By David Brinn
BERNIE Kukoff is a throwback to the halcyon days of Hollywood.
A fast-talking Jewish Brooklyn-raised comedian, the 77-year-old always has an anecdote-filled story to tell about his decades of experience creating, writing and producing hit television series and Broadway extravaganzas.
But he seems most excited talking about his latest project, Ah, Jerusalem!, a musical comedy in which he combines his vast, encyclopedic knowledge of putting a show together with his lifelong love of Israel.
Ah, Jerusalem! opened yesterday at Beit Shmuel Theatre in Jerusalem, for two performances a week in its initial six-month run.
Written by Kukoff, with a score by Jerusalem composer-lyricist Danny Paller, the 75-minute musical germinated from a meeting arranged by mutual friends between Paller, who works in Jewish education, and Kukoff.
"My wife Lydia and I have been coming to Jerusalem regularly since 1976," said Kukoff.
"On our last trip, I met with Danny who told me that there was a big entertainment gap in Jerusalem for the huge number of English speakers who come all year long.
"They don't really have enough to do at night, they go to eat, walk on the Ben Yehuda midrehov, and then what? He thought that an English-language musical that was performed regularly would be a big addition to the city's culture."
Paller, who made aliya from America in 1985, didn't have a script or even a story, just the concept and a business plan. But Kukoff was intrigued.
"It's a vibe I had, and I remember thinking, 'at this point, what do I really want?' I had already done Broadway, and I had written as a TV and film screenwriter, but I had never done a script before from scratch," he said.
"And, like we know from (Oscar-nominated film) Argo, without a script, you don't have anything."
Kukoff agreed to come on board on the ground level and, working with New York writer friends Alan Gelb and Lucille Lichtblau, began formulating some initial ideas.
"I knew it would be a comedy, but at the same time it's Jerusalem, so you're not going to do Hellzapoppin' or satirical like Saturday Night Live," he said. "At the same time, you can't get too sentimental the other way."
After months of revisions, they wound up with a script summarised by the following elevator pitch: "Charlie and Madeline Axelrod and their teenage daughter Robin are packed to go on vacation to Mexico when Charlie gets a night-time 'vision' from his ancestral Uncle Mordechai imploring Charlie to go on a mission to Jerusalem to retrieve a family treasure.
"And so begins the adventures of the Axelrods of Indianapolis, as they travel through centuries - encountering love in the time of King Solomon, danger in the time of the Crusades, and a 'ticket to history' in the Jerusalem bus station circa 1920.
Kukoff has produced five Broadway and off-Broadway shows, including I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (the second-longest-running musical in off-Broadway history), The Thing About Men (2004 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical), and the Elvis Presley musical All Shook Up.
He's a graduate of the Second City Comedy Troupe, he created Diff'rent Strokes, the TV series featuring Gary Coleman, produced seasons of The Cosby Show, and co-produced the successful Israel-based fantasy stage show Glow.
A graduate of Yale's drama school, Kukoff was drafted in the pre-Vietnam days, and after his discharge, worked as an actor for a few years.
Moving to California in the late 1960s, he partnered Jeff Harris to write sketch comedy for variety shows, like Pat Boone and Steve Allen, before branching into sitcoms.
"We became a known quantity and started getting asked by studios to work on shows, pilots and scripts," said Kukoff. "With Diff'rent Strokes, we had done a pilot for Paramount and they knew our stuff.
"They said we'd be the perfect guys to develop a show around this kid named Gary Coleman, so we came up with the idea and did the pilot."
Kukoff eventually tired of the TV industry, especially following work on his 1993 sitcom Thea, which lasted only one series.
"I was done, finished. The series was not a particularly happy experience, but actually quite dismal. It just didn't work the way I wanted it to.
"I was almost 60, and in that business you need to be young. To write a pilot and have it sold and put on the network schedule is miracle - then you have go out and make the show. Sometimes a pilot works great but it doesn't have the kind of legs you expected."
Kukoff and his wife moved back to New York, and through friends like Neil Simon, found a new life in the theatre.
There, he found that he still had his magic touch and discovered he was back in his element, hiring actors, going to auditions and wooing investors.
The experience proved handy when the time came to transform Ah, Jerusalem! from paper to performance.
With the script finally in hand, Kukoff assembled the first reading of the play, without a score, at his home in Chatam, New York, last March with friends, neighbours from his apartment complex and acquaintances.
"We just wanted to see if it held together, and it did," he said. "I invited a lot of people who weren't Jewish, and it worked for them too.
I'm not saying it's Fiddler on the Roof, but it had fun and substance."
The next step was to arrange a reading in Jerusalem, in order to interest financial backers. But for that, the team needed a score.
Paller, a gifted lyricist and composer, took charge, wrote the score, Jerusalem area actors were hired for the reading, and in August, the big day arrived.
"We could sense that it was happening, but we were really going by the seat of our pants," Kukoff said.
"In New York, I would know what kind of budget we had, what we had to work with - here we weren't sure if we were going to be non-profit and try to get funding from the Tourism Ministry or the city, or be a private production."
The matter was solved when one of the attendees of the reading, Yoel Peer, owner of the Bimot ticket agency and producer of various Israeli cultural attractions, was so taken with the concept that he became one of the backers.
The Jerusalem reading also helped Kukoff find two of the shows actors - Nitzan Sitzer and Miri Fraenkel - with the others - Roni Yacobovitz, Shuky Blumberg, Lev Kerzhner, Gadi Weissbart and Rosie Richman - being auditioned later by him via Skype from New York.
"I think they're all terrific, and most are from Jerusalem, which is important, because this is a Jerusalem show," said Kukoff.
"I loved working under these different conditions," said Kukoff.
"In New York, if you have a cast, then it's a cast that's available for rehearsals that you set. Here, arrangements have to be made for everyone, because they all have jobs.
"So rehearsals have to work around their schedules. And then you have to take into account milium (army reserve duty). It's been a challenge, no question. I just have to be flexible. But I've found the crew and actors to be professional enough, especially when it counts."
He added: "I feel as strongly about this show as anything I've ever done.
"It's been a challenge, no question. I don't have the luxuries of out of town runs here, just a couple of readings, a few previews and that's it."