When the musical version of The Producers first began previews on Broadway in 2001, an incident made headlines after an irate audience member stood up and began pacing the aisles of the St. James Theatre. “Where is Mel Brooks?” he is reported to have shouted. “This is an outrage!”
Brooks—the composer, lyricist, writer, and actual producer of The Producers—was in the theater that night, and as one who never ignores a confrontation, he happily came out. The 75-year-old filmmaker and lifelong funnyman asked the stranger what was the problem. “This show is a disgrace!” cried the patron. “How could you sing about Hitler?! I was a soldier. I fought in World War II!”
At which point, Brooks fired back, “I also fought in World War II. I don’t remember seeing you there!” Depending on whose account you believe, the two either then came to blows or at least agreed to disagree on what’s funny (as per Brooks’ latest recollection). Either way, it’s a hell of a good story, especially since so few folks recall Brooks, the man who won an Oscar and multiple Tonys for writing “Springtime for Hitler,” is a World War II veteran.
Indeed, Brooks recounts these events in his new memoir All About Me! My Remarkable Life in Show Business, as well as his actual adventures while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. The war, as it did for so many others, came early in Brooks’ life. All three of his older brothers served in various capacities before Mel was even out of school. And when he did leave high school, it was during his senior year in 1944 to join the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program. By 1945 he was in Europe.
In his new memoir, Brooks offers interesting color on the day-to-day challenges and little indignities that come with being a private (such as being packed onto a transport ship during winter in the North Atlantic), as well as his characteristic good cheer. But he also suggests the mischievous intelligence which would make him one of the most successful comedians of the 20th century was already there when he became a combat engineer.
Take for instance the evening he spent by a German river in the spring of 1945. By this time, the Allied Forces were pushing deep across the German frontier and, as Brooks noted, he had arrived just in time to miss the Battle of the Bulge (which he appears to have no regrets about). Nevertheless, his work still required being able to locate and unearth landmines and to search unoccupied houses for booby traps. He even says that to this day he cannot help but check the inside of an old-fashioned water closet if he sees it positioned above the toilet.
His duties also included helping erect Bailey bridges, which were giant makeshift structures built to be swung across a river or creek. Once dropped down above the water, these Bailey Bridges were strong enough to allow motorcades and even tanks to drive over the water.
It was during the assembly of one such bridge on a dark night that Brooks recounts he heard Germans singing somewhere on the other side of the river.
“The ja, ja at the end of each phrase was a dead giveaway,” Brooks wrote. “I thought the sound of the singing was terrible, and I decided to teach them what real singing sounded like. So I picked up a big bullhorn, went to the bank of the river, and started singing à la Al Jolson.”
As a future award winning filmmaker, Brooks can (and does) write quite eloquently on the titans of classic cinema. But by his own admission in his memoir, his favorites will always be the best Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and thereabouts, particularly those which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“Nearly all of my films have a musical number in tribute to my affection for the great movie musicals of that era,” Brooks wrote.
Which is perhaps why, long before he ever made a movie, Brooks was already homaging that era of toetappers as he crooned one of Al Jolson’s biggest hits on the banks of a German waterway. Into the bullhorn, Brooks sang “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye!),” a song which Jolson recorded in 1922 before putting into the first-ever talkie, 1927’s The Jazz Singer.
Said Brooks, “When I finished the song, I thought I heard coming from the other side of the river (where the Germans were) a round of applause and, ‘Sehr gut! Sher gut!’ (‘Very good!’).”
By the author’s own admission, the applause might have been his own imagination. Even so, it encapsulates the type of wild and chaotic energy Brooks has always injected into his humor—including in the apparent war. One might even wonder if it informed a sequence in one of Brooks’ best films, Blazing Saddles, where Nazis gathered to storm the good town of Rock Ridge are disarmed by Madeline Khan doing a Marlene Dietrich impression and singing “Ja, Ja.”
All About Me! is filled with many other fascinating anecdotes from his WWII years. He seemed quite fond of reminiscing about his time in the Army Specialized Training Reserve Program, for instance, because it was at the Virginia Military Institute (the “West Point of the South”). There Brooks was trained like an actual cadet, including in the use of a sabre and horse for cavalry charges that made him feel like Errol Flynn. He also revealed a sweet memory about returning in the 1980s to a French farm he was stationed at in 1945. Almost 40 years earlier, he had taken up a friendship with a child who used to call him “Private Mel” there. Now that same acquaintance was the gregarious owner of the farm who remembered Private Mel well.
Unlike one of Brooks’ brothers—who was a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber that was shot down in 1943, leading to him spending the rest of the war in a German POW camp where he needed to hide he was Jewish—Mel never saw direct action during the war. Instead he was able to leave home for the first time, help the Army make literal in-roads across the European Theater, and eventually begin honing his early craft as a performer and entertainer in Special Services after the war ended. He also has a story about clinging to Bob Hope’s leg after a USO show.
In his own words, Brooks “really [got] quite an education. If you don’t get killed in the Army you can learn a lot. You learn how to stand on your own two feet.”
And that’s something Brooks to this day can still very much do, be it by publishing memoirs when he’s 95 years old, or sticking up for his Broadway cast singing “Springtime for Hitler.”