NEW YORK — If you’re making a Christmas trip to the Big Apple, I hope you’ll stop by and see Billy Crystal.
We made a Thanksgiving visit to the city and took in a performance of Crystal’s one-man play, “700 Sundays.” It may be one of my favorite Broadway experiences in all of my years of visiting there.
The title is a reference to Crystal’s father, Jack, who died when Billy was just 15. Sunday was the day Jack Crystal devoted to his boys, Joel, Rip and Billy. From the time he was born until his dad passed away, approximately 700 Sundays were spent doing things such as learning to hit a baseball or watching some of the sport’s legends at Yankee Stadium.
The stories of tabloid television and glossy magazines often show us the charmed lives of the rich and famous. Crystal’s show is a vivid tale of his growing up in Long Island and the obstacles he overcame en route to a successful career.
Among those in the audience was U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. I said hello and he asked me how a Georgian related to the story of Crystal’s New York Jewish upbringing.
The truth is, Billy Crystal became very real and human to me in his two-hour stage presentation. He spoke frankly and humorously about growing up as the shortest kid in a family where athletics was a big deal. He made the basketball team at Long Beach High School, where he competed against a guy named Lew Alcindor from Erastus High. The word pictures he painted of a 5-foot-8-inch player going up against a team of players including the 7-foot-2-inch Alcindor was hilarious. Alcindor was later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He recalled the death of his father, who operated a jazz music store in Manhattan. He suffered a heart attack after he had been pressed out of business by the decline of jazz and the competition of chain record stores.
Jack Crystal was also a music promoter who counted among his friends the likes of Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Crystal tells a funny story of going to the movies with Billie Holiday to see “Shane,” a film that earned an Oscar nomination for Jack Palance, who later co-stared with Billy in the “City Slickers” series.
Romance is also a part of the story as he tells of his 40-plus years of love and marriage to his wife, Janice.
When I write in this space, I often have people tell me they can relate to my stories. I call that reading themselves into the story. I felt that way about Billy Crystal. My Southern Baptist upbringing is a far cry from the life of a Jewish family in suburban New York. But there was the everyman element that made this show so special.
The life we lead is punctuated by birth, death, crazy friends and relatives, marriage, kids and the sometimes bizarre path we take. I found myself laughing to the point that my sides ached. I also found myself a bit misty-eyed with a lump in my throat.
This show has already been a success and won a Tony award in 2005. HBO announced this week it would be taping the show Jan. 3 and 4 and it will be shown on the cable network sometime in 2014.
But if you get the chance, see it in person. Let him take you through life as seen from the house at 549 East Park Ave. in Long Island.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.