The Indelible Brother Theodore

“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, nail biters. But we’ve always been happy.”—Brother Theodore

Brother Theodore (born Theodore Gottlieb; November 11, 1906 – April 5, 2001) was a German-born American actor and comedian known for rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologues which he called “stand-up tragedy”. He was a man described as “Boris Karloff, surrealist Salvador Dalí, Nijinsky and Red Skelton…simultaneously”.

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Early years
Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland, he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.

To America
He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. (It should be kept in mind that “facts” such as these are based on not-necessarily-reliable and unsupported statements about himself.) He played a bit part in Orson Welles’ 1946 movie The Stranger. This was one of the several movie appearances he made beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1990s. These were mostly small parts in B-movies, although he did provide the voice of Gollum in the 1977 made-for-television animated version of The Hobbit and the follow-up adaptation of The Return of the King (1980). He also voiced Ruhk, Mommy Fortuna’s assistant and carnival barker in The Last Unicorn (1982).

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Theodore’s career as a monologuist began in California in the late 1940s, with dramatic Poe recitals. He moved to New York City, and by the 1950s, his monologues, now darkly humorous, had attracted a cult following. In 1958, he presented a one-man show that promoted the idea that human beings should walk on all fours. Jay Landesman booked him at St. Louis’ Crystal Palace during the 1960s. In the early 1960s, he frequently performed at the Café Bizarre in New York’s Greenwich Village (106 W 3rd Street). He reached a wider audience through television, with 36 appearances on The Merv Griffin Show in the 1960s and ’70s, and was also a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Dick Cavett Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. After his nightclub and TV appearances in the 1950s and ’60s waned, he retired in the mid-1970s.

He was pulled out of retirement and booked by magician Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brooks in the Magic Towne House on the affluent Upper East Side of Manhattan for special weekend midnight performances. Years earlier, Brooks had remembered seeing Brother Theodore drawing packed crowds at small, funky and eclectic clubs all across the Lower East Side (Greenwich and the East Village) and sought him out for his new club. This resulted in a resurgence of interest in Brother Theodore that brought him success in his later years starting with Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show in 1977 followed by more TV appearances and movies. According to Brooks, it took multiple calls to Theodore to convince him to make a comeback. Theodore’s attitude was very bleak, and he felt his career was over. Brooks wanted to charge ten or more dollars, but Theodore insisted on four dollars, so as not to scare people away. The show was a success and ran for three years. A picture of the Magic Towne House ad appeared in local New York newspapers such as the Village Voice and The New York Post.

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