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Buttons on Broadway

There was street-corner singing on the Lower East Side when he and the century were young, followed by the Catskills, Broadway, a World War II stint in the Army, television's Golden Age, a Hollywood career that included an Oscar for "Sayonara," and his decades-long association with the Friars' Club roasts.

There was street-corner singing on the Lower East Side when he and the century were young, followed by the Catskills, Broadway, a World War II stint in the Army, television’s Golden Age, a Hollywood career that included an Oscar for “Sayonara,” and his decades-long association with the Friars’ Club roasts.

Buttons’ one-man reverie hits all these high points as the comic jokes his way though celebrity anecdotes (Jolson, Jessel, Crosby, et al.) and classic bits. He occasionally pauses for a sentimental reflection (his immigrant parents are sweetly recalled), but the emphasis here is on tried-and-true Catskills humor: Defying age at 76, the comedian says, “Old is if you remember when the Dead Sea was only sick.” Ba-dum-bump.

Buttons’ skill with a one-liner is honed as sharply as any comic of his generation, even as his endearingly self-deprecating personality (“I’m on the periphery of becoming an icon”) sets him far apart from the Masons, Rickleses and Lewises.

Audience members at a preview performance, most of whom were old enough to remember when Buttons’ hair was naturally red, greeted each of the comic’s trademark routines with warmth, even recognizing the opening piano chords of his Ho-Ho Dance song (if you don’t know, don’t ask).

For the occasion, his Friars’ bit, “Never Got a Dinner,” is revamped to “Never Did a One-Man Show” (“Cain, whose wife got a divorce because he wasn’t Abel, never …”).

A historical note: In 1942, Buttons was onstage the night they raided Minsky’s Burlesque at the Ambassador Theater, the same stage he currently treads. Providing some perspective, he includes in his new show the exceedingly tame (and still quite funny) sex jokes that brought down the wrath of the LaGuardia administration. Only Buttons could recall a 53-year-old police bust and seem both comic and wistful at once.

Buttons on Broadway

(Ambassador Theater; 1,125 seats; $ 50 top)

Production: A Don Gregory presentation of a solo show in two acts. Musical director, Bryan Louiselle. Set, Nancy Thun; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Lewis Mead; production stage manager, J.P. Elins; general management, 101 Prods.; press, Bill Evans & Associates. Opens June 8, 1995; reviewed June 6. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min. #With: Red Buttons. The course on the Broadway menu reserved for borscht has been passed from Jackie Mason to Red Buttons, and the transition is a pleasant one. "Buttons on Broadway" is a kinder, gentler show than the angry Mason's, and while its decidedly nostalgic mood isn't likely to attract anyone too young to know the Ho-Ho Dance, it should keep core audiences smiling until the next Catskills refugee books a theater. Sharing an otherwise bare stage with a piano player (no director or writer is credited), the tuxedoed Buttons runs through his 60-year showbiz career in just under two hours, with a little singing, a little dancing, a lot of shtick and even more reminiscing.

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