Borscht Belt veteran brings Catskills shtick to the Bay Area

When comedian Freddie Roman performs his show “Catskills on Broadway,” he tries to recreate the blithe spirit of the legendary New York Jewish resorts. The only things missing are the borscht and the bingo.

“Jews would flock to the Catskills in the summer,” recalls Roman. “They were made welcome there, as opposed to places that advertised ‘No Jews or dogs.’ It was spectacular.”

“Catskills on Broadway” comes to town with a two-week run at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, starting June 28.

Roman doesn’t take the stage by himself. Joining him are two other veterans of the Borscht Belt comedy circuit, Mal Z. Lawrence and Dick Capri. “We’ve been friends for over 35 years,” he says. “We all worked in the Catskills together. The camaraderie is incredible.”

Though all three get AARP discounts today, they were just kids when Jewish comics like Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Sid Cesar, Jackie Mason and Alan King perfected the art of standup in the Catskill Mountains. At hotels like Grossinger’s, the Concord and the Delmar, those comics brought down the house every night.

Freddie Roman (born Fred Kirschenbaum) was there, too, studying their every move.

Roman has actually had two careers in comedy. The first started when he was a teen working in the Catskills, and later opening for the likes of Totie Fields and Tom Jones in Las Vegas. But the pressures of providing for a growing family forced him out of showbiz and into the shoe biz. By the early 1970s, he had opened a shoe store in Queens, N.Y., hating every patent leather minute of it.

The comic muse never let go of him. One night while visiting a Catskills hotel, he mustered the nerve to take the stage for the first time in 12 years, and Freddie Roman the comedian was back, baby.

As the golden age of the Catskills faded to black, Roman got the idea for a Broadway show featuring original Catskills comics. More than a decade later, “Catskills on Broadway” is still going strong, having toured in numerous cities beyond the Great White Way.

Roman’s style of comedy evolved beyond the rat-a-tat “Take my wife, please” level. He says his greatest comic inspiration is his own family.

“My material is all geared around my life,” he says. “When my kids were small and they would come to my show, my daughter would say afterwards, ‘Daddy, I never did that.’ I’d say, ‘But Judy, it puts food on the table.'”

Roman may not be the king of comedy, but he rightly can be called the dean. That’s because he serves as dean of the New York Friar’s Club, that not-so-secret society of comedians (mostly Jewish).

What is a Friar’s Club dean?

“I am the Fidel Castro of the Friars Club,” says Roman. “When I’m in New York, I’m at the club three or four days a week. I supervise events and the roasts.”

He notes the Friar’s Club isn’t only about laughs. Sometimes, he says, it’s about grateful tears. “This club doesn’t get enough credit for raising millions of dollars for charities,” he adds. “We have a Friar’s Foundation that this year will gave sixty-four $12,000 scholarships to young people at various New York colleges involved in the arts.”

He admits he most loves being on stage, especially touring with “Catskills on Broadway.” His family is still the main source of his jokes, only now that includes his grandchildren.

“They’re the biggest hams in the world,” he says. “My granddaughter comes to my shows, and she’s starting to be a critic. She says, ‘Grandpa, when you talked about me it wasn’t quite correct.’ She is a brilliant 9.”

Coming to the Bay Area will be a treat for the comedian. He played the annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy nine years ago, and his son has a home in San Francisco. Roman says he’ll be taking in some family time, including a stop at his son’s horse farm.

Says the comedian, “I’ll bring the carrots.”

“Catskills on Broadway” plays 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 28 through July 15, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets: $45-$50. Information: (415) 292-1233 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.