Over a century after his father, Max Kaminsky, arrived at Ellis Island on the “SS Scandia,” legendary filmmaker Mel Brooks made his own voyage — this time aboard a chartered ferry running between Battery Park and the Ellis Island piers — on April 17.
Although his father originally settled on the Lower East Side — helming the Kaminsky Herring Merchants on Essex Street — his family soon moved to Brooklyn, first living in Brownsville before settling at 365 South Third St. in Williamsburg.
“We paid $18 a month for that apartment, and I understand now they’re getting $2,800 a month for the same one,” Brooks told GO Brooklyn. “[Now] I take rich people on tours of my tenement. I’ve brought Carl Reiner, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick — buddies from show business.”
But before he was a tour guide, the creator of “Spaceballs,” “History of the World” and “Blazing Saddles” said, perhaps not surprisingly, that he was the neighborhood jokester.
“I was the street corner comic, I was working for audiences when I was 5,” Brooks said. “I was short, and my humor saved me from getting a beating. I would disarm my opponents by making them laugh.”
The experience would more than pay off for the talented actor, writer, director and producer.
“It made me a star,” said Brooks, who journeyed to Ellis Island last week to be feted alongside mystery author Mary Higgins Clark, members of the Forbes family and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala at the 2008 Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards. The annual ceremony honors luminaries in the field of literature, business, entertainment and education whose ancestors immigrated through the island.
These days, the 81-year-old Brooks is working on a silver screen adaptation of his classic television show, “Get Smart,” and will bring his Tony Award–winning musical, “The Producers,” to Austria this summer.
“When I left Brooklyn, I moved to the U.S. Army, and I kept my rifle and helmet in case I needed them. I’m going to Vienna to open ‘The Producers’ this summer, and I’m taking the rifle and helmet — just in case,” he quipped.
And though his musicals are being produced worldwide, Brooks seemed curiously resistant to bringing his shows — “The Producers” and, more recently, “Young Frankenstein” — to a Brooklyn stage.
“My shows are on Broadway. They’re a subway ride away from Brooklyn. Why would I bring my shows back there?”
Still, Brooks said he has a soft spot for the borough and fond memories of growing up in Williamsburg.
“I love Brooklyn, it was nurturing,” he said. “We didn’t know we were poor, we just loved our lives; loved playing stickball [and] kick-the-can. It was a great life.”