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When life imitates art imitates life

A ‘light-hearted’ expose from two women in Jackie Mason’s world

Sheba Mason, second from left, with the cast of “The Jackie Mason Musical.” (Photo by George Wentzler)
Sheba Mason, second from left, with the cast of “The Jackie Mason Musical.” (Photo by George Wentzler)

It’s complicated, says playwright Ginger Reiter, whose work, “The Jackie Mason Musical,” will come to Glen Rock in July.

And no, she is not bitter. Neither  is her daughter, comic Sheba Mason, whose birth father — the famous comic, now 88 — not only denied his paternity but dragged their case through the courts for a full three years.

“I don’t feel bitter,” Ms. Reiter said. “I feel grateful that I had the experience, and even Sheba admires him from afar.” She doesn’t necessarily want her audience to see Mr. Mason in a negative light, she said. “They can see the play and make up their own minds.”

What she shows audiences, she said, “is a big trial for Jackie, not only in court but in life. It’s a hard thing, since people admire him. Some will agree, some won’t. Those who love him will be disappointed. But who’s perfect?”

Complicated indeed. Still, Ms. Reiter said, the play, describing her 10-year romantic relationship with Jackie Mason, is “light-hearted.” Mr. Mason attended its opening night in Florida and was honored there, she added. The play also has been launched in New York and Chicago.

Ms. Reiter, who calls Mr. Mason both brilliant and interesting, wrote the play before Sheba was born in 1986. “I developed it into a musical because I always thought he was such an interesting character,” she said.

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between theater and real life. Sheba Reiter, now a professional stand-up comedian and actress who lives a block from her father in Manhattan, met her father only once. She was raised by her mother and her grandmother, and she  plays her mother in the show. 

Ginger Reiter was born in New York, and her family later moved to New Jersey, where she  attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education. In 1977, three days after moving to Miami Beach to teach high school English, she met Mr. Mason at a delicatessen. She re-creates the scene in her musical.

Of the paternity suit, Ms. Reiter said that Mr. Mason “tried to stop it,” but the judge threw out his objections. “He never wanted children,” she said. “Ordinarily, a case like that should take three months. But he fought every step of the way and it took three years. They came up with ridiculous things but they couldn’t wear me down. I had to go to court for 55 hearings.”

Still, she remains philosophical.

“I look at things not just from this lifetime,” she said. “This was a chapter. I believe we choose to be born into certain situations that we have to work out. Sheba and Jackie had issues before this lifetime. She was very hurt, but now has accepted it. She likes being an actress and singing,” though professionally she makes her living as a comedian. While she lives a block away from her birth father, “she respects his privacy and won’t go to the restaurant he eats at.” Ginger Reiter occasionally sees Mr.  Mason on the street. “He smiles,” she said.

Responses to her show have varied, she said, noting that one audience member said she was “astonished” by the story. Mr. Mason “was an astonishing character,” Ms.  Reiter said.. “He opened my eyes to everything.”

For example, she said, he showed her the difference between the way Jews and non-Jews walk into a restaurant. “I learned that Jews never get the right table,” but non-Jews remain where they are placed, “and that Jews ask for doggie bags.”

Ms. Reiter’s mother, another character in the play, was married to several different men, and while she didn’t attend synagogue, “she dropped her three daughters” — Ginger and her two sisters — “off at a different synagogue every week. I would learn at all of them. I grew to love it.” Reiter’s mother died six years ago.

Ms. Reiter’s husband, Manny Silver, is the cantor at Temple Beth El of Hollywood in Florida and occasionally plays Mr. Mason’s sidekick when the musical is produced in Florida. The couple live in Boca Raton.

“Jackie is a cantor and I loved when he sang cantorial music, especially during the holidays,” Ms. Reiter said. “My husband became a cantor after we met. He had a great voice.” He also knew that his wife loved cantorial music.

Ms. Reiter now spends her time managing her musicals and comedies, including “King Solomon & His 700 Wives: The Musical” and “Mel Schwartz Sleeps With Mae West.” As the writer of both the plays and their music, Ms. Reiter said that playwright Anais Mitchell, who wrote both the book and the music for the Broadway musical “Hadestown,” is her role model.

“I’ve been writing songs since I was a little girl,” she said, citing two songs in the upcoming production, “Ode to the Early Bird Special” and “I Never Met This Yenta.” The latter is featured during a courtroom scene. Ms. Reiter ultimately won her paternity suit against Mr. Mason, who had to pay child support for their daughter.  

As for the upcoming production, “you don’t have to be Jewish to love it,” she said. 

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