Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Passing of Pumpernickel

Sad news today from Plimmerton, New Zealand.   I woke up to an e-mail from David Weinstein informing me of the passing of Sol Weinstein, less than two weeks after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  I never met the man, but talked to him multiple times on the phone.  He told jokes, we laughed, he left crank messages for me and he even sang for me.  Just a couple of months after I started the blog, in April of 2011, I received an e-mail from David, Sol's son informing me that Sol was living in New Zealand and would love to reminisce about Old Trenton.  A Skype interview was set for May 15th and here are links to the edited interviews that I posted to the blog later that month.

After talking with Sol, I felt as though I needed to write more about him, based on the interview, materials that he sent me and some Internet reporting.

If you were a consumer of television in the 1970‘s and 1980‘s chances are very good that you laughed at what Sol Weinstein was selling.  This native son of New Jersey’s capital city wrote comedy, and jokes were his product.   One glance at his filmography and a flood of memories pour over you.  Bob Hope Comedy Specials, Dean Martin Roasts, The Love Boat, Three’s Company, The Jeffersons, CPO Sharkey, Chico and the Man, Maude and Barney Miller are among his credits, but there are many, many more.   When you look at the accomplishment of Sol Weinstein you have to wonder.  What kind of accolades might he have earned had he written serious stuff instead of          comedy?  Not that he ever would have, mind you.

The Morton House, in a 1958 Tax Photo -Courtesy Trentonia, Trenton Public Library

     Born in 1928 in the Jewish section of Trenton, young Solon’s first home was in the Morton House, what was rumored to be a house of ill repute on Union Street. 
Sol always looked at the world from a slightly different angle.  It would eventually pay off for him.  

 “I came from a volatile family.  My mother was exceedingly quick and funny and witty and sarcastic.  And if I’m like that at all, it’s strictly due to my mother.  His father ran away from an aristocratic family of lawyers in the Ukraine (“might have lawyered for the Czar”) and found his way to Trenton.  He was serious and “dour”, a totally different animal than his mother, who Sol describes as “a wild jokester and who he credits for his slant on life.

Growing up in Trenton, everyone had a nickname.  Sol earned his, “Pumpernickel” on one of his early birthdays, although he’s not sure which one.   During the Depression, his mother couldn’t afford a cake, “but she had enough money to go over to Kohn’s or Kunis’ Bakery on Market Street, she came back with a round, round pumpernickel, a monstrous thing, a Pechter’s Pumpernickel”(you can actually still buy Pechter’s at Wegman’s--it’s listed on their website).  She cut it all up and schmeared a little butter on it, schmaltz maybe, and all the kids in the neighborhood came around and had their piece of pumpernickel.  So, Sol became Pumpernickel, or Pumpy, Pumpo, Pumper.”  The name stuck.

While in High School, he first worked at Kitty Kelly Shoes and then at National Shoe.   His friend Jack Hodes and his younger brother Dave worked there, too.  Dave recalls that National Shoe had a really high ceiling in the back, with shoes shelved up to the ceiling and a 12 foot ladder.  “You could climb to the top of the ladder and know that Pumpernickel was already there with his jokes printed out on shoe boxes.”  Working for penny commissions, Sol was able to keep the his fellow employees in stitches with descriptions of customers who would ask for a plain shoe, with multiple adornments and want it for just $2.99.

He graduated from shoes to news.  Sol got a job writing for the Trentonian in the late 1950’s.  His first gig was writing obits, which he describes as the prototypical story,”because it has who, what, where, when and why in it.”  That slightly akilter view of the world view poked through again in the newsroom, when Sol would send phony obits to the city editor.  “Luckily none of them got published”, and he was promoted to sports reporter.  The sports editor’s brother, who was already selling jokes to the likes of Jackie Gleason encouraged Sol to try his hand.

Sol and Steve O’Keefe, the Night Editor at the Camden Courier Post, circa 1960’s

His first comedy client was Joe E. Lewis, who’s schtick was playing a drunk.   “Dean (Martin) took the whole spirit of Joe E.‘s act, Joe E. would stand up there weaving at the microphone, with a glass in his hand, except in Joey’s case, the booze was real.”  Sol says that was a major difference between the two, “Dean was using apple juice.  If Dean had ever drunk as much as people said he did, he obviously would have been a basket case.”    One of Lewis’s typical jokes was “I don’t drink any more than the man next to me, and the man next to me is Dean Martin.”  Lewis passed away in 1971, dying of diabetes.  “Diabetics should not fool around with superfluous booze, it’s not good.”, laments Weinstein.  The last thing he wrote after 9 years of working for Lewis was a cover of Frank Sinatra’s hit, My Way.  Sol still remembers it and recently sang it to me.

“At last, my end is near, 
and so I face the final curtain.
Farewell to my career, I’ll leave my broads to Richard Burton.
Oh yes, I drank a lot,
and I threw up on every highway,
I was a souse, and not a louse,
I did it My Way.

For what is a man, without his Scotch,
it’s like Tom Jones, without his crotch,
I shouldn’t drink, the doctor’s say.
My doctor died, just yesterday,
They’re full of bunk, let’s all get drunk
and do it My Way.”

     In the early 1950s, British author Ian Fleming wrote his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.  Almost a decade later, came the first Bond movie, Dr. No.  In 1964, the third Bond film, Goldfinger was released.  The Bond character was ripe for parody and the mind of Sol went to work and he knew he needed to strike while the iron was hot.

Loxfinger, the first of four parodies of the James Bond series that Sol wrote between 1965 and 1969.   The books gave Sol national exposure and opened doors in literary and Hollywood circles.

The following year, Pocket Books published Loxfinger, a Thrilling Adventure of Hebrew Secret Agent Oy-Oy-7, Israel Bond.  Of Fleming, Sol laughs, “I was living in an alternative reality, and so was he.”  Some of Weinstein’s reality was rooted in his early days growing up in Trenton.  A self-proclaimed marble “shark”, who learned how to shoot with the black kids that he hung out with, his prowess with the aggie seeped into Loxfinger, where the hero is attracted to a woman who won’t give herself physically to him unless he can beat her at marbles.  Young Sol could shoot the taw and so could Bond, Israel Bond.   When he finally knuckled down and won his match, he announced, “You’re ready for my kind of love now, because you’ve lost all your marbles.”    Loxfinger would be the first of 4 books in 4 years.   “Matzohball, On the Service of His Majesty, the Queen and You Only Live Until You Die followed, each drawing on Fleming’s spy novels, his own wacky sense of humor and his experiences growing up in Trenton as inspiration.  Of his relationship with Fleming, Sol says, “We drew from each other, let’s put it that way.”   When pressed, he admits, he was the one who drew more.   No movie offers followed, but as Sol says, “It’s been done.  My take is a special take that applies to our (Jewish) humor, our culture.  I knew someone was going to do it, but I was the first to do it, that’s all.”  The Bond books are now available online at:

     The Israel Bond series established Weinstein as a master of parody and opened doors into the literary world.   In the 1960’s, Playboy Magazine built a reputation for publishing the writings of some of the most acclaimed authors of the day.  One of those authors was Ian Fleming, so when the Israel Bond parodies came out, Weinstein’s writing style drew the attention of the Playboy editors.   In May of 1967, the magazine published Sol’s interview with Woody Allen and in November, 1968 his interview with Don Rickles hit the newsstand.

     If you are a Baby Boomer like me, and you look at Weinstein’s filmography at iMDb, you realize that Sol was writing for all of the comedy shows that you probably watched in the mid-70‘s with your parents.  They were filled with double entendre and while they were all family entertainment, some of them probably had a little trouble getting by the network sensors.   They didn’t necessarily push the boundaries, as prudish as they were back then.  They kind of did an end-around and wound up on TV. 

     Today, with outlets like the Comedy Channel serving up laughs 24 hours a day, the landscape has changed.    In the club setting, with an audience that’s been plied with liquor, a sure-fire way to get laughs is to take it to the toilet.  “The comedy today is studied, deliberate outrage.  It’s out there to outrage, to break barriers, to get as dirty as you can.  Barriers need to be broken, to a certain extent, but it can be overdone, it is being overdone. Shock itself is not a substitute for humor.”   Comedy has also become very much a solo act.   In Sol’s day, there were teams and ensembles. “It’s easier to do a stand-up by yourself, because you’re not constricted in anyway.  You don’t have to worry about feeding your partner lines.    And it’s a matter of ego as well.”

     Bob Hope dominated the comedy world of the 20th century, in part because he lived for all but three years of it, dying at age 100 in 2003.  Hope started in vaudeville and when he was 76 years old did an NBC Comedy Special paying tribute to the genre’s mecca, New York’s Palace Theater.  It opened 10 years after Hope was born and had been transformed into a legitimate theater in 1965.   Sol and his writing partner, Howard Albrecht had already worked on a number of Hope specials before and were brought in to work on this oneBob Mills was Hope’s script writer and says that “Sol Weinstein was the most talented song writer I ever worked with.”   

     And this is where you start to wonder.  In the early 1960’s, Weinstein wrote a song called “The Curtain Falls”, which Bobby Darin heard, liked, and added to his repertoire.  At about the same time, Darin started to have health problems.   In 1963, he recorded a live album at The Flamingo hotel.  He closed the show with “The Curtain Falls”.   The album wasn’t released until 37 years later, 27 years after Darin died.    It’s a classic crooner’s song.   Full of gratitude to the audience.   A signature number.  A show ender. It’s serious stuff and an extremely versatile piece.  For that Bob Hope special, Weinstein made some slight revisions to “The Curtain Falls” and Hope closed the show with it.   Various artists have performed it since.  Two generations after Darin recorded it, the 2004 biopic, Beyond the Sea, starring Kevin Spacey, reprised it.   In his late 70’s at the time of the song’s revival, Sol Weinstein had settled in New Zealand to be near his son’s family. “It’s been a Godsend to me in my latter years because at my age, you don’t get work.   So every once in awhile when a residual check comes in, it’s nice, so I can buy my grandchild a pound of New Zealand popcorn.”

     For a man who sees irony in just about everything, isn’t it ironic that, just as the Palace Theater had, later in life, gone legitimate, so it seems did Sol Weinstein.    A song written almost 50 years ago has garnered its author deserved praise.   A man who reveled in delivering lines for those who played the fool, gave birth to words that turned people into sentimental fools.    Half a century later, The Curtain Falls is still being played, being sung, earning royalties.  

     It makes you wonder, but the question is moot.  Sol will have none of the speculation.  He was born to write comedy, parody, and double entendre and he wouldn’t have had it any other way.   When asked whether Weinstein could have written serious literature, Bob Mills says,  “We go toward that which provides the most fun and satisfaction and in those days, TV variety was where it was at.  Jeez, we should have been arrested for having that much fun.”   A  familiar refrain.   Where have I heard that before?

If I had this to do again
I would spend it with you again...
People say I was made for this
Nothing else would I trade for this and just think I get paid for this...

                                                                      Sol Weinstein

                                                                       "The Curtain Falls" (1962)

Sol Weinstein died on Saturday, November 25th, 2012 at the age of  84.   This is the e-mail that I received from his son David.

Hi friends and people who love Sol.

I’m saddened to tell you that my beloved father Sol Weinstein passed away peacefully early this morning attended by family. Daughter Judee and granddaughter Eleanor Rose have been here from California with Sol through his last days.

A Jewish funeral service will be held on Tuesday 27/11 at Temple Sinai in Wellington at 10.30am followed by burial in the Jewish section at Makara Cemetery.

A memorial service for Sol will be held later this week in Plimmerton - Sol’s home of the past 10 years where he has been a well known and loved character. At the Plimmerton service we will be sharing stories about Sol. I would love to hear a few words from you of an experience from his life that you shared with Sol that encapsulates the wonderful, witty human being Sol was and why we loved him. I would love to read some of your stories at this service if you can contribute one. I’d be happy to send along the text of the eulogy if you like.

Thanks to everyone for being friends to Sol over the years and loving him for the special man he was.

If you wish to make a donation in his honour (no flowers please) please direct them to the Temple Sinai Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation or the Wellington Free Ambulance.

I never met him, but I feel like I've lost a friend.


  1. The link you posted for The Final Curtain lyrics attributes them to Kevin spacey.

  2. Thanks for the comment. That website is wrong. Sol wrote the song in 1962 and Darrin sang it in 1963, at which time Spacey would have been 4 years old.


  3. The website was wrong. Aol wrote the song in 1962 and Darin sang it in 1963, when Soacey was all of 4 years old.