Obituary: Lucille Kallen

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The Independent Culture
THE LIVE, 90-minute revue-style Your Show of Shows (1950-54) was described by the critic Kenneth Tynan as "a golden landmark in the wasteland of television comedy". The legendary writing team behind that prestigious series boasted a lone woman - Lucille Kallen.

Carl Reiner, who played supporting parts in the show as well as contributing many bright comedy ideas, described the dark, petite Kallen as "a real writer. Cute as a button, too."

Born in Los Angeles in 1922, Kallen was sent east to study classical music at the Juilliard School in New York, but abandoned her studies after being told that her fingers were too short for the piano. They were, however, an acceptable length for the typewriter, and she remained in New York to write an intimate revue.

In the audience one night was the showman Max Liebman, who had already launched the career of Danny Kaye. Impressed by Kallen's writing, Liebman invited her to join him at Camp Tamiment, a large Jewish summer resort in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, where he produced and directed the camp's musical shows. Throughout the summer of 1948 Kallen co-wrote a new revue every week. Her collaborator on the songs and sketches was Mel Tolkin, whose Eastern European accent was so impenetrable that she said it required "seven United Nations interpreters".

In 1949 Liebman entered television as producer of The Admiral Broadway Revue, with Tolkin and Kallen as his writers. The series starred a brace of Liebman discoveries: Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. A year later Liebman, Kallen, Tolkin, Coca and Caesar were reunited for Your Show of Shows, with Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart joining the writing staff.

During the work sessions (fiercely competitive shouting matches that Tolkin called "mob jobs"), Kallen would take down the best lines, adding her own after attracting the men's attention. "I'd have to stand on a desk and wave my red sweater," she recalled. "Let's face it, gentility was never a noticeable part of our working lives. Max Liebman was fond of quoting a Goldwynism: 'From a polite conference comes a polite movie.' "

During the show's final season, Kallen became pregnant, an event which prompted Liebman to hire the Simon brothers, Neil and Danny. "Max brought us on until Lucille gave birth," Neil Simon recalled. "And so Danny and I were hoping for a three-year pregnancy." Shortly after the baby arrived, the show departed. Each of its two stars was offered a solo series, with Tolkin, Reiner, Gelbart and the Simons going into the Caesarean camp and Kallen and Brooks joining Coca. Although Caesar's Hour ran for three years, The Imogene Coca Show was a failure, and, disenchanted with television, Kallen decided to turn her talents elsewhere.

She joined Tolkin in writing Maybe Tuesday (1958), a play that had only a short Broadway run. On her own, she wrote Outside There, Somewhere (1964), a wry, semi- autobiographical novel about a female television writer battling to survive in a man's world. Neil Simon's 1994 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, whose dramatis personae are based on the Show of Shows writing staff, modelled the character of Carol Wyman on Kallen. In Act Two, Carol tells the Caesar character, "After five years in here, you think I know what a 'woman's point of view' is? I come home at night smelling from cigar smoke, I have to put my dress in a humidor . . . I don't want to be called a woman writer. I want to be called a good writer!"

In 1979 Kallen wrote Introducing C.B. Greenfield, the first of five witty mystery novels in which the publisher of a suburban newspaper solves a series of murders with the invaluable assistance of Maggie Rose, his star reporter. C.B. Greenfield: no lady in the house (1982) bore the grateful dedication: "This one is for Max Liebman, who was a university where so many of those now acclaimed once learned craftsmanship."

Lucille Kallen, scriptwriter, lyricist and novelist: born Los Angeles 28 May 1922; married Herbert Engel (one son, one daughter); died Ardsley, New York 18 January 1999.