Barry Jacobsen inadvertently turned an office storage closet into a time capsule. When it was opened in 2000, the contents brought to life the early 1950s when the Brooklyn Dodgers played at Ebbets Field and Chevys cruised the streets. Jacobsen also learned that in those days, “Your Show of Shows” reigned on TV.
“Your Show of Shows” was a phenomenon of early television. It starred and was written by giants of American comedy — such as Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Mel Tolkien. For three seasons, it dominated Saturday evening programming and in those pre-DVR days, kept its viewers glued to their couches.
Although Jacobsen, 62, had heard of the program from older relatives, he had never seen it when he landed a job in 1976 as office assistant to producer Max Liebman, the guiding genius behind the show. “Max was in his mid-70s, had not had a major success since ‘Your Show of Shows.’ He had pared his office — the original writer’s room on 56th Street in Manhattan — down to a one-man operation,” Jacobsen recalled. The producer would dream of making a comeback, but at the time his major asset was a treasure trove of memorabilia, including scripts, posters, contracts, and schedules. “Most important, he had kinescope recordings — filmed directly from the television screen — for 158 of the total 160 episodes of ‘Your Show of Shows.’”
Jacobsen said Liebman treated him “almost as a grandson”; they kept in touch until Liebman’s death in 1981.
“The office was filled with all this stuff, and the attorney for the estate planned to just throw it away,” said Jacobsen. “I talked him into letting me sort through it and arrange donations to various performing arts museums, including one at Lincoln Center, another in Maryland, and even the Smithsonian Institution.”
On Sunday, June 25, Jacobsen will bring selected clips from some of the funniest sketches, a few prized mementos — including an Emmy statuette — and a barrel of memories to the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County.
Jacobsen’s preservation efforts worked against a tight deadline: Liebman’s office lease had just two months remaining when he died. “Ultimately, I ran out of time, so I stashed the leftover material in a storage closet located in the hallway outside the office,” he said.
“I fully intended to come back and empty it out some day, but I kept getting sidetracked and neglected it — for 19 years,” he said. At the end of 2000 a friend alerted him to a front-page story in The New York Times, which reported that the closet had been opened and the treasure trove was discovered. The stash included 47 boxes filled with scripts and other TV memorabilia, according to the story.
Glenn Collins, who penned the article for The Times, left readers hanging, however, since no one knew who had put the materials into the closet. Jacobsen called Collins and a follow-up story appeared a few days later noting the Middlesex County man’s involvement.
Jacobsen, who spent most of his working life as an information technology technician and is now semi-retired, has given several presentations about the Liebman artifacts. He always brings along numerous show-and-tell items, including the Emmy that Liebman received in 1952 for helming the year’s best variety show.
“Max had a keen eye for talent. He recognized Danny Kaye’s genius early on and actually introduced Kaye to Sylvia Fine, the woman he later married,” said Jacobsen. Liebman gave an assist to the career of Carol Burnett by hiring her for a role in his short-lived TV show, “Stanley.” Some of Liebman’s noted discoveries included choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Jerry Bock of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, and Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in “West Side Story.” Arguably, his best find was Sid Caesar, who at one time was called the “Marlon Brando of comedy.”
Jacobsen, who is not Jewish, said he has long been aware of a seeming oddity: Most of the key people who created “Your Show of Shows” were Jews, yet very little of the show’s content was overtly Jewish.
How is “Your Show of Shows” consistent with the museum’s mission of promoting Jewish heritage?
Gloria Berman, a member of the Jewish Heritage Museum board who invited Jacobsen to speak, offered the following explanation: “Over the centuries, the character of the Jewish people has always been marked by strong strains of humor. Laughter has served as a survival tool in the face of oppression.”