces from - in quick succession - Chopin, Lizst and Tchaikovsky.

A second Levin-Rome-Auerbach revue Bless You All (1950) again started Jules Munshin. John Chapman wrote, in the New York Daily News, "In an elaborate sketch, Mr Munshin is running for the presidency in 1960 and is conducting his campaign entirely by television - and here the writer, Mr Auerbach, is at his funniest as he flails heartily away at TV revues and nationalist politics." Alas, it wasn't long before American political life was imitating Auerbach's art.

The Broadway revue was soon decimated by television, a medium for which Auerbach was also well-suited; he wrote programmes for Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra and Phil Silvers. In 1955 he joined the writing staff of the new series You'll Never Get Rich, which introduced the world to Master Sergeant Ernest T. Bilko of Fort Baxter, Roseville, Kansas. The scripts for that first series were so superbly crafted that Auerbach and his fellow writers shared an Emmy award.

Auerbach wrote many pieces for the Sunday Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, humorous verse and prose for various magazines, as well as Funny Men Don't Laugh (1965), a memoir of his early days with David Freedman and Fred Allen.

Dick Vosburgh

Arnold M. Auerbach, writer: born New York City 23 May 1912; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 19 October 1998.