The Fall of Uncle Al

Were you there that time the children’s show icon played at Maisonette? I was.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

If you were born in Cincinnati between 1946 and 1981, put away your crummy little birth certificate. It means nothing. Hard-core proof of your Queen City origin requires an infinitely more powerful document: the group photo from that time you were on The Uncle Al Show.

Just about every local Baby Boomer and Gen-Xer recalls his or her Uncle Al Experience. Not me. I arrived here in my mid-20s, my childhood bereft of even a single alakazaam. That’s fine, because I’ve got a glorious adult memory of something you don’t: the evening I spent with Uncle Al at Cincinnati’s legendary Maisonette restaurant. I have a video showing this celebrated TV icon standing up among the invited guests, strapping on his accordion, and turning a five-star restaurant into a kindergarten. Go ahead, show me your group photo of that.

You might think that the formal surroundings would have inspired Al to perform something understated, like “Thank You, God, for This, My Day,” the little prayer he used to sing at the end of each episode. Wrong. He belted out “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “Do the Hokey Pokey,” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Try to imagine this scene being witnessed three tables away by an elderly couple who’d come to Maisonette from Lexington for their 50th wedding anniversary.

The story of this special night has never been told, and since several of its attendees have passed away, I feel compelled to leave a record while there’s still time. Yes, there’s that video, but there’s a problem. The night’s most exciting moment—even more bizarre than a man in an oversized bow tie playing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” at Maisonette—has been edited out. I condemn such Stalin-like manipulation of history and will now reveal what really happened.

By April 2002, Al Lewis had been long retired, but the public tributes for him continued, and on this night he was at the head table for the latest gathering of La Maisonette 50. Never heard of this exclusive group? That’s because you’re a low-rent, flea-infested subhuman. Membership in La Maisonette 50 was roughly the blue-blood version of a Cincinnati Bengals seat license: Your hefty up-front payment purchased the esteemed privilege of being obligated to make further payments, which then allowed (i.e., required) you to attend a minimum number of home venue events. Direct comparison of membership in La Maisonette 50 with a Bengals seat license is imprecise, with one major difference—there is unanimous agreement on this point—being the quality of the food.

How did I wind up at such a swank occasion? I definitely wasn’t a member of La Maisonette 50, and it’s a safe bet that they weren’t trying to seduce me into joining. Like the protagonist in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, though, I found myself in such a surprisingly upscale situation thanks to an accumulation of small coincidences. My career in local media—being on the radio, writing for publications like this one, and prostituting myself for the advertising industry—brought me into contact with prominent Cincinnatians. Among them was Nat Comisar; he and his cousin Michael were proprietors of one of the most highly-regarded restaurants on earth, Maisonette. Their establishment was so special, it had no need for a name beginning with “The.” As it turns out, this headed off litigation from Ohio State University.

Ever since receiving its first Mobil Five-Star Award in 1964 (repeated for another 40 record-breaking years), a finer venue in Cincinnati was not to be found. Honey, I got the job, let’s call Maisonette. Dad, this is your diploma as much as mine, I’m taking you and Mom to Maisonette. David and Jennifer Indianhill cordially invite you to the marriage of their daughter, Elisabeth, to Roger Uppencomer of Hyde Park, reception to be held in the Versailles Room at Maisonette, 114 E. Sixth St., Cincinnati, Ohio.

Nat had long considered publishing a book about the history of his family’s honored restaurant, and he invited me to participate after he’d seen some of my writing. We met with some publishers, and I wrote sample chapters. Things might have progressed further had Cincinnati not suffered through riots, downtown’s decline, and Maisonette’s eventual closing. But back when the book was still being planned, Nat invited me to a special dinner featuring Uncle Al and his wealthiest fans—to provide me a feel, I suppose, for how the other half-percent lives.

Well, now. I was ready for the luxurious surroundings, the sumptuous wardrobes, the (mostly) undetectable hairpieces, and of course the magnificent food. What I wasn’t ready for was the Attack of the Henny Youngmans. When the meal ended, Nat didn’t introduce Uncle Al. He brought up a pair of cohosts—longtime members of La Maisonette 50—who proceeded to perform sad imitations of Catskills-era comics. Stale jokes. Take-my-wife-please jokes. Dirty jokes, or what our grandparents used to call “naughty” jokes. Our laughter was generous, in the sense that we pretended to be hearing these punch lines for the first time. The only up-to-date material came from references to a relatively new drug called Viagra—finally, a source of humor fresher than an Oldsmobile Cutlass.

Al Lewis had been mostly silent as we watched these Ed Sullivan rejects. At last, he was introduced. Strapping on his accordion, Al instantly came alive. We were the best-dressed audience of 6-year-olds he’d ever seen. “Look, I can make my accordion sound like a train!” (And he did!) “Or birds!” (And he did!) “Or an airplane!” (Kill me now!)

Next, Al played a medley of instrumentals that represented some of the countries he’d visited: Italy, Germany, Ireland, Israel. Saying, “For you, Lenny,” he played a song for his Jewish buddy, “Sunrise, Sunset.” It was actually written for a Broadway musical set in Russia, but hey, Al’s heart was in the right place, even if his song wasn’t. Same for “Lady of Spain,” which was composed by British songwriters. Nobody really cared.

Unfortunately, Al’s enthusiasm made him suddenly lose his balance, and wham! He hit the floor, hard. As everyone went silent, people rushed over. When it became clear that nothing serious had happened, Al rose, steadied himself, smiled his smile, and started the song over. A true pro. You won’t be surprised to learn that this brief but unsettling interruption was cut from the official video with digital garden shears. Yes, it was another flawless evening at Maisonette.

Al eventually stopped singing and began to tell stories of his own. Wisely, he didn’t attempt to compete with the previous Georgie Jessel–wannabes. (Unfamiliar name? My point exactly.) He instead spoke about the time he’d left his accordion on the TV studio floor during a break and, after strapping it back on, discovered—live on the air—that some little girl had sat on it and peed, sticking the keys together. Al’s insurance company balked at this odd occupational claim, but it eventually made things right. Twenty years later, a waitress approached Al at a cocktail party and confessed her damp crime. Let’s hope he declined her tray of mini-bruschetta.

By now we had spent more than two hours enjoying bottomless glasses, so everyone surely would have sung along had Al finished up with “Thank You, God, for This, My Day.” After all, most of them had sung it daily in front of the family’s black-and-white Philco TV. More than a few remembered being there at the Channel 9 studio, singing it with all the other kids, each in their own key. But Al simply thanked everyone, sat down, and the evening ended. No alakazaams or poofs.

The kiddie hosts of my own childhood in Philadelphia were people like Sally Starr, Pete Boyle (father of actor Peter Boyle), and a puppet named Bertie the Bunyip. There were many others. America’s local TV kid shows have mostly vanished, and damn, I was never taken to one. I didn’t get to sing along, pose for a group picture, or pee on the host’s insured prop.

My Maisonette dinner with Uncle Al didn’t completely make up for that gap, but I still enjoyed being in the presence of a Cincinnati icon. And while preparing this story, I also enjoyed the reminder that everyone’s memories can be as blurry as mine—the attendees I contacted couldn’t agree about which song Uncle Al had been playing when he fell. The unedited evidence is long gone, but if you wish to view the sanitized video, it’s online here.

The fact that my memories of the evening are incomplete and contradictory is, frankly, sort of a comfort. It means that my Uncle Al group photo is just as faded as yours. Thank you, God, for this, my night.

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