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O brother, who art thou? 

Psychotronic's 'To My Great Chagrin' searches for the truth behind comedy's Brother Theodore

Those of us who grew up watching TV in the 1960s remember well the eccentrics, oddballs and novelty acts that turned up on the chat shows: Professor Irwin Corey, Senor Wences, Tiny Tim, Moms Mabley, Sir Monti Rock III and their ilk.

You’d always see these people on Merv, Mike, Cavett and Carson, where they’d be sandwiched in between movie stars plugging their latest project, and whatever teen sensation was the flavor of the month.

There was always something different about Brother Theodore. A short, stern–faced Germanic man with piercing eyes, a furrowed brow and a mop of Einsteinian white hair, he would deliver these negative, self–loathing rants – pseudo–philosophical observations on life, and history, and why they were essentially terrible things – and yet you couldn’t look away. There was wonderful dark humor in everything he said.

Maybe it was the heavy accent. Or the carefully–chosen words, poly–syllabic and intelligent, coming out of him with machine–gun speed.

I have gazed into the abyss, and the abyss has gazed into me. And neither of us liked what we saw.

My name, as you may have guessed, is Theodore. I come from a strange stock. The members of my family were mostly epileptics, vegetarians, stutterers, triplets, nailbiters. But we’ve always been happy.

The best thing is not to be born. But who is as lucky as that? To whom does it happen? Not to one among millions and millions of people.

I detest everything I stand for ... I’m the bride at every funeral, I’m the corpse at every wedding. Each time I look in the mirror I break into tears.

Only what we have lost forever do we possess forever. Only when we have drunk from the river of darkness can we truly see. Only when our legs have rotted off can we truly dance. As long as there is death, there is hope.

Screening Wednesday, To My Great Chagrin: Brother Theodore is a little–seen documentary about the man, Theodore Gottlieb, who died in 2001 at the age of 94.

The Psychotronic Film Society is showing director Jeff Sumerel’s film at the Sentient Bean.

He was what theater people call a monologuist – his one–man stage shows consisted entirely of him talking. Philosophizing. Ranting. He called it “stand–up tragedy.”

Of course, there was an element of performance art in his presentation. To My Great Chagrin explains just how much of it was shtick, and how much was the real Theodore Gottlieb.

The film is thick with clips, from Theodore’s many stage and TV appearances (although NBC would not loan anything from his numerous ‘80s visits with David Letterman). Eric Bogosian, Woody Allen, Joe Dante, Henry Gibson, Dick Cavett, Penn & Teller, Tom Schiller and others discuss his mad genius.

(In a brilliant stroke, Sumerel doesn’t show any of these people as talking heads; rather, you hear them in voice–over. The better to keep the visual on Theodore himself.)

He came from a large Jewish family. His father was a successful magazine publisher in the Weimar Republic era.

In the film, Theodore (in voice–over) discusses Einstein, a longtime family friend, plus his love of chess, his young wife, and the horrors of the seven months he spent in the Dachau concentration camp.

None of his family members survived the camps.

Gottlieb was released after the Nazis forced him to sign over the family fortune for a single reichsmark. With Einstein’s help, he fled to the United States, where he was “relocated,” penniless, to San Francisco.

He decided to re–invent himself. A longtime aficionado of the theater and German cabaret, he says in the film, “this would interest me in a dark, other–worldly way. And I said ‘What if I write my own scripts, and do it all by myself?’”

He was an immediate hit in California nightclubs; one of his first shows was called Blossoms of Evil. A review compared him to Chaplin. Another said he was like “a combination of Peter Lorre and the four Marx Brothers in their zaniest moments.”

Theodore’s curious career thrived during the 1950s, and he had small parts in several films, including Orson Welles’ classic creeper The Stranger.

Still, he says in the documentary, he never became as successful as he’d wished; once the TV talk shows all but dried up, his career did the same.

In To My Great Chagrin, Theodore’s friends marvel at his way with women; despite his troll–like appearance, young ladies fought each other to get close to him. Even when he was in his 80s.

And that about says it all. Theodore Gottlieb was an enigma. Even those closest to him didn’t truly know who he was.

He was an artist, for sure. And his art was his life.

He was a comedian. But his was comedy born of pain.

Psychotronic Film Society

To My Great Chagrin: Brother Theodore

Where: Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.

When: At 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3

Admission: $6

Online: psychotronicfilmsavannah.org

 

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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bio:
Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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