By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
During his comedy shows, Steve Solomon always sends out the ultimate in mixed signals. He is the product of a marriage between an Italian mother and Jewish father.
Such unions can produce real wise guys like Brooklyn boy Solomon. He became an advance placement high school physics teacher who did everything but blow up his classroom. That was a natural gateway to humor, via his dialectician talents, for fun and profit.
Solomon will share the ethos and pathos along the neurosis of his parents, their family and friends and his own narrative in six weekly shows through Aug. 5 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. But he is so bursting with material that he had to restrain himself to avoid giving away half the program in a recent phone conversation.
“My mother, Marie Panarello, was from Palermo,” Solomon said. “My father, Louie Solomon, was from Minsk. He was in the Navy in World War II. They met at a restaurant in Italy.
“My mother was the bouncer.”
Crash that cymbal. Keep on going, Steve.
“My mom is only 4-foot-10. If you shrink her any more, she’d be in the car seat.”
The cymbal sounds again.
Solomon draws from a wellspring of real-life material such as the fact that he was bar mitzvahed and his mother didn’t mind.
“Mom didn’t care,” he said. “She didn’t give a damn I was raised Jewish. It made Poppa happy.”
Ah, but Marie dished out tough love.
“Mom hit me,” Solomon said. “My Aunt Millie was the pinch hitter. She hit me, told my mom, then mom hit me. One day she hit me with dog leash, and the dog was still attached to it.
“We developed a level of respect and admiration that was rooted in fear. Mom says call me every day. So every day of my life, at 8:30 a.m. her time, I called her no matter where I was on the planet.”
These and many other anecdotes are featured in Solomon’s latest incarnation of his life and those around him playing at the North Shore Center. Entitled “Cannoli, Latkes & Guilt!” the fourth sequel to his original hit, “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m STILL in Therapy.” One holiday vacation was “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m Home for the Holidays!”
The original show, one of the longest-running one-man comedy shows in history, has enjoyed some 7,800 performances nationwide. Based in Atlanta so he can easily get to all parts of the country, Solomon presents all the versions of the show. Parts of the shows are available on YouTube under his name. Lots of comedy material that Solomon doesn’t use in his shows can be enjoyed on his “Comedy blog” at www.stevesolomon.net.
“I was blessed with a wonderful memory,” Solomon said. “I remember things my father said when I was 5. He was not formally educated. He said the wisest man knows what he doesn’t know. And good health is just the slowest way to die. These are the adages of my father.
“Italians and Jews are indistinguishable. They live for food, live for respect, live for the older people in the family. Jewish mothers and Italian moms are (mostly) the same, but Jewish mothers are like pit bulls.
“The only reason my mother’s brother wears a yarmulke is I told him the Pope wears one.”
Somewhere there’s another cymbal crash. Music to his ears, though, was not the sound Solomon heard when navigating through his old neighborhood. His Italian side did not help him when he was known as Solomon to some local kids.
“It was an interesting mix of mostly Italians and Jews,” he said. “The Italians kept certain groups out, and made sure they sold their houses to someone in the culture or family member. When I was growing up, Italian kids and Jewish kids were always fighting.”
As a training for his future calling, Solomon often talked his way out of trouble.
“If I wasn’t for my street smarts, I’d be in a wheelchair,” he said. “I’d hear, ‘Hey Jewboy, why do Jews have big noses?’” He’d reply about moustaches on Italian moms. Aunt Millie, next door, out of earshot of her brother-in-law, asked “Why do Jews have all the money?”
The literal voices of the old neighborhood are channeled through Solomon in his show. He started mimicking early and then did it often. He watched Frank Gorshin and Rich Little on TV, but then developed his own shtick to get around paranoid neighborhood residents.
“The first time I knew I could do dialects for money was at 12,” he said. I delivered food in the summer for Jay Wong’s Chinese Restaurant in Brooklyn. I’d go to a house, I would say Chinese delivery, but they’d never open the door. Then I’d do my version of Chinese , and they’d open the door.
“I had a six-octave range. In junior high, I could bring my voice wayyy down here. One day, I’m playing hooky. I call the attendance office. I used a deep voice like my father’s. They ask, “Who is this?’”
Solomon neglected to proof his script and narc-ed himself out.
“This is my father,” he told the disciplinarians.
He also related the poignancy and humor of Louie Solomon.
“The lights go down, the spotlight is on me,” he said. “Let me tell you the kind of person my dad is. He says, ‘Son, I want to talk to you. I was diagnosed…I got cancer.” So I tell my dad let’s take you up to (see a specialist) cousin at Sloan Kettering (cancer clinic). But he says it’s a schlep for mama. This man is looking down the barrel, but his only care is my mom’s well-being and comfort.
“This is the same man who after I broke shoulder in high school made me shovel the driveway. And once said after I asked ‘Why do people get married?’Dad responds, ‘Marriage is like a bank account…you put it in…you take it out…you lose interest!’”
Before he made comedy his career, Solomon had to experience the opposite end of the spectrum via the politics in education. His genius for voices was the tip of his intellectual iceberg. At 19, the smart-aleck got into Mensa International, open to those who score at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardized, supervised IQ or other approved intelligence test.
“I loved sciences,” Solomon said. “I did well on the SAT. I found science and math easy for me.”
Some compared Solomon to a real-life Gabe Kotter in the classroom.
“I taught AP Physics for years,” he said. “I was a lunatic. That was my teaching style. I never stayed tight to the curriculum. I’d always ad-lib, always over the edge. Later, I would try to build arc lamps on stage — kind of like my father taught me.”
He even had a mad dream of being a superintendent of schools. He almost got there at a Long Island school district.
“I became an assistant superintendent, and my brain turned to jello. Too much bureaucracy and politics.”
Back on track to comedy, Solomon rose fast, and even angered other comics who felt he had not paid his dues in improv clubs and smaller venues. But one big name welcomed him to the big leagues.
“I always wanted to meet Henny Youngman,” Solomon said. “I did meet him and start doing jokes for him. He paid me with a corned beef sandwich from the Stage Deli. I also met people like Jackie Vernon.”
Perhaps the best advice was received from George Carlin.
“He once looked at me,” Solomon said. “He asked me if I was nervous? Are you sick? He said every night is Opening Night. You’re always trying to do better.”
If he got criticism for not working up the ranks through small-time improv, Solomon has his answer in designated parts of his show.
“Every single show, 20 percent is ad-libbed or modified. In scripts, it says optional material might be added here. They (stage crew) know if I’m off-script, do not panic.”
Marie and Louie lived long enough to see their son debut on Broadway and do two years of touring. “My mom was deathly afraid of entertainers,” he said. Still, elements of his past cross paths with him. Some old school bureaucrats saw him after one show.
“’You still a putz?’” they asked me,” said Solomon, respect otherwise granted.
Full-price tickets for “Cannoli, Latkes & Guilt!” range in price from $37 to $54 depending on show dates and seating selections. Shows run Wednesdays through Sundays with two shows on Saturdays. Tickets are on sale now at the North Shore Center box office, NorthShoreCenter.org, or by calling 847/673-6300. Discounts are available for groups of 15 or more by calling Group Theater Tix at (312) 423-6612.