November 22, 2013
From time to time, I hear myself calling Marcello the Cat by another name — Ishkabibble. Usually it’s an unconscious substitution, but I caught myself at it the other day and had a vague recollection that I first heard that name from my mother and that she told me that it was the name of a character on a radio show. Since I can’t ask Mom about it any more and time is running out for me, I looked it up and found out that, indeed, there was a radio personality, Merwyn Bogue, who went by that nickname.
Bogue was headed for a career in law but his comic bent and his skill with the cornet led him into the entertainment business. He was associated for many years with Kay Kyser’s orchestra — even while he served in the Army during World War II — and he appeared on Kyser’s radio and television show, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge.
Bogue’s stage routine was laced with horn playing and nonsensical babble, but he was sharp enough in real life that he managed Kyser’s band from 1931 to 1951. He also appeared in ten movies between 1939 and 1950.
When the market for his brand of entertainment dried up, Bogue made a living in real estate.
According to Bogue his stage name was taken from the title of a song — “Ische ka bibble” — ostensibly a Yiddish expression meaning “I should worry?” I have read in several sources, however, that the title is gibberish, not Yiddish. The song Bogue referred to was written in 1913 with music by George W. Meyer and words by Sam Lewis. This song apparently made the term almost immediately popular as a nonsense expression. Some folks who dabble in language think Ishkabibble could be derived from one of several actual Yiddish expressions, such as “Nish gefidlt,” meaning “It doesn’t matter to me.” There’s a three-minute video about Merwyn Bogue’s life at THIS LINK.
November 21, 2013
My mind has been wandering for a couple of weeks, but yesterday I caught myself humming “Just a Love Nest,” and that nudged me back to the topic of performers’ theme songs. “Just a Love Nest” was one of the best known of that category — the theme for George Burns and Gracie Allen on their radio and television shows. The song, with music by Otto Harbach and words by Louis Hirsch, was written in 1920 for the musical Mary, which was produced by George M. Cohan. The chorus, which provided the melody line adopted by Burns and Allen, was appropriate both for their domestic comedy and for their personal lives, which constituted one long love story:
Just a love nest
Cozy with charm,
Like a dove nest
Down on a farm.
A veranda with some sort of clinging vine,
Then a kitchen where some rambler roses twine.
Then a small room,
Tea set of blue;
Best of all, room—
Dream room for two.
Better than a palace with a gilded dome,
Is a love nest
You can call home.
“Love Nest” was Hirsch’s most successful song, but he was a prolific composer as well as an accomplished pianist. Between 1910 and 1924 he wrote scores for twenty-four musical shows, including four editions of the Ziegfeld Follies. He often contributed to the story line of the shows he worked on. He was one of the nine founders of the American Association of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and he was a director of the organization for seven years.
No doubt we would have heard a lot more from Hirsch, but he died of pneumonia in 1924 at the age of 36. Treatment pneumonia was in its infancy at that time, and the disease was still a leading cause of death in the United States.
Otto Harbach, on the other hand, lived to be 89, and he wrote the lyrics of an impressive list of hit songs, including “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Indian Love Call,” “Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine,” “I Won’t Dance (Don’t Ask Me),” “One Alone,” and “Yesterdays.” Among the shows he worked on were No, No, Nanette, Rose-Marie, The Desert Song, and Roberta.
Harbach was also a founding member of ASCAP and served the organization in various capacities, including as president.
There is a recording of “Just a Love Nest” made in 1920 by a popular tenor named John Steel. You can hear it at THIS LINK.
October 21, 2013
In a crossword puzzle I did recently, one of the answers was: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” This was a reference to what must have been one of the most successful series of television commercials ever produced. The centerpiece of these spots was the fictional supermarket manager Mr. Whipple, played by Dick Wilson, who was portrayed as catching customers squeezing the Charmin bathroom tissue because, of course, it was so soft. When he had a chance, Mr. Whipple, too, squeezed the rolls of paper. Who can resist that softness?
Dick Wilson played Mr. Whipple more than 500 times, beginning in 1964, and research showed that the commercials made the actor one of the most recognized people in the United States. And the expression itself, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” could be heard echoing throughout the land. As marketing home runs go, this was a grand slam.
Although he was vigilant about the manhandling of Charmin, Mr. Whipple was presented as a mild-mannered fellow, but that’s a credit to Dick Wilson’s acting. He was no shrinking violet. He performed in more than 80 properties, including television series in which he appeared multiple time, including Get Smart, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, M Squad, and The Lawless Years, in which he appeared multiple times.
Wilson was born in Lancashire, England, to an Italian father and a British mother; his given name was Ricardo DiGuglielmo. Both of his parents were performers. The family moved to Canada where Wilson graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design and began working in radio and vaudeville. During World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. That seemingly bashful grocery man was among the fighter pilots who went head-to-head with the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
After the war, Wilson became an American citizen and, after working as a dancer in New York, moved to California and launched what turned out to be a long career. According to a story published in the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Wilson earned $300,000 annually for about twelve days of work on the Charmin commercials. Considering the impact he made, the bunch at Charmin no doubt considered it money well spent. But Wilson said the job was no snap. According to the same article, Wilson said doing commercials was ”the hardest thing to do in the entire acting realm. You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something nice about it and get off gracefully.”
Dick Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91. Click HERE to see him in a Charmin commercial in which he catches Teri Garr in flagrante.
October 10, 2013
As I continue my recent reminiscences about the theme songs of entertainers, I’m struck by the contrast between the outrageous comic persona of Milton Berle and the sentimental character of his signature tune, “Near You.” Berle, largely forgotten by later generations, was the first major television star and one of the most popular figures in the United States. He started performing in silent movies when he was a child and later was a success in musical theater, vaudeville, and radio. After he brought his slapstick routines and outlandish costumes to television in 1949, he dominated the medium for several years and is generally credited with doubling the sales of TV sets.
The song Berle chose as his closing theme had music by Francis Craig and lyrics by Kermit Goell. Craig, who had his own dance band, also wrote the hit song “Beg Your Pardon” and a tune called “Dynamite” which is the fight song of his alma mater, Vanderbilt University. The lyricist, Kermit Goell, had an interesting background including a degree in agriculture from Cornell and experience excavating historic sites in Turkey with his sister, Theresa, who was an archaeologist. Goell was also an Army Air Force veteran of World War II.
The lyric of “Near You,” which was published in 1947, begins like this: There’s just one place for me, near you / It’s like heaven to be near you . . . .” As I recall, Berle would appear on stage at the end of his show and sing, “There’s just one place for me, near you / Only one place for me, and that’s near you ….” and then say his good-night while the music continued.
Craig’s own recording of “Near You,” spent 21 weeks on the Billboard Best Sellers chart, hitting number one. The record was number one on the “Most Played By Jockeys” chart for 17 consecutive weeks, which was the record for both a song and for an artist on any chart. The Black-Eyed Peas broke the record for an artist in 2009, but with two songs — “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.”
“Near Me” has been recorded by Andy Williams, Roger Williams, Nat King Cole, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. You can hear the Andrews Sisters’ recording by clicking HERE.
September 27, 2013
Jack Benny occasionally played his theme song on the violin, but to my knowledge, he never sang it on the air, if at all. That makes Benny and “Love in Bloom,” the topics of my last post, unusual among performers and their signature songs. Perhaps the best example of the more typical approach is Bob Hope and “Thanks for the Memory.”
Hope’s theme, as it happens, was written by the same artists who wrote “Love in Bloom.” Ralph Rainger composed the music, and Leo Robin provided the lyrics.
Rainger and Robin wrote the song for The Big Broadcast of 1938, the last in a series of such musical films from Paramount. This plot for this one involved a trans-Atlantic race by two ocean liners. The ensemble included W.C. Fields, Hope and Ross, Martha Raye, Dorothy Lamour, Ben Blue, and Kirsten Flagstad.
Ross and Hope play a couple who are near the point of divorce. In “Thanks for the Memory,” they reminisce about the high and low points of their relationship — a relationship, incidentally, which survives after all. The song won an Academy Award.
Ross and Hope got to team up the following year and sing another song that became an American classic: “Two Sleepy People” by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael. That duet was in a film titled “Thanks for the Memory.”
Hope adopted “Thanks for the Memory” as his theme, and sang it at the end of his live and televised performances for the rest of his career, changing the lyrics to fit the situation. It was an interesting choice for a comedian, because its original meaning was melancholy, and even when Hope’s writers put humorous lines in it, the sad undercurrent was always there. That was particularly true when Hope sang “Thanks for the Memory” at the end of the many shows he performed for American troops.
Ralph Rainger wrote scores for at least 40 movies. He would have written for many more, but he was killed in an air collision in 1942 when he was only 41 years old. The DC-3 he was traveling on collided with a U.S. Army Air Corps bomber over Palm Springs.
You can see and hear Bob Hope and Shirley Ross singing “Thanks for the Memory” in The Big Broadcast of 1938″ by clicking HERE.
August 22, 2013
My lack of interest in current television is at the point where I have a very limited diet. I’m not going to make an argument for the “golden age,” because I don’t think it’s valid. There have been many excellent shows since the 1950s. Still — and I’m willing to call this a matter of taste — I am attracted to early programming, and especially to situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Burns and Allen, and the proto-sitcom, The Goldbergs.
Thank heaven, then, for services like Netflix, which makes many of these shows available, including The Jack Benny Show. Benny is a favorite of mine, not only because he was such a unique character and was so skillful in portraying his fictional persona — the miser who wouldn’t admit to being older than 39 — but because of his place in American show business history.
The production values of television shows in the 1950s do not compare favorably with what we have become used to sixty years later, but the era got its “golden age” reputation because of the cadre of writers and performers who had migrated to television on a path that led from vaudeville, burlesque, and the legitimate theater by way of radio. Jack Benny and many of his contemporaries had worked very hard to develop their sense of what audiences at the time thought was funny or dramatic, and to develop the timing and delivery that would work in the new medium. They learned their lessons well; Jack Benny’s slow burn is still funny, even when you can see it coming from a mile away.
An interesting aspect of Benny’s show was his relationship with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, a gravel-voiced black actor who was part of the Benny stock company which included, among others, announcer Don Wilson and Irish crooner Dennis Day.
Anderson who, like Benny, got his start in vaudeville, started working with Benny in radio in 1937, first in a few bit parts and then playing Benny’s valet. He played that role on radio and television until 1965. He was the first black performer to have a regular role on radio, but that meant that he was faced with what became a classic conundrum for black artists — the question of whether to play a subservient character or not work in movies, radio, or TV. It was a difficult question for the actors as well as for the black Americans who were being treated as second-class citizens if as citizens at all.
Given the racial climate at the time, The Jack Benny Show took an unusual approach by presenting Rochester as a quick-witted and sarcastic character who was always a little smarter than his boss. The approach was unusual also because this plot element juxtaposed two deadpan figures and the combination was hilarious and was sustained for nearly thirty years. At first, in radio, there was often a racial aspect to the humor surrounding Rochester, but after World War II, Benny — who took an unambiguous public stand in favor of racial harmony — insisted that all racial content be eliminated from his scripts.
Eddie Anderson was one of the most popular and highest-paid actors of his time. He appeared in many movies, including Green Pastures and Gone With the Wind. He handled his money wisely and was both wealthy and generous. Among other enterprises, he owned a company that manufactured parachutes for the American military during World War II.
You can see Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson in a typically funny scene by clicking here.
In the summer of 2011, I drove myself and four companions from Rome to the Le Marche region of Italy. That trip involves some serious mountain hills with the obligatory switchbacks and the occasional tunnel. As I rolled into the first tunnel, I was startled to hear from the back seat: “Whenever I feel afraid / I hold my head erect / and whistle a happy tune /so no one will suspect / I’m afraid.” It was Bonnie Franklin, singing in a quick-step tempo with her eyes shut tight. “I’m afraid of tunnels,” she told us afterward, “so I sing that to take my mind off of it.” And she did. Every time.
I met Bonnie in 1970 when I stopped by a New Jersey theater where she was appearing in A Thousand Clowns. She had already made a splash on Broadway singing and dancing the title song to Applause. I was there during the break between a matinee and an evening performance to talk to Hugh O’Brian, but he had taken ill and gone to a doctor. Bonnie, who was sitting outside with her Yorkie , Jobie, thought I looked confused. “Are you looking for Hugh O’Brian?” she said. And she told me what had happened.
I thanked her and was about to leave, but she patted the concrete wall she was sitting on and said, “Sit down here and talk to me!” It was irresistible. Bonnie was irresistible. I sat, we talked. I came back a few days later and we sat and talked some more. We were close friends for 42 years after that.
My family and I became great fans of hers, because she was an outstanding actress, singer, and dancer. I used to kid her that latching on to her was my way to see the country, and we did travel to Manhattan, Nyack, West Hampton, New Hope, Mount Pocono, Pittsburgh, Ventura, Washington, D.C., Overland, Kansas, and some town in New Hampshire to see her perform. I’d pay plenty right now to hear her sing “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or see her in Shirley Valentine. My wife, Pat, says, and I agree, that once you’ve seen Bonnie as Shirley Valentine, you don’t need to see anyone else.
The relationship that evolved between Bonnie and my family was characterized by two qualities of hers: unconditional love and enormous generosity. She was passionate about what she believed. I learned this the second time we met: she was very agitated about the U.S. military campaign in Cambodia. She and I were largely simpatico, but inasmuch as I am a Roman Catholic deacon and she was a progressive Jew, we could disagree about some significant issues. This had no impact on our relationship, and that was because she had such an expansive heart.
Bonnie was very generous to me and to my family, not in a showy way but in a genuine expression of love. It became a running gag between us to see which of us could be first to tell the host at a restaurant not to bring the bill to the table. I told that to a host as soon as I arrived at a restaurant in Maine, and he said, “You’re too late. She beat you to it.” But I think I won the last round — at Joe Allen’s in New York.
More important was Bonnie’s generosity for those in need. I happily supported the organizations that were important to her, and she returned the favor to a fare-thee-well. I once told her in a casual conversation that a local nonprofit group I was associated with — to provide an annual festival for people with mental handicaps — was in financial trouble. A few days later, I received a personal check from her with a very large donation. On another occasion she traveled from her California home to New York for the sole purpose of giving a gratis benefit performance for another organization I was connected to, an association that builds and operates group homes for people who are both blind and mentally challenged.
A friend of mine who was a professional fundraiser for non-profits once showed me an article in a journal reporting that a survey of people in that field had found that Bonnie Franklin was perceived by the public as among the most trustworthy spokespersons for charitable causes. I wasn’t surprised. I doubt that a false word ever crossed her lips.
And she was funny. Just naturally funny. Every year on my birthday, I anticipated the phone call — I’m sure I wasn’t the only one — in which Bonnie would sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I wasn’t to speak until she was done, and there was always a second verse (“Get plastered, you bastard.”) Once when she was doing her incomparable cabaret act at the Algonquin Hotel, she wandered among the tables during one of her songs and gave me a hug. When I asked her afterward how she had found me in the darkened room, she said, “Easy. I just followed the smell of Old Spice.” She always took a pass on dessert when we ate out with her and her wonderful husband, Marvin Minoff. That is, she didn’t order dessert. She instructed me to order something chocolate, and then she ate half of it.
She was talented, she was witty, she was sweet, she was warm, she was profane, she was passionate, she was genuine. Now she’s gone. I’m a better person for having known and loved her, and I know I’m not alone. I hope heaven is ready.
May 4, 2012
I gather from schnibles I’ve seen on the Internet that 30 Rock caught some flack for a parody of the 1950s television series Amos ‘n’ Andy. In the 30 Rock sketch, which was called Alfie and Abner, the characters were played by Tracy Morgan and John Hamm, who was in black face and an Afro wig, an image some folks found offensive. Somewhat incongruously — not to put too fine a point on it — the set was a replica of the Kramdens’ Bensonhurst kitchen rather than the most frequent Harlem scenes on Amos ‘n’ Andy — the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge hall and the apartment of George and Sapphire Stevens.
The premise of the 30 Rock sketch was that one actor was in black face because NBC thought it would be too big a step to have two black actors on the stage at the same time. The irony is that Amos ‘n’ Andy, which had its original run from 1951 to 1953, was the first television series to have virtually an all black cast. White actors appeared in incidental roles in only a handful of episodes. I think it’s fairly well known that the show was driven out of production because of objections — most prominently from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — on the grounds that it presented negative stereotypes of black Americans. It continued in reruns on some stations into the 1960s.
The television series evolved from a radio series that ran from 1928 until 1960. At the height of its success, Amos ‘n’ Andy was not only the most popular radio show on the air but the most popular diversion of any kind. And yet that series featured white actors mimicking black characters — namely Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who created the show. For a while, Gosden and Correll performed all the male roles and some of the females. Later, other actors and actresses were cast in the supporting parts while Gosden and Correll continued to play the principal figures: Amos Jones, Andrew H. Brown, and George “Kingfish” Stevens. Gosden and Correll went a step further in the 1930 RKO movie “Check and Double Check,” donning black face to play Amos (Gosden) and Andy (Correll). Duke Ellington and his orchestra appeared in that movie.
The TV series is now controlled by CBS, which has withdrawn it from circulation and has at times taken legal action in an attempt to squelch the widespread Internet sale of bootleg tapes and DVDs of the episodes.
The Amos ‘n’ Andy television show is in a unique position, I think, in the sense that if it were judged in a vacuum — with no reference to who created it and when it first appeared — the conclusion might be different than it is when the show is viewed in its historical context. It was introduced when black American citizens in large numbers were still being denied their civil rights, when black people in many parts of the country were regularly threatened with violence, and when black people were freely lampooned in movies, cartoons, and minstrels. The show was still being broadcast in syndication in 1955, when Sarah Louise Keys, Claudette Colvin, and Rosa Parks in turn refused to give up their seats on the Montgomery, Alabama bus system to make way for white passengers. With Jim Crow making his last stand against legal equality and common decency, it shouldn’t have been surprising that black society and others would object to some of the characterizations on Amos ‘n’ Andy.
I have owned copies of all 78 known episodes of the series for many years, and I have watched them all several times and assigned students to write about them. I have also done a lot of research about the show itself and about the actors who appeared in it, and I have interviewed several people who were connected to it, including Nick Stewart who played Lightnin’ — the janitor at the lodge hall. Based on all that exposure, I think one can at least make the argument that, taken out of its milieu, Amos ‘n’ Andy would be no more offensive than all-black sitcoms that have appeared since, including Sandford and Son and Family Matters.
In fact, Amos ‘n’ Andy is fashioned on the same model as The Honeymooners. The rap on Amos ‘n’ Andy has been that it perpetuates stereotypes of black men as lazy, shiftless, and dumb, and of black women as shrewish and unattractive. As for the men, those characterizations apply to only four characters in the series: Andy Brown (Spencer Williams Jr.), George “Kingfish Stevens (Tim Moore), Lightnin’ (Nick Stewart, billed as Nick O’Deamus), and the lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee).
These men live in a universe in which virtually everyone is black and, significantly, in which everybody but them is dignified, moral, and responsible. Just as The Honeymooners didn’t imply that all white men were naive schemers like Ralph Kramden or good-natured dumbbells like Ed Norton, Amos ‘n’ Andy didn’t imply that all black men were lummoxes, wasters, or charlatans. In both cases, the point was that the main characters were out of step with everyone around them; they were the exceptions, not the rules.
The most prominent female character on Amos ‘n’ Andy was Sapphire Stevens, the Kingfish’s wife. Sapphire was played by Ernestine Wade, who actually was a pretty woman. Sapphire longed for a more genteel life in which she wasn’t hounded by bill collectors and in which she could associate with folks a little more erudite and stimulating than Andy Brown. Wade portrayed her as a decent woman who was faithful to a husband who didn’t deserve it; if Sapphire nagged the Kingfish and at times lost her temper with him, no one could blame her any more than they could blame Alice Kramden from blowing up at Ralph.
Less sympathetic a character, perhaps, was Ramona Smith, Sapphire’s mother, who was presented as the classic bellicose battleship of a mother-in-law — an accessory the Kingfish had in common with Ralph Kramden.
The broadest of the regular characters were the shambling, drawling Lightnin’, and Calhoun, a loudmouth and a fake.
There was a shift in emphasis in the television series in which Amos, although a title character and often the voice that introduced the episode (“Hello, folks. This is Amos. . . .”), became a secondary figure, and the Kingfish became the focal point of almost every episode. In the TV series, Amos was a level-headed, intelligent, soft-spoken, man who owned his own taxicab and led a quiet life with his lovely wife, Ruby, and their two daughters. Amos was often the Jiminy Cricket to the Kingfish and Andy, giving them sound advice and sometimes directly getting them out of trouble.
An aspect of this show that is always overlooked is the quality of the cast it brought together. Many of the actors had long careers as entertainers, persisting through an era in which they were unappreciated, type cast, and often rudely treated.
Tim Moore, who played the chronically unemployed and finagling Kingfish, had a remarkable life as a vaudevillian, entertaining all over the world. He also appeared in several Broadway shows and in films. He was even fairly successful as a boxer. He was lured out of retirement to play the role in Amos ‘n’ Andy. His character’s sobriquet was actually his title as head of the lodge — the kingfish. When he wanted his pals to bail him out of some scrape, he often reminded them, “After all, we are all brothers in that great organization, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.”
Spencer Williams Jr., who played the sweet but gullible oaf Andy Brown, was an important figure in the history of American film. A World War I army veteran who worked in many aspects of the movie business, including as a sound technician, eventually became a writer, director, and producer of so-called “race movies,” films that were made specifically to be shown in segregated theaters. His film “Go Down Jesus,” which was made on a $5,000 budget and with nonprofessional actors, was one of the most successful “race films” of all time. Time magazine called it one of the “25 most important films on race.”
Alvin Childress, who played the sensible and gentle Amos Jones, held a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He began working as an actor with a Harlem theater company, and he worked on both the stage and on film. He appeared on Broadway as Noah in Philip Yordan’s play Anna Lucasta, which ran for 957 performances. Although he appeared in a couple movies and in episodes of Perry Mason, Sandford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, Childress, who felt he had been typed by casting directors as Amos Jones, had a hard time sustaining his career. His first marriage, which lasted for 23 years, was to a well known writer and actress, Alice (Herndon) Childress.
Nick Stewart, who played Lightnin’, was a dancer and comedian who appeared in night clubs, Broadway shows, films, and radio. Stewart was the voice of Br’er Bear in the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South. In 1950, He and his wife, Edna, founded the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles, where for many years they provided a venue in which black actors could appear in quality productions.
Johnny Lee, who played the blustering, incompetent lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun, was a dancer and actor who appeared in a couple of dozen films and television shows, perhaps most notably as the voice of Br’er Rabbit in Song of the South. He had featured roles in Come On, Cowboy! (1948) and She’s Too Mean for Me (1948) and he played a stuttering bill collector in Boarding House Blues (1948). He also starred in an all-black musical comedy, Sugar Hill, at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood in 1949. His last TV role was Mr. Gibbons the Locksmith on Dennis the Menace in 1963.
In addition to these regular players, Amos ‘n Andy provided occasional roles for some very talented actors, including the sisters Amanda and Lillian Randolph. Amanda Randolph, who played Ramona Smith, mother of Sapphire Stevens, was the first black actress to appear on a regularly-scheduled network television show. That was The Laytons, which appeared on the old Dumont network for two months in 1948. She was an exceptional jazz pianist and a composer. She appeared in New York musicals, entertained in Europe, performed in vaudeville, and cut records as both a musician and a vocalist. She appeared on Broadway, in films, and on radio. On radio, she played the title role in Beulah in the 1953-1954 season, inheriting the role from Lillian.
She was the first black American actress to have her own daytime network TV show – Amanda, which ran on Dumont in the 1948-49 season. Among her many TV roles was Louise, the wisecracking maid on Danny Thomas’s comedy series.
Lillian Randolph, who appeared in Amos ‘n’ Andy as Madame Queen, a former girlfriend of Andy Brown, was also a multi-talented performer on radio, television, and film. She had played Madame Queen on the radio, too, and made the character’s name a household word in the United States. She played the maid Birdie Lee Coggins in The Great Gildersleeve radio series, and she repeated the role in Gildersleeve films and the later TV series. Her performance of a gospel song on the TV series led to a gospel album on Dootone Records. She also made regular appearances on The Baby Snooks Show and The Billie Burke Show on radio. Her best known film roles probably were Annie in It’s a Wonderful Life and Bessie in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Her television roles included Bill Cosby’s mother on The Bill Cosby Show, and Red Foxx’s aunt Esther on Sandford and Son. Altogether, she appeared in about 93 movie and television properties. In 1954, Lillian Randolph became the first black member of the board of directors of the Hollywood Chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
One of the most eminent persons to appear on the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV series was Jester Hairston, who made occasional appearances as both Sapphire’s brother Leroy and as wealthy and dapper lodge member Henry Van Porter. Although he appeared in about 20 films and several TV shows, acting was secondary to Hairston’s career as a composer, songwriter, arranger, and choral conductor. He wrote the song “Amen” for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and he dubbed the song for Sidney Poitier to lip-sync. He also wrote the Christmas carol Mary’s Little Boy Child. Harry Belafonte’s recording of the song reached No. 1 on the charts in the UK in 1957. From 1986 to 1991, Hairston played Rolly Forbes in the TV series Amen.
Hairston was a graduate of Tufts University, and he studied music at the Julliard School. He was highly regarded as a conductor of choirs, including on Broadway, and as a composer and arranger of choral music. In 1985, when few foreign performers were appearing in China, he took a multi-racial choir to tour the country. Hairston was a founder of the Screen Actors Guild.
Also among the actors who appeared on Amos ‘n’ Andy was Roy Glenn, who had a rich baritone-bass voice that he got to use in one episode, singing some lines from “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Glenn had a long acting career, appearing in 96 films and television shows. His most prominent role probably was Sidney Poitier’s father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
The only Amos ‘n’ Andy alumnus I’m aware of who not only is still living but has worked as an actor recently is Jay Brooks, who appeared in two episodes of Seinfeld, as Sid, the man who provides a service in Jerry Seinfeld’s neighborhood by moving cars from one side of the street to the other to comply with New York City’s alternate-side parking regulations.
The actors who appeared on Amos ‘n’ Andy were often criticized for accepting roles on a show that some people felt was demeaning to black people. More often than not, the roles offered to black performers in those days in any venue were stereotyped if they weren’t out-and-out offensive. Some of the actors — Alvin Childress, for example — argued that they had to work where they could and that by accepting parts on the first all-black show on television, they had paved the way for others to follow. It’s too late to resolve that question but, taken on its own merits, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a funny show, due in large part to the performances of a lot of experienced actors who, over their careers, made enormous contributions to American popular culture. They don’t deserve to be forgotten.
July 22, 2011
I was shocked when a colleague told me the other day that she had never read the Winnie-the-Pooh books, and I suppose I should have hidden my surprise better than I did. That’s a conceit of mine – that everyone’s life experiences should be the same as my own. Then again, we’re talking about Winnie-the-Pooh, for heaven’s sake.
This conversation was occasioned by the fact that Pat and I went on Sunday to see the new Disney movie, Winnie-the-Pooh, with our daughter and our two grandsons. The film is well done with hand-drawn images and a story line that are true to the spirit of both A.A.Milne, who wrote the books, and Ernest Shepard, who illustrated them.
Milne and Shepard, of course, provided text and pictures, but they did not provide the voices of the characters. That was left to the Disney studio, where some genius cast Sterling Holloway in the title role of Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966. Holloway played the part in two more Disney short features, and his high-pitched, plaintive voice became the voice of Pooh for a couple of generations of kids and adults who, by the mercy of God, have not fully grown up.
Holloway retired in the 1970s, and the Disney casting office had another epiphany, choosing voice actor Jim Cummings – who can be heard in about a hundred films – to speak for Pooh, as it were. It was a tough assignment for an actor who, I’m sure, wanted to do his work without a ghost looking over his shoulder but also wanted to keep the character authentic in the minds of the audience. No problem. Cummings’ performance is distinctive, but it has the ring of a bear, and a hungry one at that, of very little brain.
Cummings knows something about following a tough act. He also took over the role of Tigger in the Pooh films after the retirement of Paul Winchell, who entertained audiences in the 50s and 60s with a ventriloquist act that featured the mannequin Jerry Mahoney, and who was also the first person to design and build an artificial heart.
I can’t say I missed Holloway while we were watching Winnie-the-Pooh, but I miss him in general. I first became aware of him when he appeared in the recurring role of eccentric but gentle Waldo Binney, a neighbor of the title family on the series The Life of Riley, which starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley.
Holloway was unique, sui generis, in the quirkiness of his appearance, his demeanor, and his voice, so it was always a pleasure to run across him in movies or TV shows – the latter including The Amazing Adventures of Superman. He appeared in about 150 screen and TV properties over all. In the 1970s, he also did voiceover commercials for Purina Puppy Chow dog food, and sang what was then a familiar jingle: “Puppy Chow / for a full year / till he’s fully grown.”
As often happens with performers who have long careers, two of Holloway’s landmark achievements are largely forgotten – namely the fact that he introduced two songs that became a permanent part of the American musical repertoire. This occurred when he was appearing on Broadway in the 1920s and the songs were “(I’ll take) Manhattan” and “Mountain Greenery,” both composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Holloway, who never married because – he said – he liked his life the way it was, died in 1992 at the age of 87.
Click on THIS LINK to see and hear Sterling Holloway singing “A Perfect Day,” a song written in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs Bond. Holloway’s touching rendition occurred in the 1940 film “Remember the Night.”
May 20, 2011
Like everyone else, I suppose, I was very sorry to read that Jeff Conaway was comatose in a hospital in Encino. Conaway occupies a special pantheon in my family because of his role as Bobby Wheeler on the television series Taxi. Like some other entertainment media, television can do that for a person, throw at least one role his way that guarantees that his career will never be thought of as altogether ordinary.
Conaway was perfectly cast as the egotistical but insecure young actor, and he played the part in the midst of an ensemble of performers, many of whom were already experienced and all of whom were also perfectly cast. This fact, plus the excellent writing, made Taxi, one of the best situation comedies in television history.
There were 114 episodes of Taxi from 1978 to 1983, and every one was an artistic success. The series won 18 Emmy awards, a fact that speaks for itself.
The cast was remarkable: Judd Hirsch, Danny De Vito, Rhea Perlman, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kaufman, Carol Kane, Marilu Henner, and Tony Danza. The selection of Danza was a particular stroke of genius. He was a prize fighter (9-3) when he was cast as boxer/cab driver Tony Banta and, although he had been type cast, he displayed impressive acting acumen, including pinpoint timing and a worthy double take, throughout the series.
Besides the regular cast, the producers imported outstanding guest players, including Julie Kavner, Barry Nelson, Louise Lasser, Jack Gilford, Ruth Gordon, Wallace Shawn, J. Pat O’Malley, Victor Buono, and Vincent Schiavelli.
A particular strength of the writers of Taxi was their ability to create unique characters – the nasty dispatcher Louie De Palma (De Vito), the dizzy immigrant Latka Gravas (Kaufman), the pickle-brained Jim Ignatowski (Lloyd), and the glowering Reverend Gorky (Schiavelli). The faux Eastern European language spoken by Latka, his wife Simka (Kane), Reverend Gorky, and Latka’s mother and cousin, was an ingenious and hilarious invention.
Taxi dealt with ordinary people with recognizable, ordinary problems, and in the context of its comedy it tastefully touched on sensitive topics such as bisexuality, blindness, old age, single parenthood, obesity, premenstrual mood disorders, drug addiction, and sexual harassment. Taxi’s writers never went for cheap laughs.
Taxi was similar to The Honeymooners in its heyday in the sense that it had a kind of grim realism. Until Jackie Gleason made the fatal error of moving the Kramdens and Nortons out of their tenement milieu, a haunting aspect of that show was the realization that those folks were never moving out of that neighborhood, Ralph and Ed were never leaving the bus company and the sewer system, no matter how hard they dreamed. The same thing was true of the characters in Taxi –ironically, with the exception of Bobby Wheeler– and the writers were faithful to that truth.