Freddie Roman,Who Brought Catskill Comedy to Broadway, Dies at 85
Freddie Roman, a stand-up comedian who told jokes to mostly Jewish audiences in the Catskills, then brought borscht-belt humor to Manhattan when he conceived and performed in the hit show “Catskills on Broadway,” died on Saturday in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 85.
The cause was a heart attack, his daughter, Judi Levin, said.
Mr. Roman began his comedy career in the Catskills in the early 1960s, when that resort area in upstate New York was thriving, long before it began its steep decline. At one hotel after another, he told one-liners and stories that delighted audiences spending their weekends and summer vacations there.
“Quintessential mountain jokes,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2001, explaining his early shtick. “For example, the one about the lady who’s complaining about the hotel: ‘At this hotel, the food is poison … and such small portions!’”
Over the next half-century, his comedy revolved around his family, and — as his target audiences increasingly escaped the New York area for Florida — aging and retirement. He told of his parents retiring to a condominium in Florida and his father’s early complaint.
“I’m retired four weeks, and in these four weeks I talked to this woman more than I did in 48 years,” he said his father told him. “I have nothing left to say to her. Now that I’ve talked to her, I find out I don’t care for her.”
In 1991 Mr. Roman turned his comedy experience into “Catskills on Broadway,” a revue in which he, Mal Z. Lawrence, Marilyn Michaels and Dick Capri each performed 30-minute routines and which ended with them onstage together telling more jokes and singing “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Mr. Lawrence died last year.
“Freddie had a lot of confidence, for sure, and whatever the show was, he loved to be the M.C.; he loved to take control of a show,” Mr. Capri said in a phone interview. “But he never acted like the boss, although he had a piece of the show.”
In his review, Mel Gussow of The New York Times wrote, “Catskill resorts may be fighting the recession, but Catskill comedy has not lost its flair.”
The show ran for 453 performances over 13 months at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater and then toured in the years after. It also became the subject of an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office over the theft of more than $300,000 from the Broadway box office.
Kenneth Greenblatt, one of the show’s producers, told The Times in 1992 that he examined the box-office figures after he was alerted by Mr. Roman, who had told him “that the numbers didn’t jibe with the audience he saw in the house.”
The investigation ended in October 1993 when the district attorney’s office announced that it could not find sufficient evidence to charge anyone with a crime. The Nederlander Organization, which owns the theater, eventually settled with Mr. Greenblatt.
In 1994, Mr. Roman was elected dean, or president, of the Friars Club in Manhattan, a citadel for comedians and entertainers to schmooze, eat and play cards. He helped expand its aging membership by inviting younger comedians and a broader range of performers to join.
Mr. Roman, who was part of many Friars roasts, stepped down as dean in 2014 and was replaced by the broadcaster Larry King.
When the Friars roasted Mr. Roman, his son, Alan Kirschenbaum, a sitcom writer and producer, praised him as both a parent and a comedian. But, as Mr. Roman recalled in an interview on the cable news channel NY1 in 2006, Mr. Kirschenbaum added, “I wish I was Shecky Greene’s son, because Shecky Greene took his son to hookers.”
Freddie Roman was born Fred Martin Kirschenbaum on May 28, 1937, in Newark and grew up in Jamaica, Queens. His father, Harry, owned a ladies’ shoe store in Cedarhurst, on Long Island, and his mother, Belle (Burnstein) Kirschenbaum, managed a women’s clothing store.
Fred loved being the center of attention, and at age 15 he started a five-year run in the summers as the unpaid M.C. of Saturday night shows at the Crystal Spring Hotel in the Catskills, which was owned by an uncle and his maternal grandfather. He graduated from New York University in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in dramatic art and married Ethel Harris a year later.
He put his show business dreams aside to sell shoes in his father’s store, then opened his own shop in Fresh Meadows, Queens. He was successful, but he disliked the work and sold the store. He then got a job selling life insurance and mutual funds, which gave him the time to perform on weekends.
“You’ve got to remember, there were about 200 places to play and they all wanted entertainment in those days, many of them year-round,” Mr. Roman told The Times in 2005.
One of his earliest jobs in the Catskills was as a social director, who is often referred to as a tummler, at the Homowack Lodge, where he hosted shows at night and organized activities to keep guests happy during the day.
By his late 20s he was a full-time comedian, working largely in the Catskills. One of his employers, who was Italian, suggested that he change his surname to Roman. It remained his stage name, although legally he was still Fred Kirschenbaum.
In 1970, when Mr. Roman was booked into the Concord, one of the top Catskill hotels, Totie Fields, a pioneering female comic who was hot at the time, saw his act and loved it. She arranged to have him perform in Las Vegas for the first time; she also hired him as an opening act.
“That broke down the door for me,” he told The Daily News of New York in 1997.
He would spread his Catskills-bred shtick around the country for five decades. He worked often in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City, where from 1989 to 1990 he hosted a “Tonight Show”-like variety show at the Trump Castle — a rare period of permanence. Florida also became a regular stop for him, as he followed his older audiences south.
Mr. Roman played a comedian in “Sweet Lorraine” (1987), a film about a past-its-prime Catskill hotel, and a country club member in the Prime Video series “Red Oaks,” which ran from 2014 to 2017. He also appeared on the televised roasts of Hugh Hefner, Rob Reiner, Drew Carey and Chevy Chase, and in the documentary “Funny Already: A History of Jewish Comedy” (2004).
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Roman is survived by his wife; four grandchildren and two brothers, George and Ed Kirschenbaum. His son died in 2012.
Mr. Roman said that “Catskills on Broadway” had played to enthusiastic audiences in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, outside of the borscht belt’s natural habitat.
After one road performance, George Carlin came backstage and told Mr. Roman that he regretted never having performed in the Catskills.
“And I was really touched by that,” Mr. Roman told The Record of Hackensack, N.J., in 2016. “He said, ‘You made it look like the greatest place in the world to work.’
“And yeah,” he added, “it really was.”