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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Comedy icon Rivers had a taste for fine gowns and Montreal smoked meat

MONTREAL - Legendary comedian Joan Rivers, who died Thursday at age 81, liked fine gowns and expensive perfume. Her views on fine dining could be a bit of a surprise, however.

Andy Nulman, president and co-founder of the Just for Laughs international comedy festival, recalled he learned that when she appeared at the event in 2008.

Nulman said he was asked by the owner of Schwartz's delicatessen if the comedy megastar would like to drop by the working-class eatery for a bite after her show in 2008.

"I'll ask her, but she's standing next to me wearing a $10,000 Valentino dress,'" Nulman said he told Hy Diamond when he called.

Nulman figured the comedy megastar would likely prefer a posher restaurant since she was going out to dinner with an equally dolled-up former prime minister Brian Mulroney and his wife Mila.

Even though Schwartz's has hosted plenty of celebrities, Nulman didn't mention the invitation. He got a call from Diamond the next day, expecting a blast. Instead, the eatery owner was overjoyed.

"He said, 'Joan and Brian and Mila came here and they loved it and they had a great time,'" Nulman said, laughing. "She just wanted to go to Schwartz's so she went with the Mulroneys in the Valentino gown."

Rivers appeared at Just for Laughs three times — in 2002, 2008 and last year. Nulman directed the gala show when she appeared in 2008 and was astounded at her attention to detail.

"She was meticulous," he said. "She edited jokes to the syllable, to the letter, to the word."

Every joke was on an index card. She even considered its rhythm. "It was amazing. It was like watching a musician in terms of how she dealt with words."

Nulman said "there was a certain royalty to her."

"On the other hand, it was royalty who would swear like crazy and do anything for a laugh."

The comedy festival boss remembered during Rivers' appearance last year she stunned organizers by engaging in slapstick, pretending to be unable to climb up onto a piano and then tumbling around the stage.

"She was all over the place," he said of the elderly comic, adding she improved on her previous appearance.

"She was in better form, better spirits, she took more risks. My wife said, 'I can't believe this woman is getting better with age.'"

Sometimes that enthusiasm did get the better of her, as Nulman recalled her encounter with a petite blond festival staffer who had wanted to meet her. Nulman brought the 16-year-old backstage, doubting the girl would get a chance to talk to the star but figured she would at least get a glimpse.

When Rivers came out of her dressing room, however, she greeted the girl enthusiastically.

"She says, 'Oh, my God. Look at you. I heard you were great last night. Come here and give me a hug,'" Nulman said, adding Rivers scooped the girl up and gave her a kiss before racing off to her limo. The staffer was stunned but happy.

"What happened was that Joan thought she was Kristin Chenoweth," the Broadway and TV star, Nulman said. He said Rivers' entourage explained later but "it was adorable."

Nulman said whatever other accolades come her way, Rivers will always be remembered along with Phyllis Diller as a trailblazer for her gender.

"You ask any other female comedian about Joan Rivers and they'll say if not for Joan, I wouldn't be here because she broke that glass ceiling."

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