Sunday, January 25, 2009

How Mel Brooks Set My Mother on Fire

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Photo of Helen Rosen from RBF personal collection
Images of Mel Brooks from Internet

When World War II ended in 1945, Helen Rosen, was 19 years old, living with her family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

My mom was a tough girl, having dropped out of high school. She claimed it was to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, but I always had the suspicion it was because she hated going to an all-girls school. Helen was a looker back then, all 5 feet of her. She started smoking when she was a young teen, and stayed with her Kents until a couple of years before she passed away in 1981, while in her mid-‘50s.

Before moving to Bensonhurst in the mid-‘30s, she had lived in Williamsburg. This was, of course, way before it became the “New Greenwich Village.” Back then, it was a centralized Jewish neighborhood.

[Helen Rosen, Coney Island, early ‘40s]
To her crowd, Helen was known as Blondie, though eventually she would be called Lynn. One of her close friends was Mildred, or Millie, who she had known since her Williamsburg days, and went by the moniker of Lefty.

During the war, Lefty was in love with a pilot in the service, and waited for him to come home, by the name of Bernie Kominsky. One day, while in an air battle, Bernie’s cockpit was shot through by a bullet, and when he landed, his hands were frozen to the steering gear. They literally had to be scraped off the equipment. He had some nerve damage, and was given a disability pension. Upon his return, Lefty and Bernie decided to get married.

Lefty asked my mom to be her maid of honor, and Bernie picked his brother, Melvin, who was also just out of the service, to be his best man. Logistically, it worked out well because they were both short. From what I’ve heard, it was a lovely and lively party in 1946.

[Mel Brooks]
After the bride and groom’s first dance, as is the custom, the maid of honor and best man had their turn on the floor. Melvin, who if you haven’t guessed by now, would later change his last name to Brooks (taken from his mother’s maiden name of Brookman, but shortened to fit on the drum kit he played professionally, taught to him by his Williamsburg childhood neighbor, Buddy Rich). As they moved around the floor, the band turned the waltz into a swing number, and Mel started twirling Lynn around the floor. My mom was a great dancer (so was my father), but as he swung her around, her veil went through a candle that was on a table. You know what kind of material from which veils are made.

Next thing anyone knew, it went up in a ball of flame. I’m not sure whom the quick acting person was, or if it was even my mom or Mel, but the veil was taken off quickly, bobby pins tearing at the hair.

The end result was my mom was a bit singed around her hair and eyebrows, but was essentially unhurt. But she did come away with a great story.

As I was growing up, we’d often watch the television show Get Smart, and when the “Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry” credit came up, my mom would smile and say, “That’s the guy that set me on fire!”

Special thanks to Alan Abramowitz for helping me with the Helen Rosen picture


  1. Getting set on fire by Mel Brooks must SMART to the MAX.

  2. That pun made me OOL (Ouch! out loud). And I bet that will CHIEFly happen to 99 percent of the people who read this. Err... Couldn't think of a Hymie one.

  3. Lol! Love this story. you have quite a collection of them my friend. This is definitely one to cherrish.

  4. I believe if one looks deep enough, many families have that "degree of separation" kind of story. As a fan of Brooks for as long as I have been, this IS especially dear to me.

  5. "That's it baby, when you got it, Flaunt it! FLAUNT IT!!!!"

  6. They come here...they all come do they find me?