While there have been many celebrities in and out of show business embraced by the custom knife community, none embraced it in return and then some as did cutlery’s comic, Shelley Berman. Actor, comedian, writer, poet, professor and knife collector, Berman passed away quietly on Sept. 1 at the age of 92, but not before decades of touching the custom knife community like no one else.
Known worldwide beginning in the late 1950s as a top comedian, Berman recorded six comedy albums, including 1959’s Inside
Shelley Berman, the first non-musical recording to win a Grammy Award. Three of his comedy albums went gold and he was the first non-musical comedian to appear in Carnegie Hall. According to an Associated Press story, Berman was “a pioneer of a new brand of comedy that could evoke laughter from such matters as air travel discomforts and small children who answer the telephone. He helped pave the way for Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and other standup comedians who fashioned their routines around the follies and frustrations of modern living.”
Shelley also starred on stage and in musicals on Broadway, had several film roles and continued acting into his mid-80s, appearing as Larry David’s dad on TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also on Boston Legal and Grey’s Anatomy, among others. He retired in his 80s after 20 years of teaching humor writing in the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California.
In the 1960s he and his wife Sarah began collecting knives, and continued to build on that collection until recent years when Shelley’s declining health precluded it. The same decade Shelley was shopping for a Buck fishing knife but a salesman at an Abercrombie & Fitch store in New York showed him a Model 5 Camp & Trail Knife by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame© member Bo Randall instead. Shelley wanted more. He liked Randalls and bought a number of them after that. However, he still did not know
of custom knives. All that changed when he was working in Las Vegas in the late 1970s.
It was there he saw his first custom knife at a knife show in the old Sahara hotel and casino. He wasn’t sure custom knives were for him until he subscribed to the American Blade magazine—now BLADE® Magazine. “When I saw [the stories in the magazine] I realized, my God, I’m not crazy, I’m a collector!” he said in an interview with Dave Harvey in the December 2009 BLADE. “I had all these knives in my drawer, so I ‘came out of the drawer.'”
But it was more than just the knives that attracted both Shelley and Sarah—it was the makers themselves. The Bermans admired the work of such cutlers as Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Buster Warenski, Warren Osborne and Larry Fuegen, to name a few. The Bermans also came to know the wives of the makers as well, such as Dorothy and Jim Ence, Betty and Ted Dowell and many more. The Bermans were regular visitors to the Art Knife Invitational, the California Custom Knife Show, the Solvang Custom Knife Show and other knife events. Each April during the Solvang Show there would be a barbecue, and for many years Shelley emceed the post-dinner awards ceremony. In 1996 he did a comedy routine to headline the banquet for the 25th anniversary Knifemakers’ Guild Show—now the International Custom Cutlery Convention (ICCE)—at the Marriott Hotel in Orlando, sparing no one from a comedic jab or two, including Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Bob Loveless, A.G. Russell, Frank Centofante, D’ Holder and Dan Dennehy, Ted Dowell and others in the jam-packed ballroom.
During the 2000 Solvang Show, many of the show’s custom makers the Bermans had befriended over the years huddled and decided to make a special surprise knife that they would deliver unbeknownst to the Bermans at the following year’s Solvang Show. A work schedule was planned so the knife would spend the least amount of time possible in the mail between destinations. One of the biggest obstacles was getting the knife in and out of over 50 workshops in less than 10 months. Work began in July 2000 and the completed masterpiece arrived in Solvang just three weeks prior to the 2001 Solvang Show. The project began in Arizona and from there went to Nevada; Idaho; Washington; Oregon; California; Hawaii; back to Arizona; Utah; Colorado; New Mexico; Texas; Arkansas; Kentucky; Tennessee; South Carolina; North Carolina; Virginia; West Virginia; Maryland; Pennsylvania; New Hampshire; Quebec, Canada; Ohio; Minnesota; and Wisconsin.
The worry was that the knife, christened “Virtue: The 2-24-50 Knife,” would look as if 50 different makers had made it, which, of course, would not be the desired result. However, just the opposite occurred and the knife came out beautifully. Nothing quite like it has been attempted before or since.
As Dave Harvey, Solvang Show producer and owner of Nordic Knives, noted, one concern was that word of the knife would leak to Shelley before it was finished. However, the secret was kept and Shelley’s reaction made it abundantly clear that he was genuinely surprised and thrilled when the knife was presented to him and Sarah at the 2001 Solvang Show.
Shelley also wrote for BLADE on occasion, and even appeared in the second-ever installment of the magazine’s popular department, “The Knife I Carry,” which originally was known as “My Favorite Knife.” The knife was a Hermes folder and Shelley is pictured holding it on page 94 of the October 1991 BLADE.
With the permission of Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Jim Weyer, the March 1996 BLADE reprinted Shelley’s story “Symbiosis” from Weyer’s Points Of Interest Book IV. In the story about knife collectors and what makes them tick, Shelley nailed it perfectly when he wrote, “Since only the Good Lord knows what makes a collector a collector, it follows that only the Good Lord knows why a collector is after only a certain kind of knife on a given day. Even then, if one should ask the collector what kind of knife he has in mind, the collector may answer, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.'”
Likewise, the members of the knife community know a great collector and friend when they see one, and along with his wife Sarah, Shelley will forever fit the mold.