Holocaust survivor, 90, makes stand-up debut at Tempe Improv

Mike Sakal – East Valley Tribune September 13, 2011

When 90-year-old Gert Schuster walked into Tony Vicich’s office at the Tempe Improv about a month ago, Vicich thought she was going to maybe request a comedian for a charity event at a senior center or tickets for an upcoming show.

But that was not the case.

On Thursday, Schuster, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States from Vienna, Austria, in 1939, is going to be part of the show.

Beginning at 7:30 p.m., the Scottsdale woman will be the third stand-up comedian to appear as part of “Tony Vicich’s 10 for 10” at the Tempe Improv, 930 E. University Drive. The show consists of 10 of the top comedians throughout the Valley that patrons can see for $10.

“She’s fascinating,” said Vicich, president of ComedySchools.com, which teaches a six-week stand-up comedy course. “When I first saw her come off the elevator and into my office, my first thought was, ‘What do you want?’ I had never seen her or heard of her. Then, she said she wanted to do a stand-up show.”

The 4-feet 7-inches tall Schuster, who was with her husband when she came into Vicich’s office, cracked an off-color joke that caused Vicich to crack up. Although Vicich said he is pretty careful about who he lets take the stage, he gave Schuster the green light.

Her comedy career blossomed after she decided to turn a negative into a positive.

After coming out of a 30-day coma in 2004 for an ailment that went undiagnosed, Schuster decided she was going to enjoy her life and began doing stand-up comedy. She has performed for private groups, passengers on various cruise lines and also at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Thus, she became known as “Gert the Joke Lady.”

Schuster said she also once worked with Paul Newman and Margaret Hamilton, the actress who played the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, as a soprano with the Cleveland Playhouse in the 1950s, and that she appeared in a number of episodes of the popular TV show “Route 66” in the 1960s.

She wouldn’t reveal what many of her jokes will be at the Tempe Improv, but said it’s all in the delivery.

“Laughter is the most important thing, I think, ” said Schuster who opened for Debbie Reynolds at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Mesa last year. “I don’t try to force people to laugh. I just tell my stories … Luckily, I get a good reception.”

Schuster’s jokes and antics have roots going back to her native Austria when her job was washing windows for the Nazi barracks in German-occupied Austria in the late 1930s.

As she washed the third floor windows from a scaffolding, she would sometimes squeeze the sponge out and make sure the dirty water hit a soldier walking below.

“I had a lot of guts,” Schuster said. “When they’d get hit with the water, they’d scream and tell me to stop, but I’d act like I didn’t hear them. I shouldn’t have done it because I could’ve gotten in trouble, but I always acted like it was an accident.”

Vicich said she is the oldest comedian to debut at the Tempe Improv.

“Standup comedy is any age, any time,” Vicich said. “If you can make us laugh, you have a place in this world.”

Schuster added, “It’s fun, and the people like it. As long as they like me, I’ll perform”.


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