Near Greatness

Mr. Warmth

The night Don Rickles almost ended my budding romance with the man who would become my husband

Photograph by NBC via Getty Images
NBC/Getty Images

I was a huge fan of Mr. Warmth. His brand of humor always made me laugh—biting and irreverent as it was. Maybe because he was an equal opportunity heckler: eviscerating his subjects, irrespective of religion, nationality or social standing. It never felt hurtful.

I'd catch him on the late-night shows whenever possible. One time, my parents took me to see him at The Latin Casino, a famous South Jersey nightclub. His act was plain hilarious, and I could've fallen off my chair, so convulsed in laughter I was. One of his funniest jabs—that I can't repeat here because it's now so wrong—as aimed at an African-American waiter who laughed harder than anyone else.

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When Pete and I first started dating, I heard that Rickles would be performing at the Valley Forge Music Fair, just minutes from where I lived. I suggested we try to get tickets. "I'm not really a fan," Pete said, "but sure, let's go."

I called the box office and was put on hold for a minute. When the operator returned, she said they were sold out except for two seats in the front row. I put my hand over the receiver and mouthed to Pete, "Front row OK?" He nodded.

We were escorted to our seats by an usher and it was a long walk to the front row. I should've realized we were taking our lives in our hands when a woman in the second row tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, "You two are brave."

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It took a short time for Rickles to notice this 20something guy in the front row, wearing jeans and a blue and white striped T-shirt: my cute, shy boyfriend Pete. The comedian did a double take, then stared in his piercing way at Pete.

"What, you couldn't find anything nicer to wear?" he quipped. He then motioned for Pete to come up on stage.

I felt like shriveling into nothingness and disappearing. There was my new boyfriend, in the spotlight, in front of hundreds of people, being humiliated by the insult comedian known as Mr. Warmth.

Rickles began peppering Pete with questions: who was he, what was he.

"I'm in law school," Pete said.

"Italian? Hispanic?" Rickles asked.

"Jewish," Pete quavered, drops of sweat starting to drip down his face.

Rickles broke into a Hebrew prayer and insisted Pete join him, and then, to my horror, he ordered Pete to join him in performing a rain dance.

I giggled uncertainly. Pete squinted in the stage lights. Was he glaring at me?

"Repeat after me: ha ya ha ya," Rickles commanded, starting to prance toward stage right.

"Ha ya … ," Pete intoned, following Rickles' lead.

I giggled more.

"Come on, Jew boy, pretend you're chanting your Haftorah," Rickles said. The two of them paraded around the stage doing a barely recognizable rain dance. The audience roared. I was doubled over in laughter.

Pete went along with the routine, now laughing/crying himself. Finally, Rickles stopped, shook Pete's hand and motioned him to his seat, amid raucous cheers and applause.

I wiped tears from my eyes as he sat down.

"You were great," I whispered as I reached over to pat his knee. The people behind us clucked in sympathy, and I don't even remember the rest of the show because I was worried Pete would never forgive me.

At the end of the show, a member of the staff showed up at our seats with a bottle of champagne. On the way out, a few people clapped Pete on the back. Now he was a celebrity, and we would have a story to tell our children someday. That is, if he didn't leave me for a girlfriend who wouldn't have put him in that position.

He didn't.

   
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