Billy Crystal remembers his 1950s childhoodLike his stand-up comedy and his on-screen characters, Billy Crystal's autobiographical 700 Sundays exudes warmth, sentiment and sweetly colorful details. The man who remains everybody's favorite Oscar host (eight times and, we hope, still counting), based this book on his award-winning one-man Broadway play. It's the second book for Crystal, who previously wrote a children's book, I Already Know I Love You (HarperCollins, 2004), in anticipation of becoming a grandfather. 700 Sundays was written to celebrate what came before the early years of his life, spent in Long Beach, Long Island, which not only inspired his love of family, but also his love of comedy, music (particularly jazz), baseball and movies.
Crystal once said that when he goes on stage, "I hear the members of my family in my head a lot . . . I see them and feel them." 700 Sundays explores that influence specifically, the parents who fostered his early interest in performing (he was just a tyke when he began "working" the living room) and relatives like his uncle, Milt Gabler, who started Commodore Records, America's first independent jazz label. As for Crystal's dad, Jack, he ran the Commodore Music Shop, a fixture on 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue, and also produced jazz concerts. With two jobs, he could only spend Sundays with the family. By Crystal's calculation, they spent 700 Sundays together; he was just 15 when his father died of a heart attack.
Crystal's trip down memory lane is very much a 1950s saga, with its recollections of the young Crystal glued to the TV set, watching the men who would become his comedic icons among them, Sid Caesar (Crystal calls him "the greatest comedian to ever grace television"), Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen and Jack Benny and sitting in Yankee Stadium, basking in the glory of baseball great Mickey Mantle.
Crystal revels in the life-changing Sunday of May 30, 1956, when his dad took him to his very first Yankees game. Thus was born a lifelong passion which triggered young Crystal's hopes of becoming a ballplayer. The avid Yankees fan went on to produce the acclaimed HBO movie 61, about the rivalry between Mantle and Roger Maris. (Crystal also happens to own one of the Mick's baseball gloves for which he anted up $239,000.) Then there's his passion for jazz, which was inevitable, really, considering the Who's Who of jazz greats who paraded in and out of the family home and businesses among them, Gene Krupa, Eddie Condon and Billie Holiday. In fact, it was Crystal's Uncle Milt who recorded Holiday's now-legendary and haunting "Strange Fruit" (about lynching) on his Commodore label. And it was Holiday who took the young Crystal to his very first film, the Western, Shane. (Remember the ending, where the little boy runs after his cowboy-hero crying, "Shane . . . come back . . ."? At that point, says Crystal, Holiday whispered in his ear, "He ain't never coming back.") Crystal once said that his early experiences with jazz artists had an impact on his comedic improvisation. As he explained to an interviewer for National Public Radio, "I think when I feel I'm at my best is when I'm on stage, and it's my version of jazz because it's just riffing or something." 700 Sundays recounts other influences and significant moments in time. Like the time his dad brought home an album entitled, "Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow, Right!" The 14-year-old Crystal was so enthralled that he memorized the routine and performed it in a school show. ("Is that stealing? In Hollywood, they call that an homage.") Then there was the time he saw his first Broadway show starring the multitalented Sammy Davis Jr. Crystal became a major fan, not anticipating he'd one day open for Sammy, or that they would later become friends. And surely, he didn't think he'd one day be incorporating a Sammy impression into his stand-up routine. Nor did he know, way back when, the impact that family would have on his life and career. As 700 Sundays warmly illustrates, he knows now. Author and Hollywood journalist Pat H. Broeske is rooting for Crystal to return as the host of the Oscars.