Harry Einstein was a comedian and actor from 1936-45, famous for dialect comedy, playing a fake Greek with the stage name “Parkyakarkus.” Heart disease immobilized him in later life.
He appeared at a Friar’s Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958, and his act received howls of laughter. Seated next to Milton Berle after performing, Einstein slumped into Berle’s lap. Doctors later said Einstein was likely dead at that moment.
Berle shouted, “Is there a doctor in the house?” and people thought he was joking.
The event was a charity benefit for local hospitals, and several doctors attended. Einstein was carried backstage, where five doctors worked on him. One used a pen knife to make an incision for open heart massage, another used the ends of an electric cord as a makeshift defibrillator.
After Einstein was pronounced dead, Arnaz said, “This is one of those moments that Lucy and I have waited a lifetime for but it’s meaningless now. They say the show must go on. But why must it? Let’s close the show now by praying for this wonderful man backstage who made the world laugh.”
Two of Einstein’s sons went on to become famous comedians and actors: Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein.
Brooks has included subtle references to his father’s death in several movies, most explicitly “Defending Your Life,” about the afterlife experience of a recently dead man.
In a sense, Brook’s career was a reaction to his father’s. The elder Einstein did broad, explicit comedy, but in his early years, Brooks specialized in anti-comedy, pretending to be an incompetent ventriloquist or that he had forgotten his ideas.
Einstein’s final performance was recorded and it’s on YouTube. It’s not particularly funny today. Audience’s change over time, and yesterday’s comedy is often not funny today.
Via “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy,” by Kliph Nesteroff, a wonderful book that I’m reading and enjoying now.