A poorly attended funeral marks the end of an improbable life
Last week I was sent by my editor at Rolling Stone to chronicle the funeral of one of the most unusual of entertainment impresarios of the mid to late 20th century, Monty Lazar, who died at the age of 93 in Laguna Hills, California of complications relating to a severe case of Foreign Accent Syndrome. On a brusk and windy day, a young and well-intentioned rent-a-rabbi presided over a boilerplate funeral ceremony attended by a handful of guests. It was an anticlimactic farewell to an enigmatic man who leaves behind a massive fortune and a lot of confusion as to how he ever managed to amass it.
Lazar, who was born Moshe Lavitsky Fliegelman in Queens, NY on February 14, 1929, gained fame in 1959 with the release of a novelty recording that rose to #2 on the American pop charts. The words and music to Bing Bada Boop Dee Boop Baby, Baby Boop Dee Boop Bada Bing were written by Lazar on a dare by an army buddy from his service days in the Korean War. His platoon-mate had bet Lazar a month’s PX scrip that he couldn’t write a 3-minute-long song whose entire lyrics would be palindromic by word. Lazar finished the song 3 months later, collected on the bet, and then submitted the song to several music agents in the summer of 1957 after remembering the composition some years after the war.
RCA Victor bit and brought the nervous (and recently married) 29-year-old grocer to their New Jersey studio, changed his name to Monty Lazar, put him in front of the house band, and cut the recording in 2 takes. The song got initial airplay on Minneapolis’s KCRP. Then the unexpected happened.
The 1959 Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign latched on to the song and played it at the start and end of all of the senator’s campaign stops, despite a steady flow of letters from his supporters urging the campaign to stop using the song because it was, to quote the most frequently recurring word in the letters, “asinine.” Humphrey would eventually lose the Democratic primary to JFK, and decades later an aide to JFK admitted to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the Humphrey campaign staffer who selected Lazar’s song, Reginald “Bucky” McStandish, was actually a saboteur planted by the JFK campaign. The aide, who knew McStandish, claimed that “few Americans know it, but Monty Lazar is the reason JFK won that primary. Without that hideous song blaring out at all those Humphrey speeches, Humphrey runs away with the thing. It was the perfect weapon.”
But while the song was causing thousands of Humphrey supporters to question their candidate’s judgment, it was lighting up radio stations coast to coast. (The same JFK aide who spoke about McStandish claims that the requests to DJs initially came from more JFK staffers involved in the plot to monkey-wrench Humphrey, but that the song took off on its own shortly after they began their effort.) As the song rose to #2, music industry honchos heard rumors about Lazar calling him a lyrical whiz-kid whose next several songs were likely to be mega-hits, even if he wrote them all for other artists. A bidding war ensued, and on Nov 9, 1960, the day after Americans elected JFK to office, Lazar signed a contract to write three new songs for Capitol Records for a then-unheard-of $1 million.
The problem was, Lazar couldn’t write songs. He had barely written the one, and its success was not so much a sign of hidden talent as a comment on the capacity of the American public to flock to something vapid and flimsy for a brief time and then abandon it forever. The Lazar contract nearly bankrupted Capitol Records.
Over the next 18 months, Lazar produced exactly three new songs for the label. The first was an alphabetic acrostic called Adorable Baby Can Do Everything For Gentle Harry. Lacking a chorus and running only 54 seconds, Capitol Records tried to get Harry Belafonte, then Harry Nilsson, and finally Bing Crosby (whose legal first name was Harry) to record it. Only Crosby, who was contractually obligated to do so, cut a recording of it, but no radio stations would air it, and within three years Crosby spent a considerable amount of his own money having all known copies of the recording impounded and set ablaze.
Lazar then wrote Traffic Stinks!, a country song set in a crowded city, whose lyrics were exclusively made up of sentences lifted from the New York State driver’s test preparation booklet. Capitol execs tried to get Townes Van Zandt to record it, hoping the song might seem ironic and countercultural. Van Zandt initially balked, so they pivoted to Arlo Guthrie, and after his refusal they then sought a favor from Gladys Knight. After much pleading, Van Zandt eventually agreed to give it a go, but then fell into one of his deep bouts of heroin addiction and no-showed for the recording date. Some of his friends maintain that were it not for Lazar’s hideous song, Van Zandt would likely have stayed clean and extended his career by many years.
Capitol then offered to pay Lazar not to write the third song, but Lazar insisted that a deal was a deal, and he presented them with Haiku from a Jew. The entire song lyrics were: Haiku from a Jew / give him an harmonica / ping-pong in the dome. The melody was written in 15/16 time, with a 4-minute instrumental section forming the bulk of the song in between two choral vocalizations of the lyrics. The sheet music allows for a number of different combinations of musical instruments to be included, but it expressly forbids the inclusion of harmonicas. The song was never recorded, and shortly after Lazar presented it to the label, the Vice President for New Artists at Capitol, Harley Bundt, leapt from his 10th floor office window in a failed suicide attempt (he landed in a dumptruck filled with boxes of unsold bath beads that absorbed his impact, and later went on to become a Nestorian monastic.)
In 1969 Lazar had a terrible year. As he turned 40, his first wife, Penelope Tartan Jones, disappeared after a trip she took on her own to Tangiers. After remaining incommunicado for five months, Tartan Jones cabled Lazar informing him that she had filed for divorce and was now living with her longtime secret lover, the Duke of Algemir. Three weeks after getting this news, Lazar’s parents, Milton and Bertha Fliegelman, died together in a synchronized ski-jumping accident during a trip he had gifted them to the Swiss Alps. Lazar’s earnings from his strange foray into the music industry had kept him living comfortably, but now he found himself without a career, nearly friendless, and suddenly alone on a catastrophic scale.
Enter Ruby Reynolds, a 38-year-old stenographer and rare-dreidel collector from Guelph who met Lazar on the streets of Queens when she tripped on a discarded soft pretzel and knocked Lazar down a flight of subway entrance steps. Lazar, upon losing his balance, grabbed hold of Reynolds’ coat, causing the unusually tall Canadian tourist to tumble with him and cushion his fall against the concrete below. Three weeks later the two were married in Las Vegas, and Lazar was on his way to making his life anew in southwestern Ontario.
Reynolds had an ex-boyfriend, Rick Wrest, who had gone on to become a television news producer at a Toronto-based station. Reynolds and Lazar had established an “open,” or “swinging” marriage, which apparently included Wrest in occasional bedroom romps. According to Wrest’s biographer, Liora Bettleheim (author of The Wrest of the Story: How an Alberta Boy Overcame His Fear of Solid Objects and Conquered Toronto Local TV News), Wrest, Reynolds, Lazar, and a few other “guests” were enjoying a post-group-tumble bit of quiet when Lazar pointed at a TV that was tuned to the local weather report. “Is that hard to do?” Lazar supposedly asked. “Naw, a blind monkey could do it. Wanna give it a go? We’re about to fire that numbskull because he’s constantly late.”
Lazar went on to present the weather on Channel 8’s evening news for the next 15 years. His signature segment sign-off was “whether you like it or not, that’s the weather!” For the first decade, Lazar seemed to enjoy the work. During the 70s, the weather report wasn’t typically done by meteorologists with college degrees, but by “weather girls” who tended to be hired more for their pin-up looks than any other reason. Lazar knew that in order to keep the job he needed to add spectacle to it, so little by little he developed a following by engaging in live practical jokes aimed at the others on the news team. One night his lapel pin would squirt water 3 meters at the news desk. On another occasion, he would pretend to sneeze and then have a fire cracker explode. Lazar did an entire weather report while suspended upside-down from a trapeze. He did another one dressed as an echidna. He had a magician saw him in half while doing the weather. He juggled eggs, then glass snowglobes, then hatchets. And for a number of years, it worked.
But in 1979, just before Lazar’s 50th birthday, his wife Reynolds abruptly left him for Wrest, and the two fled west to Victoria, British Columbia, informing Lazar by a post card. Lazar came to the TV station shortly thereafter, seeming upset to his coworkers, and proceded to start the live weather report wearing a dirty bathrobe and holding what looked to many like a blow torch. Given his history of on-air antics, others at the station looked on with a little apprehension, but with the reassuring thought that Lazar was just trying to up his game to maintain his viewership. But Lazar went completely unhinged during the weather segment. He claimed that the world was about to be smashed by a meteor and that the sun was about to go super-nova. He urged viewers to turn off their TVs, take to the streets and brazenly water their neighbors’ plants without asking permission. Then he disrobed and stood on the set, fully naked, and fired up his blowtorch. As he began to engulf the weather map in flames, he sang a bizarre medly of ‘O, Canada’ and ‘Rawhide.’ It took another eight seconds before the stunned crew in the control room were able to cut away. Lazar was fired and fined, and billed by the station for property damage.
But just when it seemed Lazar might disappear from the world of mass media forever, he came into several million dollars unexpectedly. Ruby Reynolds and Rick Wrest were killed in a unicycle-hanglider collision while visiting the Sunshine Coast near Vancouver. Reynolds, it turned out, had inherited several million dollars from a relative who was a partial heir to the Reynolds Wrap fortune, and before she could get around to updating her will to exclude Lazar, she died unexpectedly with Wrest. The money infusion meant that Lazar could hire Canada’s top attorneys to get him off the hook legally for his on air flame-throwing tantrum. He then sued the TV station for failing to maintain proper fire safety inspections – they had in fact neglected this requirement – and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Once again, Lazar was at a crossroads, alone, but flush with funds.
In his 50s, having failed at two careers and marriages, Lazar moved to southern California, where he would marry Monica Kennilworth, an art dealer and part-time tobbaconist. Lazar tried to reinvent himself in the entertainment world again, this time by breaking into the adult movie industry as a producer. Kennilworth, who would go on to become Lazar’s third ex-wife, and who was not present at Lazar’s funeral, spoke to me by phone about Lazar’s career move into porn films.
“That was the last straw for me, to be honest. It wasn’t so much my moral objection. It was just how enthusiastic Monty was about the idea of parody porn. He wanted to make X-rated send-ups of Disney movies that were beloved by millions of families. This was the early 80s, you know, just as people were buying VCR’s, and he wanted to go shoot these movies straight to video. I mean, it wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, but Monty wouldn’t let go of going after Disney. I told him they would sue the pants off him and make our lives hell, but he just waved me off. I couldn’t bear to watch him crash and burn one more time.”
Lazar’s first X-rated feature film was a flop. Lazar pitched it to distributors as “a scatalogical homage-slash-satire of Dick Van Dyke’s Disney films,” but the test-marketing of Shitty Shitty Bang Bang (1980) went poorly. Then came the lawsuits – not from Disney, it turned out, whose executives feared that taking action against Lazar would do more harm to their brand than good due to the publicity that would accompany it. No, first it was Roald Dahl, one of the screenwriters for the original film being spoofed by Lazar’s, and then it was Albert R. Broccoli, who produced Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) based on an Ian Fleming novel about a magical car.
Just as Lazar had done before, once again he proved bullet-proof in court. Dahl’s lawsuit was withdrawn as news outlets began writing about Dahl’s antisemitism problem. Broccoli, whose attention was absorbed by his James Bond film franchise, spoiled his own lawsuit against Lazar when his assistant accidentally sent the wrong film clips to be shown in court in his attempted defamation suit against Lazar. Instead of seeing a series of interviews with traumatized families who had accidentally rented Lazar’s porn parody from local video rental shops while intending to rent the G-rated original movie, Broccoli’s personal assistant inadvertently sent a video tape of Broccoli’s private collection of Sean Connery making jokes about female anatomy and urging people on Bond movie sets to “pull my finger,” after which the renowned Scottish actor would flatulate explosively, look directly into the camera lens, and say, “now that’s a Broccoli fart for ya.” Lazar’s attorney managed to lift the errant video cassette from the briefcase of Broccoli’s attorney, and then offered it to the highest bidding news outlet unless the suit against his client was dropped. Lazar ended up recovering attorney’s fees plus, it is rumored, a couple hundred thousand dollars in hush money.
Undaunted by his first failed attempt at parody porn, Lazar doubled down, producing Disney-themed porn pariodies such as The Prince and the Pauper and the Pizza Guy (1981), Very Freaky Friday (1982), and the last of his films, the critically excoriated and deeply disturbing 1984 feature Nanny McPhuck. Lazar tried to get porn star Kay Parker to play the lead role for his last cinematic attempt, but after reading the script Parker reportedly sought a restraining order against Lazar and went through a 6-month-long depression so severe she couldn’t work.
The end of his adult movie venture came when he was abruptly uninvited to the annual Adult Film Guild’s award ceremonies. Lazar received a certified letter asking him not to attend the evening gala because his presence would potentially be “damaging reputationally” to the industry. Faced with mounting debts and a blossoming late-mid-life identity crisis, Lazar sold his home, liquidated his assets, and bought a one-way ticket to Stockholm, Sweden. From there, he traveled overland to the country’s northermost city, Kiruna, in the Artic Circle, where he rented a one-room flat and sought inspiration amidst the Northern Lights.
There are six years about which little is known in Lazar’s life, apparently spent in Kiruna. Attempts to interview local residents have turned up nothing about the man, and Lazar himself went silent. He had no children or other living relatives, and no one from the previous colorful chapters of his life heard from him during that period.
He re-emerges in 1992 in San Diego, having formed an LLC that attempted to mass-market the once-popular Hasbro game, Simon, in Nepal and parts of Bangladesh. Somehow Lazar managed to entice a group of investors from Silicon Valley to back the plan, which included a large radio campaign in Nepal that Lazar was convinced was the key to popularizing the game in the emerging markets of this part of the world.
The scheme went belly-up after the first container ship loaded with hundreds of thousands of unsold units of the game from Hasbro’s warehouses was taken over by pirates who had misunderstood the ship’s manifest and thought they were capturing a type of secret communications technology designed for espionage by the CIA. When the round, four-colored table top disks failed to emit any satellite or radio signals no matter how many times they turned them on and tapped the large buttons, the pirates flew into a rage at each other, eventually killing one another mainly by means of bludgeoning each other with the game units. (See the NYT archived story from October 11, 1993, Death by Hasbro – the worst modern piracy story ever told for more details of these events.)
Five years later, Lazar’s investor group backed him again – inexplicably – as he unveiled what he called “a bleeding edge tongue-in-cheek revolution in the restaurant business,” the short-lived fast food chain Cock of the Roach, a combination breakfast buffet and tapas bar staffed exclusively by former cult members (some form of proof of having previously belonged to a cult was required to get hired.) The grand opening was timed with the ushering in of the new millenium.
The decision to open the first of the planned 800 franchises in the Bronx seems to have backfired, though the entire concept was the subject of questions. The food start-up also faced problems when the star of its planned TV-ad blitz, Macaulay Culkin, broke his contract on the urging of his agent. Shooting had already begun on the ads, which featured the then 19 year old Culkin looking directly into the camera, taking a bite out of an Espinacas con Garbanzos tapas, and then saying, “Wow, now that’s a cock that can really roach!”
“It’s a shame we never got to air the ads,” director James Cameron complained to Ad World Magazine in the aftermath of the failed business launch. “We did a version of the ad in which Macaluay was bare chested – and you know, the kid had really filled out by then and had been with a trainer – and he was wearing a cap with a little propellor on top while he bites into this ambiguous appetizer that looks like, you know, there could maybe be a roach in it. I mean, it was cinematic gold. Could have set him in the direction of absurdist German arthouse films that he had always wanted to be a big part of. Shame really.”
On the verge of bankruptcy, Lazar was the unexpected beneficiary of several legal maneuvers that were aimed against him but blew up in the faces of those who had taken him to court. The first was that Lazar had apparently convinced the core investors behind Enron to back the restaurant venture heavily. In the course of a drunken dinner conversation, two of the Enron men had described their entire plan to scam and bilk the energy market customers of California. When Lazar was served with notice that the Enron investors were suing, he threatened to go to the Sacremento Bee with the story they had told him. Their lawsuit was abruptly settled out of court, in one of the rare instances in which the plaintiffs ended up paying an undisclosed amount to the defendant.
Lazar’s attorneys then urged him to sue Culkin for breech of contract, which he did, apparently leading to a seven-figure settlement as well. Once again, through his failures, Lazar continued to grow his fortune.
Lazar found love one more time in his later years. In 2009, Lazar met Max Templeton Wu, a 32-year-old fencing instructor and bandana-designer living in a Marxist collective in Malibu. Nearly half a century his senior, Lazar – who had previously told his former wives of his bisexuality – fell in love with the laid-back and talented Wu.
Wu and Lazar were inseparable for the first two years of their relationship. They traveled up and down the California coast in a 2008 Winnebago Adventure 38T, affectionately known to both of them as “The Dented Dinguswagon.” They bought a warehouse full of disposable one-time-use cameras with 35-mm film in them, the kind that were popular at weddings and that became pointless after the digital camera revolution. Up and down the beaches and cliffs of the Pacific, they took photos and shipped the cameras to the few remaining CVS’s that would still develop the film.
They also started their own line of collectible bandanas, featuring the entire line of “Stupidest Animals” action figures. But the couple began to fight when Lazar tried to have the bandanas mass-produced at a factory in China known for terrible labor standards. Wu, a dedicated Marxist, insisted that they use a union shop, but Lazar complained that they would never make money if they spent that much to produce each bandana. Wu countered that Lazar had never actually made money with any of his business ideas, and that they should trust that if they were to lose money it would ultimately result in a windfall for them, since that was what had always happened before. Lazar apparently told Wu that he would give the idea more thought, while secretly contracting with a maquiladora not far from Tijuana to mass-produce a million units. When the crates began to arrive and Wu discovered what Lazar had done, he left Lazar and never spoke to him again. Wu was not present at Lazar’s funeral.
Little is known about the last decade of Lazar’s life. He eventually rented a flat in Laguna Hills, not far from an abandoned zinc refinery known locally as “The Shlazz” and frequented by ex-Unitarian Universalist mercenaries as a semi-secret rendezvous point. He would purchase one-way tickets to JFK airport from time to time, and then several weeks later buy a one-way ticket back to California.
It is possible that Lazar began suffering from dementia or some other cognitive issues. He stopped submitting tax returns in 2017, and his only known online presence, an AOL email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), shows no activity from 2019 on.
Upon news of his demise, I contacted a source at the company that handled his investment portfolio, who explained that the deceased may have died living in conditions of semi-poverty, but his net worth was over $600 million. Apparently Lazar’s financial handlers had invested heavily in the UFC league just before it took off as a global sports sensation, causing Lazar’s net worth to skyrocket.
I contacted the UFC League Commissioner, Brix Unland, and asked him for comment on Lazar’s death. He responded with the following:
Monty Lazar was a visionary. When others were saying that UFC would never succeed, Mr. Lazar pumped most of his fortune into securing the viability of our inaugural year. We believe that the fighting spirit that characterizes our sport draws its inspiration from men and women like Mr. Lazar. May he rest in peace, or else may he beat the living crap out of any celestial or demonic beings that attempt to interfere with his resting in peace. And if he can’t, then when some of us cross over to the other side, we will. Because despite whatever nonsense you may have heard about what the hereafter brings, I say to you — what? Lydia, I’m on the ph– oh, yes, sorry. I’m doing that thing again. Sorry. Is this on the record?Brix Unland
After researching Lazar’s unusual life, this reporter is left with a mildly empty feeling. A kind of quasi-malaise that bespeaks the unexceptional flatness of a tabula rasa world fighting to statiate melancholy and hope, prosperity and impermanence, amidst the fluidity of the zeitgest’s upper echelon, its disconcerted elemental bumfuzzle.
(Just in case – this was all parody – it’s fiction!)