See us on TV!
-philosopher, metaphysician, podiatrist
by Geo Stewart
They tell me it was a small funeral - 40 or 50 people. But Brother Theodore had performed
in front of smaller crowds having made his weekly therapy session available for viewing to
a paying public for close to thirty years [and make no mistake as to whom the therapy was
for: we were the patients and we were not allowed up on the couch.]
It is a late autumnal Saturday night. A few dead leaves remind us that once New York was an
unspoiled paradise of forest and fields, verdant green and singing to Nature. Now it is all man
made rock, full of hollow mountains anticipating the apocalypse. Under one negligible mole
hill is the entrance way to The Thirteen Street Theater. It has maybe a hundred seats, maybe
a few more, but not many. The stage is empty, looking like a janitor's office thanks to the
bare conduit crossing the ceiling before closing in on a beat up metal desk and swivel chair.
Suddenly we are plunged in dankness. Slowly as our eyes acclimate, a silhouette, a
phantasmagoria, black on black, crosses and sits. A spotlight rends the dark and there, sour
and clearly irritated by our presence, is Brother Theodore. He checks us over and finds us
wanting. Still, he begins.
"Science is but an organized system of ignorance. What do we know about the Beyond? Will we ever know what is behind the Beyond? I am afraid few of us even know what is beyond their behinds!"
For then next 80-odd minutes, he rants and raves, his Germanic intonations soaring and
swirling, from a whisper to a scream and back again, demanding that we share his despair.
Our every paradigm is assaulted and destroyed until we are unceremoniously vomited out
into an indifferent world, a world that seems much crueler now...
Most people know Brother Theodore from his few appearances --about 6 by one count-- playing straight man to David Letterman. Once he flummoxed the host by sarcastically confessing that the star made him so nervous that in his presence he would start sweating "like a chunk of rancid pork." He wasn't on Letterman much after that.....
Theodore's life story is so unbelievable that, well, you probably won't believe it . He was born into wealth and luxury in Dusseldorf on November 11th, 1906 -- thanks to his family's publishing empire, one of the largest in Germany. On his 32nd birthday he was imprisoned in Dachau due to his Jewish heritage but was able to buy his way out by signing everything over for a single mark. Seven members of his family weren't so lucky. Soon after he found himself in Switzerland where he earned money as a chess hustler and was brought to America by his mother's secret lover, one Albert Einstein. He earned workman's wages as a janitor at Stanford University and one time played chess with 30 of their best professors simultaneously -- and beat them all. Mopping up piss andd vomit wasn't this ex-playboy's strong suite, so he began casting around for another more palatable career: he began performing, giving readings of Poe. Soon he was a staple of the talk show circuit, appearing on Steve Allen and Johnny Carson's shows and the like. It was around this time that he recorded two records: a 10 incher Entertainment of Sinister and Disconcerting Humor, and the eponymous LP Theodore. Both he disowns. "You have to be able to see me."
Now living in New York he began performing his one man show, soon settling at The
Thirteenth Street Theater. There you would find him every Saturday night for many, many
years --decades, really. And I gotta tell ya, anyone who experienced this manic rant soon
forgot Spalding Grey. From his Mount Sinai hospital bed last Spring, he still rehearsed,
determined to return to the 13th Street for at least one more performance. It wasn't to be; he
died there on April 5th 2001, a Thursday, at the age of 93.
Over the years he appeared in a few films -- one of which was a porno called GUMS. Theodore remained clothed, thankfully. He was put to better use in Joe Dante's 1989 comedy "The 'Berb" which starred Tom Hanks. Theodore played the next door neighbor from Hell and always claimed that his best stuff ended up on the cutting room floor so as not to upstage Tom -- boy, I'd love to see those out-takes. He also lent his distinctively guttural tones to such cartoon fare as 1981's The Last Unicorn, and The Hobbit.
I met Theodore for dinner one dreary November day back in 1984, to discuss plans to bring
his show down to The University of Delaware. He had chosen an automat close to his uptown
New York apartment, and dinned mostly on Jell-o cubes and over-cooked carrots, as I recall.
Earlier, when I rang him up, hoping for a brief interview to run on my radio show Crazy
College, I had a hard time convincing him to talk to me until I said something that really
pleased him: I said I thought of him, not so much as a comedian, but as a monologist of the
macabre, a "black" philosopher.
THEODORE: I agree with you a hundred percent. And I am proud of your perspicacity. I congratulate you! I never thought that. "Black philosopher!" It's good, it's very good!
GEO: How did you come to be called Brother Theodore?
THEODORE: Wherever I go, they call me now Brother Theodore. The brother is a joke, not from me but from talk show host Merv Griffin. Once when I appeared on his show, wearing a black turtle-neck sweater, and he asked me, Are you a man of the cloth? An said "no". He said, Then you are not Reverend Theodore, you are not Father Theodore, like Father O'Malley? I said, "No, I am none of these." He said, Well, may I call you Brother Theodore, anyway? I said, "If it gives any pleasure to you, you go right ahead. Call me Uncle, Sister, Brother, I really don't care." And ever since that time, the Brother has stuck with me. And because of that, now everybody thinks that I am either a totally insane priest, or a tenth-rate comedian who thinks that adding Brother to his name is very funny when, as a matter of fact, you and I know that it isn't funny at all. I'm funny in my show or at least I flatter myself to be funny, and certain members in my audience are polite enough to laugh and applaud but I think that my funniness is certainly not the funniness of a comedian.
>GEO: Your "act," for want of a better word, is hard to explain to anyone who hasn't
THEODORE: The Village Voice says I cannot be explained. Better people than The Village
Voice say the same thing. And now, if you want to explain what I am doing, I have to blush and
say, I don't know.
>GEO: How much of your show is improvised?
THEODORE: I start with a basic idea. But many of the things that you hear were originally
improvised. So let's say, each Saturday I say two or three new sentences, and if they are greater
with laughter or applause, I incorporate it in the show. So after a few hundred shows, what was
once an ad-lib becomes part of a set piece. And I like the set pieces for a very good reason: the
audiences can be so incredibly different; sometimes they are highly intelligent, sometimes they
are all absolute sub-morons. And the thing that went over yesterday, may not go over today.
>GEO:: How long have you been giving these performances?
THEODORE: This is another question that gets difficult to answer. I have been doing these
performance for decades, first in San Francisco. When I came to America as the grandson, and
the great-grandson, and the great-great-grandson of very, very wealthy people of Europe, I
didn't know what to do with myself because I was brought up to be a playboy. Very early in my
youth I said to myself, why, when I grow up, should I try to make 32 million dollars out of 30
million? 30 million dollars is enough, and I will spend my life lying on beaches and being
suntanned and having gorgeous girlfriends, do lots of reading and play chess. And I, with great
craftiness, avoided any work. Then Hitler came to power. Nine members of my family - my
parents included -- were killed, and everything was taken away. Everything! The last ten cents.
I came to America totally destitute and totally unprepared to do a day's work. I couldn't do what
any 16 year-old-punk could do. I ended up as an elevator boy, a janitor at Stanford
University...but these jobs were not very satisfactory. After having tasted luxury and glory, I did
not want to end my days in America as, perhaps, a toothless old janitor. So I racked my brain
and said, What can I do to get out of this terrible, terrible mess? Don't I have any talent
whatsoever, besides running around with girls and going to theater? Then it occurred to me
that I had always this craving for weird and bizarre literature, the German literature, the
French literature of two centuries ago. So I thought, maybe I can become a story teller! It wasn't
too easy, believe you me, because my English was far from perfect. In Germany, I had gone
through the classic schooling: Latin and Greek, French I speak perfectly well. But English, for
some reason, didn't appeal to me. And America, from what I had heard about it, was frightening
to me. Slowly, reluctantly, I began to write my own stories, and told them to people who tended
to shake their heads and say that I should be in a straitjacket. And people tend to say the same
thing now, which is a success of sorts, but in a totally microscopic way. I always felt that if I had
the connection, things would have been so much different. My show appeals mostly to students,
who are of little help because they will not get me to Broadway, they will not get me into films. I
could be as good as Peter Lorre was. I live now from hand to mouth.
>GEO: It must be frustrating.
THEODORE: It is frustrating but, as it has been going on for so many decades, I am used to this
frustration. I say, "Well, this is the way I live, this is the way I will probably die very soon. But it
does rankle me, because I think so many people who consider themselves great performers are
quite inferior to what I do, and they become multi-millionaires!
"To the maggots in the cheese, the cheese is the universe. To the worms in the corpse, the corpse is the cosmos. Creatures of twilight and illusion, we drift and drift to our unknown end. That is why I feel the best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people."
-Berenice as adapted by Theodore