The late and multi-talented, Lionel Burt was as unique as anyone I’ve ever known. At times he reminded me of Will Rogers, funny and never uttered a bad word about anyone. He was very Zen that way. But he was also a relentless contrarian who, on occasion, could try the most patient of souls. And yet, given his humor and good nature, you couldn’t help but like Lionel.
Among the many things Lionel loved in life were good tennis and a spirited debate. He even wrote a book on political correctness, “It’s the Words, Stupid!” Put it this way, in a debate, Lionel was more Pit Bull than Zen Master.
Sadly, a few weeks ago, Lionel passed away. He was just shy of his 83rd birthday. He left adult children, Adam and Meghan and his beloved 17-year-old grandson, Jake who is a musician like his grandfather. (Jake sings and plays the trumpet; Lionel played piano, guitar, sax, harmonica and drums, as mentioned below.)
A pied piper, Lionel leaves a multitude of friends. I was blessed to have been one. In fact, I wish I could hear Lionel tell one more joke. I’d even settle for one of the cornier ones.
Almost 25 years ago, I met Lionel at the Ocean View Tennis Courts. Two things stood out. One, he was a vegan, which was relatively unusual. And two, he played tennis with a two-handled racket, which was extremely unusual. In fact no one had ever seen one before. Lionel designed it personally and took a lot of kidding. With the two handles sticking out, some compared it to a hedge-clipper or divining rod.
Lionel promoted his racket with religious zeal. He preached, correctly I might add, that two handles allowed users to play the same strokes on both sides and so develop all their muscles at the same rate.
Lionel was even able to have two pros, Brian and Dann Battistone, use his racket on the tour, including at the U.S. Open! (Google “Battistone brothers 2-handled racket.”) Over the years Lionel sold dozens of his rackets to players at Ocean View and other courts but, generous of spirit, he must have given away ten times that amount.
Born in Montreal in 1933, Lionel was a non-conformist who definitely marched to his own set of drums. His father ran the Montreal Forum where the Canadians played hockey, so it wasn’t surprising Lionel was talented on the ice. With near perfect ski form, he wound up a pro instructor and coached at the Junior Olympics.
A bit of a mad genius, Lionel was an inventor by nature. Whereas some ask “Why,” Lionel would ask “How can I make it better?” Once, he invented a binding device that allowed the user to ski in soft ski boots. He sold the rights for $100,000 but, oddly, it was never marketed. Lionel merely moved on to the next project. He was remarkably flexible that way.
Lionel came to the U.S. In 1963. amazingly, not long after, he became a comedy writer for “Red Skelton” and then “Laugh In.” As a wannabe comedy writer, I would listen raptly to his tales of the writers’ meetings and the insane pressure of putting together a national TV show.
Unlike many who grew up during the Depression, Lionel was not very money conscious, nor was he a workaholic. In fact, he was one of the most relaxed people I’ve ever known. (Unless, of course, he was debating.)
Lionel was a free spirit, open to all sorts of ideas. For example, a friend of his owned an avocado ranch in Australia and needed help. So Lionel, in his 60s, took off for down under. While it didn’t work out, Lionel didn’t regret having gone. He wasn’t much into regrets.
On Sunday, at 12:30 p.m. at the Ocean View Tennis Courts in Ocean Park, Lionel’s family and many friends will gather to celebrate his life. As per his wishes, it won’t be flowery or maudlin, just swapping funny stories about Lionel. Frankly, I wish Lionel could be there because nobody told a story better than he did.
Lastly, if Lionel is in heaven, I only hope God allowed him to bring a 2-handled racket. And I also hope God doesn’t get exasperated easily. Knowing Lionel, there might be a few subjects he’d like to debate.
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org.