Quick: What do Johnny Carson, Police Academy and Linda Lovelace have in common with the Hollywood beach broadwalk?
That’s right, Art Metrano, actor-comedian turned restaurateur.
Metrano’s lengthy screen credits include Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1, Breathless (starring Richard Gere), Good Advice (starring Charlie Sheen), How Stella Got Her Groove Back, LA Law and Golden Girls. He even played a sheik in Linda Lovelace for President. (Yes, apparently she made other films.)
His acting success didn’t keep him from pursuing other passions. One almost killed him.
While rehabbing an old house in 1989, Metrano was on a ladder that suddenly gave way. He fell backward, broke his neck and was paralyzed. Doctors told him he would never walk again. Turns out, he’s more amazing than they realized.
Another passion, restaurants, brought him to Hollywood. His Yogurt Ur Way Cafe, at 1000 N. Broadwalk (in the Hotel Sheldon), is unlike any other place on the beach. How he got here is quite a story.
Metrano, who hails from Brooklyn, first gained renown for his “magic” act. It featured his own body parts. It was a solo act. I know what you’re thinking, and shame on you. As “The Amazing Metrano,” he made his fingers jump from hand to hand while humming Kay Swift’s catchy show tune Fine and Dandy. Audiences roared, and Metrano was on his way.
That was in 1970. Countless film and television appearances followed, including the jackpot for any comedian — The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. During Metrano’s first appearance, Carson fell backward laughing at his shtick. He invited the young comedian to return seven times, and a career was launched.
Tinseltown had a lot to offer, but there was one thing it lacked: a decent hot dog. Metrano missed the Coney Island dogs of his youth. So in 1973 he opened a small restaurant. It was a decidedly un-ritzy hot dog joint in ritzy Beverly Hills that attracted regulars like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Successful but still restless, he opened another restaurant with Burt Reynolds, the Posh Bagel, in West Hollywood.
All the while, Metrano continued acting, and soon found his greatest fame as the Police Academy franchise’s frenzied Lt. Mauser. His deadpan delivery kept audiences aching for more. In this scene, for example, Mauser is called on the carpet:
Chief Hurst: “This is now the worst precinct in the entire city! Burglary up 25 percent!”
Mauser: “Actually, Chief, if you’d look, burglary is up 48 percent.”
The Police Academy movies, and Metrano, became a worldwide phenomenon.
Filming on the third sequel was ready to begin when tragedy struck, five days before his 53rd birthday.
“Sept. 17, 1989,” Metrano recalls. “It was Sunday before noon, around 11:30. I remember it vividly. It’s something that will stay with me until the day I die.
“I was taking the money that I’d earned and flipping houses instead of hanging out like a lot of actors do waiting for their agent to call. I’d bought many houses and condos, and rehabbed them.
“And on this particular house, I went up on the extension ladder, to wash off the balcony. And the ladder gave way and I fell backwards and broke my neck in six places. Including the notorious ‘hangman’s break.’ And I was totally paralyzed from the neck down. And it was just a whole set of circumstances, it was awful, and it changed my life.”
Lying on the ground, Metrano knew he was paralyzed. And this is the kind of situation that reveals exactly what a person is made of. Rather than bemoan his incomprehensible fate, he patiently endured the 45-minute wait for paramedics, thinking: “What a shmuck! You fell on your own property! You can’t even sue!” And, “You knew better — Jews don’t belong on ladders!”
After 21 operations and a miraculous recovery, Metrano wrote and performed a one-man show to help others with spinal cord injuries. Gleaned from the journals he kept during his lengthy recovery, Jews Don’t Belong On Ladders — An Accidental Comedy took audiences on a funny, poignant journey. It garnered good reviews and raised more than $175,000, which Metrano is proud to say went directly to people in need via Project Support for Spinal Cord Injury, which helps buy crutches, wheelchairs and other supplies for patients.
With Joe Bologna directing, the play had an extended run in Los Angeles in 2000. The following year he brought it to South Florida, and has performed it many times since, most recently in 2009 at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. (In 2004 the play was released as a book.) Metrano, now 76 and still restless, is in negotiations to bring An Accidental Comedy to New York.
“The reward comes with the people who surround me after the show, who tell me about the adversity in their lives and how I have given them hope,” he says.
Through it all, Metrano still had a taste for the restaurant business. He had become a fan of frozen yogurt, and noticed the popularity of self-serve yogurt shops. But the quality of the yogurt was a concern, so he created Yogurt Ur Way. The first shop opened on trendy Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, and was an instant hit.
“That store is very different than most yogurt stores, much classier,” he says. “Many other yogurt stores use a powdered formula. Ours does not come from a powder, and then we do a couple of tricks with it that no one else does. I think we have the best yogurt going.”
In March 2012, Metrano brought the concept to Hollywood beach, adding a menu of healthy wraps to the huge selection of self-serve yogurt.
“My father-in-law works in both stores, and he’s so good at teaching these young kids that work for us, and they’ve done a very good job because they watch him. They know that this frozen yogurt is special,” he says.
“And we know our price is very good. That’s really exceptional. And the toppings are all fresh, when they are delivered from our grocers we take only the best, whether they’re fresh strawberries, or kiwis, pineapple, what have you.”
Metrano reflects for a moment, and sums up with a personal philosophy. “There’s a poem I live my life by. And I repeat it constantly. At the end of my shows I tell it to the audience, so hopefully people will understand where I’m coming from. It’s a real simple poem:
There is a destiny that makes us brothers
None goes his way alone
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own.
When I phone him later, the message on his answering machine offers a parting bit of philosophy from the amazing Art Metrano:
“I am making some changes in my life and can’t come to the phone right now, so please leave a message. If I don’t return your call … you were one of the changes.”
J.D. Champ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.