Judy Kay-Wolff

THE OMAR SHARIF BRIDGE CIRCUS

Perhaps one of the most spectacular extravaganzas ever to grace the bridge horizon was The Omar Sharif Bridge Circus of 1970-71.  During the editing of The Lone Wolff, Bobby and I discovered that thirty-three years prior we were both very much involved in the Circus … he, as a player and I, as a local coordinator and yet we hardly crossed paths during their final tour of duty in my very own hometown.

The OSBC was an unusual happening — a sensational ‘first’ in the annals of our game.   In bridge lore, there was only ‘one Omar‘ (although I do recall a reference as kids to Omar the Tentmaker — but he was neither a handsome, charismatic movie idol nor a bridge fanatic.   And, yes, General Omar Bradley also had his day in the spotlight).   But the Omar we are setting our sights upon proudly proclaimed,   "Acting is my Profession … Bridge is my Passion."   Not unlike many people who have reached the summit in their chosen fields,  bridge addiction and obsession can totally envelop them and displace earlier priorities — relegating anything and everything to second place (and a bad second — at that)!                                                                                                   

The Circus was a unique phenomenon.  A caravan of bridge players traveled the continent, making much publicized four day stops* at major cities, strutting their stuff, with a three cornered match as their bridge format.  It was a feeble attempt to put bridge on the map as a spectator sport, but produced thousands of happy campers along the trail!  (*The visits to each metropolis were actually of seven day duration.   They would arrive on Mondays for a local press conference and Tuesdays and Wednesdays were devoted to head-on competition between the Circus and the Aces).  On Thursday the official fireworks began although as I recall, kibitzers were welcome and plentiful during the early part of the week. 

The overall Circus ratio composition was ‘two part gypsies’ and ‘one part locals’ –  an unusual mix of pasteboard talent:

Part I (The Featured Attraction):  THE CIRCUS, starring Omar and his merry band, which included energetic and quick-witted Egyptian Leon Yallouze as the coordinator; young Mike Ledeen (later to become a world renown terrorism expert) who served as the American Manager of the Circus; and a few other fellas you may have heard of in your travels:   Benito Garozzo (thought of by most as the greatest bridge player of all time) plus his Italian compatriots Pietro Forquet and Giorgio Belladonna and handsome Parisian internationalist, Claude Delmouly.

Part II:   THE DALLAS ACES, the first fully professional bridge team, created by Ira Corn and coached by Joe Musumeci.   This group which accompanied the Circus included Billy Eisenberg, Bobby Goldman, Bob Hamman Jim Jacoby,  Mike Lawrence and Bobby Wolff.

The triumvirate was rounded out by a team composed of LOCAL EXPERTS,  prepared to give the visitors a run for their money and pump up their hometown fans with exuberance, spirit and pride.                                                                                                                                                                                           

By a strange stroke of fate, I was drafted to oversee the competition planned for the City of Brotherly Love.  It included greeting, welcoming and transporting all of the circus performers from Philadelphia International Airport via a motorcade to the Drake Hotel in Center City (the site of their official four-day appearance), arranging for local press coverage, recorders, monitors, and much more  — but the volunteers were emerging from the woodwork (with reserves hanging from the rafters) so my job was a piece of cake.  Everyone was enthralled that Philly was one of the chosen few and determined to show that we were deserving of our selection!

We were the last on a seven-stop North American tour — starting in Chicago, continuing through Winnipeg, Los Angeles, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Dallas, Detroit — ending in Philadelphia!   As you can imagine, this bridge odyssey was quite costly and the Circus had two enthusiastic and generous sponsors:   Stancraft Playing Cards and Cosco (card table and chair manufacturers).   The entourage actually had a technical staff as well.   It included Bud Dietrich, a gifted emcee who was also a handsome magician, card manipulator and singer; National Director Al Neilsen who handled the electronics and vu-graph operation;  and of course,  Mike Ledeen, wearing many hats, was a disciple of the Italian Blue Club System and a master of analysis which enhanced the enjoyment of the live audience.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Duplicates (interspersed with participating Circus players) were scheduled in the afternoons, followed by dinner breaks before the start of the vu-graph matches.   At first I was apprehensive at the prospect of Philly not making an impressive showing at the duplicates and then the light dawned!  Philadelphia is unique in that it has a Woman’s Bridge League with dozens of country clubs, each having anywhere from one to six teams.   There were Men’s Leagues as well — but minuscule in comparison to the women’s involvement.   I contacted every one of them by mail  (before the days of cyberspace) and they arrived in droves to welcome our famous guests.   The duplicates were packed and I recall a funny incident stemming from a telephone call from an older woman who was in quest of a reservation.   I asked if she preferred NS or EW, to which she replied,  "What’s that?   I don’t play bridge.   I just want to sit next to Omar."    And, I might add, it was not an isolated request.

To call the Philadelphia contingent the "Local Team" was a slight misnomer because the awesome foursome consisted of Bobby Jordan, Arthur Robinson, my late husband, Norman Kay and his partner, New Yorker Edgar Kaplan, who was imported for the occasion.    They did us proud as they beat both Omar’s group and the Aces. However, that dual victory was overshadowed when our devotees shattered all attendance records for both the number of duplicate entries and vu-graph audiences as the Circus took their final curtain call at the Drake Hotel that Sunday evening.  When it came to love of the game, Philadelphia did not have to take a back seat to anyone!

As an interesting ‘aside,’ I learned from a reliable source and eyewitness close to me that after the play of 840 hands during a seven week span (with several changes of lead),  the Aces prevailed over the Circus by 101 Imps.  However, it was not a crushing victory by a long shot –  considering how many boards were in play.

Some days I have trouble counting trump, but Omar’s pilgrimage to Philly will remain a treasured memory and always have a special place in my heart.


10 Comments

M BlumenthalFebruary 1st, 2009 at 4:00 am

Judy,As you know. I joined the Aces after they played the Circus though Goldman told me that he thought Winnipeg was their most successful stop because in cities such as New York or even Philadelphia there was too much going on that took attention away from them. Maybe Bobby remembers. I think there was a tournament in Las Vegas run by those who had run the Aces vs Circus right after the tour. I played on Rosenkranz’s team. I think we beat Walsh, Swanson, Levknson and somebody and then lost to the Aces.

Judy Kay-WolffFebruary 1st, 2009 at 5:48 am

Mark — Winnipeg might have been the coldest city — but not the most successful. New York might have “had too much going on that took attention away from them …” — but when the Circus came to town (Philly), traffic stood still! We had publicized it months in advance and there were swarms of people at both the duplicates and vu-graph matches waiting for the doors to open.

Bobby’s most fervent memory of the Circus in Winnipeg was when they were greeted as they deplaned and Omar was presented in well-below-freezing weather with a magnificient buffalo coat. It was a lovely gesture and everyone marveled as he donned the beautiful gift.

However, a week later they marveled in horror when the presenters re-appeared at the airport as Omar prepared to board his return flight — not to give him a royal sendoff — but to retrieve their “loaned” garment! When I was a kid, they referred to such people as “Indian Givers.” So much for Winnipeg — crowds or no crowds!

M BlumenthalFebruary 2nd, 2009 at 11:36 am

I’m just giving what was Goldman’s view. I was living in Philly then and don’t remember the teams stopping there though obviously they must have. Of course. I was traveling a lot and may have been away when they were there. I do know one year I was away every time it snowed in Philly. That was the only winter I didn’t see snow until last winter here in Portland.

JoeFebruary 2nd, 2009 at 11:45 am

I do remember the circus coming to town. It seems to me there was some to-do about an Israeli-Egyptian conflict that was brought to light at the Press Conference when Omar visited Philly. Do you have any recollection of it?

According to an article I read just a couple of days ago Sharif told the press in 2006 that he no longer played bridge, explaining, “I decided I didn’t want to be a slave to any passion any more except for my work. I had too many passions, bridge, horses, gambling. I want to live a different kind of life, be with my family more because I didn’t give them enough time.” – any idea if he kept to that resolution? I’d be curious to know if he could truly stay away from bridge…I know that I couldn’t!!!

Love your trips down memory lane. Keep ’em coming!

Judy Kay-WolffFebruary 2nd, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Joe: I remember the incident as if it were yesterday. I was dumbstruck at the time but the years have softened the blow and the uproar eventually died down.

Word was on the street that I was in charge of the scheduled Circus Visit to the Drake. Prior to the announced press conference, I received a call from a young reporter interested in bridge and requesting a Press Pass. I was so green, I wasn’t familiar with what it entailed but I arranged for him to be present. At the time, there were frequent skirmishes between Israel and Egypt and Omar’s coming to town triggered some concerns as we wanted to keep the focus on the game rather than get involved in the political fallout. The young reporter was named Bruce Keidan (with whom Norman and I later beame friendly) and I remember at the time that I granted him a welcome to the Monday night meeting of the Fourth Estate, I cautioned hiim –“NO QUESTIONS TO OMAR about the current Middle East Crises.”

My directions seemed rather specific — not to be misconstrued — but the first words out of Bruce’s mouth, addressed to Omar, dealt with a recent episode that made the front page. Bruce pointed his question at Omar, asking his opinion about Israel’s recent daring attack on an Egyptian radar station. I was appalled as a hush fell over the crowded room, but Omar, in his usual charming manner, passed over it discreetly and casually fielded the next question. Joe, that must be the incident to which you refer.

I don’t recall the 2006 article about Omar but it is difficult to believe that Omar would forsake his greatest passion — the game of bridge. It was no secret that he loved horses and gambling and the women certainly loved him. In fact, I recall Omar being quoted many decades ago that it was his acting career that supported his bridge habit. What a wonderful solution!

I don’t think any person in the public eye who was as successful and recognized in other fields (sports, business, government, or show business) ever brought more positive vibes to our game or did more for its image than Omar Sharif. Bobby’s friendship with Omar that spanned over twenty-five years revealed a kind, caring, modest, self-effacing human being — whose early fame and fortune never affected his being a regular guy or his unbridled exuberance for the game of bridge!

M BlumenthalFebruary 3rd, 2009 at 1:50 am

I’m not sure of this, but I think Omar was at born Jewish.

Gary M. MugfordFebruary 3rd, 2009 at 8:11 pm

Judy,

Back in the day when I was the PR guy at the ACBL, we created a PR Kit to be sent out to any and all who wanted to publicize the game. Part of that kit were quotes. I can still hear that refined Omar voice telling me, “The beauty of bridge is that every hand is a unique problem to be solved in seven minutes or so. Then you go onto the next hand.” As a former chess player who couldn’t stand watching other players think, he hit the attraction of bridge right on the nose for those of us with the competitive mind gamer’s version of A.D.D.

GM

Leah JayMarch 25th, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Does anyone remember who the members of the Detroit team were who played against the Omar Sharif Bridge Circus? I would so appreciate their names.

at the time I was the bridge writer of the Detroit News.

Irv SmithJuly 14th, 2009 at 2:47 am

Leah Jay, did you ever find Eddie Brown? That was a nice story in the May ACBL Bulletin.

Shimon FaitelsonApril 13th, 2018 at 9:51 am

Hi
I had bought Omar Sharif bridge ,but my PC stopped working,and I want a contact for the company to install it again
ANy Idea ?
Thanks
Shimon

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