(Mr. Sommer is presently on vacation at the Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos. The following column was written on an earlier occasion and placed on “file” to be used when Mr. Sommer was otherwise unavailable.)
I want to tell you an amazing tale about Brooklyn and a dramatic moment in the evolution of Papal Infallibility.
It begins in 1973, when my friend Matthew Fishman celebrated his 14th birthday by taking a small group of his chums to see the musical Pippin on Broadway. As every schoolboy knows, Pippin is the story of an Emperor’s son who dreams of an everyday life (the Emperor in question was Charlemagne, who happens to be my second favorite Emperor, right behind Aadelbert of Austria). Before the show, we had a splendid dinner at the Spaghetti Trough on West 50th Street (does anyone else remember The Spaghetti Trough? “Eat like a Pig, Feel like a King!”). We arrived at the theatre with full bellies and a desire to be wowed by musical theatre common to so many healthy American teenage boys.
But we were greeted by a surprise! A local emissary of Pope Paul VI was standing in front of the Imperial Theatre, weeping. At first, I was distracted by the man’s resemblance to noted New York newsman Gabe Pressman, but this soon passed. The crying man, clad impressively in the red silks of his office, took my hand and explained to me in heavily accented English that his job was reviewing Broadway performances for any sign of heresy. Oddly, his accent was clearly from the Kashubian region of Poland – the summer before, I had taken a course on the dialectical differences amongst the regions of North Central Poland; it was there that I met a serious young pianist from Bydgoszcz who would later change his name to John Tesh.
The emissary, who introduced himself as Cardinal Ildefonso Manzoni of Chojnice, explained that he had been deeply offended by the performance of Jill Clayburgh as “Catherine.” As a result, he had Clayburgh excommunicated Latæ and Ferendæ Sententiæ as a Latitudinarian.
I did not quite know what this meant, but the small, sad man in red reminded me a little of the cereal mascot Quisp, so I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Later, I wrote a letter to New York City Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy asking him to explain the concept of the Latitudinarian rejection of many Church of England practices and how this pertained to Clayburgh’s excommunication by a Roman Catholic prelate; Murphy sent me back an autographed picture inscribed with a particularly obscene and venal dismissal of the United Federation of Teachers.
A few years later, I was appearing on Midday Live with Lee Leonard promoting my book The Sadness Behind the Yessss Man: The Long, Dark Night of Frank Nelson when I finally got to meet Jill Clayburgh, who was also a guest on the show. Although she was at first wary of me (she had reacted with confusion and hostility to a joke I made punning her name and the name of Frank Sinatra’s best friend and henchman, Jilly Rizzo), ultimately I was able to ask her about that strange and remarkable event outside New York’s Imperial Theatre.
While sipping an RC Cola, she explained to me that Cardinal Chojnice had been very confused; it turned out he hadn’t even seen the show that caused him to condemn Ms. Clayburgh. Apparently, the same week that Pippin opened on Broadway, the Cardinal had attended a peculiar piece of performance art at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (his niece was a dancer in the cast). This piece, titled The Hatefulness of God in the Swamps of Cambodia and Lombardy, told the story of Pepin The Hunchback, the older half-brother of the title character of the Fosse/Schwartz musical. The performance featured a scene in which a cross-dressing actress portraying Pepin the Hunchback feigned fellatio with an actor dressed as a pig dressed as the Virgin Mary (that actor, by the way, was a young Peter Scolari). Cardinal Chojnice, understandably outraged, issued his writ of excommunication, but due to a partially misunderstood phone conversation with his friend, the shtick master Joey Adams, Chojnice mistakenly excommunicated Clayburgh.
The Case of the Cardinals Clayburghian Confusion piqued my curiosity, so I did a little more research; in the pre-internet days, this involved yards of microfiche, which is very flammable (as I found out during an unfortunate incident at the Great Neck Public Library which resulted in the destruction of the entire archive of the New York Mirror) and repeated calls to the help line of the Archdiocese of New York, which at that time was manned by Martha Wallace, the non-identical twin of actress Marcia Wallace.
I found out that the fantastic Chojnice/Clayburgh case led to an entirely new definition of Papal Infallibility. In May of 1974, Book V of the Vatican legal code (De Sanctionibus In Ecclesia) was amended to state that if the Vatican issued an order of excommunication based on a performance in a musical on Broadway or London’s West End, the excommunicable act had to have been personally seen and verified by three or more Cardinals. More dramatically, due to the grievous error of Chojnice (and in recognition of Clayburgh’s suffering, and to honor her role in the film Gable and Lombard, which was a particular favorite of New York’s Cardinal Cooke), the actress would henceforth not only be immune from Papal Infallibility, but she would be issued a special designation which would allow her to actually flaunt this immunity. This was the first time this designation, Simia Feci de ipso Papa extra Patitur (I Made a Monkey out of The Pope and this Makes Me Very Special) was ever handed down by the Vatican (though it has been employed four times since, but that’s another story).
And what exactly does that have to do with Brooklyn? Well, my friends, in addition to the connection with BAM, the Clayburgh kerfuffle resulted in Cardinal Chojnice leaving the church. Years later, under the name Danny Manzoni, he opened the very first mobile phone store in the entire borough of Brooklyn, on Atlantic Avenue! AND THAT’S WHY I LOVE LIVING IN BROOKLYN!
(Mr. Sommer’s opinions and grasp of reality are entirely his own)
Tim Sommer has been employed as a musician, record producer, DJ, VJ, and music industry executive. He has just written the liner notes for the reissue of the album Robert Clary Sings, and he continues his efforts to get Ed “The Glider” Charles into the Baseball Hall of Fame.