Last winter, as I’m preparing to participate in a Los Angeles Moth Storytelling Slam, I’m taking full advantage of my time on a Tuesday afternoon at Santa Monica’s Write Away to rehearse — you can’t read at a Moth, you  have to speak without notes. My story revolves around a childhood experience I had as a little boy growing up in London, Ontario, watching Ghoulardi, a Late Night Horror Movie host broadcasted on cable TV from Cleveland. I speak about how interested I’d been much later in life to see that one of my favourite Hollywood directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, called his production company Ghoulardi. The twist in this humorous story comes with the discovery that Ghoulardi’s real name was Ernie Anderson — Paul Thomas is his son. When I finish receiving feedback on my story from the group, Saul Isler scratches his chin and says, “I remember Ernie, funny guy. Back in Cleveland, I’d hire him and Tim Conway as voice actors for my commercials…at $25 for the pair of them!

Tim Conway? You knew Tim Conway — one of the funniest guys on TV from my childhood — I can’t imagine The Carol Burnett Show without Tim Conway. Thus is Saul — you never know about him until you know about him. Just recently I learned that when Sid Caesar was at his height of fame, Saul squired him around Cleveland for four days, including part of an afternoon when he took Sid to meet Saul’s father and it was Sid who spent all the time asking the questions. Years after that, Saul spent the day with the famed comic Henny Youngman (take my wife, please!). As I said, thus is Saul.

I met him in the winter of 2018, when I first joined Write Away. We became instant pals, I asked him to edit my novel Fair before I sent it to agents and publishers, and we began a ritual: in early January, as soon as I completed the drive from Ontario to California, we’d meet for a “half and half” at Fromin’s Deli on Wilshire Boulevard. We both agreed with pastrami-on-rye for the sandwich half, but Saul went matzo ball for soup where I stuck to sweet and sour cabbage. Yet in any of those deli lunches or during countless other conversations did I ever hear him mention Tim Conway? Or Sid Caesar or Henny Youngman, for that matter? No, because that is Saul — one of the most interesting lives lived but he doesn’t name drop. If it comes up in conversation, it comes up; if not, well, maybe you’ll hear the detail if you happen across one of his Shine Storytelling episodes on YouTube; or see The Last Draftsman, his son’s documentary about him; or read the LA Times feature when he graduated Santa Monica College at the age of 85; or stumble upon his old woodworking series, The Wood Butcher Papers; or discover one of his old restaurant reviews when he wrote for a local San Rafael newspaper; or read one of his ten books (by the way, he didn’t start writing books until he was in his mid-sixties). I know, I know, that’s tossing a long list at you. Listen, it’s hard to keep up with this 86 year old, self-described “short fat Jew from Cleveland”. So let me slow down, take you back to the beginning, to Cleveland, Ohio, where Saul was born in 1934.

The Islers of Cleveland Heights, not long after moving into their new home back in the 40s. From L-R, Dorothy, Mark, Saul, Bill

Raised in a decidedly middle-class family, with a stay-at-home mother and patent attorney father,  Saul grew up knowledgeable, well-educated, but with a certain struggle toward college and figuring out exactly what he wanted to do in life. His first bout with college, studying engineering, didn’t last a year although he did drop out with a badge of honour: fastest beer chugger in his fraternity. For his second bout he took on law school (a pre-law degree was not required at the time) but dropped out of that too. While he didn’t follow his father into law, the paternal influence nevertheless shone through. In his twentieth year, Saul suffered through a long summer in a full leg cast, recovering from the removal of a giant cell bone tumour in his right knee. Being restricted during his recuperation allowed Saul to hone the craft of patent drafting, an exacting process to provide inventors with detailed drawings that must accompany their patent submissions. While he never followed his father into patent law, Saul continues to earn income as a patent draftsman, still drawing by hand as chronicled in The Last Draftsman (follow this link to watch the short beautiful documentary).

Saul married during the same year and started a new job that would seem to be a good fit, working at an engineering firm as a draftsman. But the love of doing patent drawings did not translate into sitting at a drafting table forty hours a week working for someone else — he hated it. Understanding Saul had other talents, such as writing, his father introduced him to a friend whose son owned an advertising firm. In short order, Saul switched jobs, becoming, at 24, a trainee copywriter and account executive. The first time he heard one of his ads on radio — his own words being spoken — he was hooked, learned everything he could, and then left to start SIA, his own firm — Saul Isler Advertising. By this time he had three children — Amy, Seth, Josh — and decided that New York’s famed Madison Avenue offered greater opportunities, along with more money. Back in the 1960s, the corporate world didn’t wrap itself with high security and pass cards, and Saul, not lacking for chutzpah, walked straight in, charmed the receptionist, and promptly found himself sitting across the desk from one of the ad agency partners. After hearing him out the partner gave Saul straight advice: you can move to New York and be a small fish in a big pond or stay in Cleveland, a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Saul went back to Cleveland.

Saul in costume for a performance with the New York Metropolitan Opera on tour in Cleveland

Now about that great Yiddish word, chutzpah. An online Yiddish dictionary defines it as: audacious, nervy, brazen. Let me define it for you through action, rather than words, namely Saul Isler and the New York Metropolitan Opera. While laid up that summer in 1954, his leg healing, honing his drafting skills, he listened to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday radiocasts and fell in love with the art form and the artists  — so much so that, when fully recovered, he became an extra, or supernumerary as they are officially called, joining the Met in Cleveland when they arrived on summer tour. For toting spears, shields and torches, he earned the princely sum of five dollars per performance, which basically paid for parking. Summer after summer for 13 years, he found himself onstage alongside such greats as Pavarotti, Domingo, and Saul’s all time favourite, Dame Joan Sutherland. Over the years, he also got to know the director of supernumeraries and that personal relationship paid off when, in 1966, the company held their closing performance at the old MetOpera House in New York on 39th and Broadway, before moving to their new digs at Lincoln Centre.

In his short story collection, The Blue Shoes, Saul wrote a true anecdote entitled “The Night I Sang at the Met” and explained: “There was nothing more in the world I wanted to do than super among the Met luminaries. Every star in the Met’s firmament would be doing an aria.” The problem was all the regular extras at the Met would partake on the closing night and no outsiders from the hinterlands, like Cleveland, were allowed. But Saul had forged that personal relationship over the years and his chutzpah would not be denied. “I pleaded with him to allow me to super that night, and he finally gave in. A few days later I flew to New York for that purpose only. He informed me I was the only non-New Yorker ever allowed to partake as a super in Manhattan. And certainly the only one there for that night of nights.” Not only that but when tenor Sir Rudolph Bing (also the Met’s General Manager) took stage for a famous aria, Saul grabbed full advantage. He concluded his true story by writing: “I, baritone hummer that I am, hummed along. Not, of course, loud enough for Sir Rudolph to hear. But I did it. I sang at the Met. Sort of. And I got paid for it.”

That folks, in action rather than words, is the definition of chutzpah.

Patent drafting, back in the 80s

Back in Cleveland his ad agency continued to land larger clients. Saul’s ability to both draw and write allowed him to fill every function at his agency— account executive, copy writer, graphic designer — and I’m sure he swept out the place once or twice a week. But his largest client, an automotive supplier, Lee Filters, decided they couldn’t continue with a one-person operation. Rather than lose the client, Saul joined a larger ad firm, taking Lee Filters with him. But, over time, he went back on his own — I’m guessing all that chutzpah just can’t be restrained in someone else’s firm.

Something more important happened during this time — his 20 year marriage collapsed in such acrimony that Saul describes he and his wife as becoming “mortal enemies, living by the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ code of our militant existence.” In 1974, at the age of forty, Saul found himself as stunned as his wife when he said aloud: “we’re divorced”. All that needed to happen were the official proceedings, which rapidly followed. In an eight minute spoken story that can be found here on Youtube, Saul recounts a brutally honest and poignant account of that time when he fantasized fulfilling his parental duties through childcare payments and then spending his best hours as a swinging single, replete with an entertainment district bachelor pad. The best thing that ever happened to Saul exploded his indulgence when his wife showed up one night with their three children and delivered what he calls eight unforgettable words: “you fucked up the kids, you take them!” With that she hopped on a plane, flew west, and left Saul as a single father, saving him from what he described as being “a complete and total asshole”. In short order, he bought a house, became a real father, and found the love of his life, a Swedish woman named Mia. A love that brought joy and tragedy in full measure — as much as Saul adored Mia he could not save her after she discovered a love of alcohol and drank herself to death before her fiftieth birthday. His spoken story (part of LA’s Shine Storytelling series) focused on the theme forgiveness. And that is what delivers the poignancy in Saul’s brutally honest account of this time in his life — despite his anger at watching his second wife kill herself with booze, he came to forgive her, understanding her powerlessness to stop, and toward his first wife, he came to thank her for delivering him from a meaningless life by forcing their children upon him.

A food column from the Plain Dealer — the title’s pun is all Saul, all the time

Through the ’70s and ‘80s, again married and a full-time dad, Saul’s creative side found new energy and he began writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, starting with food and restaurant reviews. At home, he indulged a passion for woodworking, a hobbyist extraordinaire. Eventually, he combined all that creativity and started a weekend column for the Plain Dealer called The Wood Butcher, an amusing foray into his hobby that other enthusiasts could enjoy and appreciate: none of them were really all that extraordinary in the craft. That’s a constant with Saul Isler — he goes through life with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

For over forty years the bible of American woodworkers has been a magazine called Fine Woodworking and a frequent contributor was James Krenov, a Russian-American who for a time settled in Sweden. On their website, Fine Woodworking says “James Krenov (1920-2009) was one of the best-known names in woodworking with his signature designs and his 21-plus-year legacy running the prestigious furniture program at the College of the Redwoods’ in Fort Bragg, Calif. His work is currently displayed in museums in Sweden, Norway, Japan, and the United States, and he wrote five books on woodworking, including The Cabinetmakers Notebook and The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking.” Now, if you’re a hobbyist with a Saturday column in a local Cleveland paper called The Wood Butcher, and idolize the professionalism of James Krenov, what do you do? Well, if you’ve got Saul Isler’s chutzpah you put it in play, collect your articles and send them to Krenov as a means of introduction. Of course, that leads to becoming pen pals and lifelong friends.

When you go through life with a self-deprecating sense of humour, what else are you going to call your woodworking column?!

Thirty years after those days, Fine Woodworking approached Saul with a proposition to revive his old columns as podcasts that they would post on their website. You can find them here, and I recommend you listen to at least the initial recording, The Wood Butcher Papers, Episode 1, July 9, 2007. In it, Saul recounts his pen pal encounter, including the fact that Krenov’s initial response was a cassette tape rather than a letter. Why a voice-recorded tape? Because, as Krenov says on the tape, he didn’t feel he was half the writer Saul was and could not be as quarter as funny! Saul was blown away, his hero beginning their relationship with such unadulterated praise. Chutzpah rewarded one more time.

By the time of their exchange, Krenov had left Sweden to take up his position at the college in California and Saul  travelled out to see him. They would not meet again until 30 years later, two years before Krenov’s death. By this time, Saul himself was living in California. As mentioned earlier, his second wife, Mia, tragically spiralled. By then Saul’s three children from his first marriage had grown and moved out, and he felt he had no choice but to leave with his youngest daughter, Anna, his only child with Mia — Mia who would be dead in a year. Father and daughter moved to Los Angeles in 1996 and Saul settled into growing his patent drafting business. A couple of years later a friend in LA, who happened to own a small resort in Negril, Jamaica, invited Saul to join him and his wife for a week. The invitation turned out to be something of a set up as the friend’s wife was playing cupid — she had a friend who she felt would be a great match for him. Saul married for the third time. He acknowledges that both he and his first wife, Marilyn, were too young, too naive, when they married and both shared blame for its demise. His second marriage, to Mia, though ending in sorrow is never looked back, by Saul, with regret — he never stopped loving her. But his third marriage to Susan was, Saul says, fuelled by vacation-lust and a complete mistake which he does regret. He ended up selling his house in Beverly Hills and moving with her to Marin County (quick geographical note: Marin County is where you find yourself after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge when driving from San Francisco).

With his children at daughter Anna’s wedding. L-R: Seth, Anna, Saul, Amy, Josh

During the 14 years before he divorced Susan, he returned to writing restaurant reviews, this time for a string of Marin County newspapers. And if this wife did nothing else for him, she did give him a present, a computer. Until that time, Saul did all his writing by hand or on a typewriter. Figuring out how to write on a computer propelled his efficiency and in three months he wrote two novels. Somewhere along the way, the old chutzpah kicked in, and he wrote publisher Pocamug Press to inform them that one of their acrostic puzzle books contained an inaccurate puzzle. Saul had been doing acrostics for years and, no surprise, his information to Pocamug not only turned out to be accurate it also spawned a new relationship. The marriage relationship ended, however, and Saul moved back to Southern California, settling in Santa Monica.

The first of three volumes that Saul has written

When I met Saul, in 2018, his association with Pocamug Press had resulted in him writing three separate volumes on how to solve acrostic puzzles entitled The Majestic Acrostic. They’ve also published three books of his short stories, The Man in the Parking Lot; The Blue Shoes; The Tarnow Gate; plus Babe Ruth is Missing and Shakespeare Is Missing — two of his Ovid Kent mystery novels — and will soon come out with a collection of his thoughts and musings entitled The Book of Saul (yes, tongue still in cheek with that title).

It’s not difficult to understand why I became such a fast, good friend with Saul. His humour, all quick wit and sparkling eyes that dare you to take yourself serious because he sure doesn’t of himself, has a lot to do with it. That and those first weeks, listening to him talk about his new venture, returning to college. Looking back at his younger self, Saul wondered about that kid who, though quite successful, couldn’t make a go of it in college. The reason, no doubt, was that he just didn’t like the programs he’d signed up for, first engineering and then law. With no need other than to enrol in the liberal arts courses that challenged his thirst for knowledge, he entered Santa Monica College at the youthful age of 83. I remember Tuesday after Tuesday, as we settled into our chairs at Write Away, listening to him talk of his joy surrounded by 20 year olds, sharing assignments, reading aloud their stories as he read aloud his. How do you not love a guy who, in his mid-80s, does not chastise millennials but embraces them just as he embraces life every day —and with such chutzpah. Even when that brazen approach to life can make you wonder about certain choices — such as one he made recently.

Graduation Day, Santa Monica College: Saul Isler please take a bow

Not long ago, I called Saul to begin the process of filling in a bunch of details to write this profile. I knew he’d just returned from Northern California, about an 1,800 mile round trip drive that my 86 year old friend, of course, did alone. He’d been planning on visiting his two daughters, Anna who lives in Pacifica and Amy who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Then came the September wildfires of Northern California and Oregon that you’ve all heard about. Did that stop him? No, it did not. This I already knew because I’d been chatting with our mutual friend, Brian Bland. What I didn’t know was the story Saul shared with me on the phone regarding the weekend he returned from that trip.

After all these years, Saul’s still at the drafting table.

Saul lives in the upstairs apartment of a house owned by good friends. Those friends were gone on the weekend he returned and had locked tight their downstairs portion of the house. Somewhat frazzled from his long journey, but still eager to collect his morning newspaper, Saul ventured outside, dressed in his pyjamas, sans house key. Yup, the door locked behind him. Assured that he’d left open the window that looked on to his second storey balcony, and feeling quite capable — chutzpah in full force — he climbed a tree that grew near the balcony. Believe it or not, the climb was successful…unlike the attempted transfer from the tree to the balcony. His hands slipped and Saul barely hung on, battering himself as he bounced against branches and trunk, the 86 year old now looking like a fat monkey who’d lost all sense of balance. Miraculously, he didn’t fall. Sweaty and bruised, he made it back to terra firma, but still didn’t ask for help other than to borrow a neighbours ladder. Damn if he didn’t make that climb himself, back up to the balcony where he then proceeded to fall backward through the open window — only to remember his friends explaining where they hid their emergency key outdoors. But what a story we’d have lost if he’d first remembered that key!

All achievements aside, the ultimate joy in Saul’s life, the grandchildren. From L-R: Charley, True, James, Julian, Coralie, Sterling, Preston and Lorne

And that is my pal Saul Isler: father, grandfather, great-grandfather, draftsman, writer, humorist, and the walking/talking definition of chutzpah.

Next up, a woman I first met at her home in Biche, a mountain village in east-central Trinidad. A friend’s mother, Sally Khan is as pleasant as she is hard-working, a true entrepreneur.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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