Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Banjo Eyes Rap

“A star more than an actress, a personality more than a star.” Such was the manner in which the critic Robert Gottlieb described Tallulah Bankhead, in a 2005 New Yorker piece. His valedictory (upon publication of her seventh biography), was that she “substituted personality for technique and eccentricity for effort” in one of the twentieth century’s saddest talent squanderings, one that reduced the actress to spending her last twelve years longing to die. “And since she was intelligent,” Gottlieb added, “she must have been aware of the waste. No wonder she despaired.”

Tallulah probably left her pure talent on stage in The Little Foxes and on film in Lifeboat. (You would be very hard pressed to find anyone comfortable referring to her by her surname even now.) But she did find one outlet, neither stage nor screen, where substituting personality for technique and eccentricity for effort actually did her a huge favour. Even, dare say, to the extent of making her likeable, in human terms, because in no small part it shaped hers into a kind of comic image, and because she was smart enough not to think it beneath her to succumb.

The Big Show (the title notwithstanding, calling it an extravaganza may have been an understatement) began on NBC radio in 1950 as an instant hit with critics and listeners, even if its most effective valedictory referred with cruel wit to the primary target it couldn’t arrest; it was, wrote the New York Times critic Jack Gould, “good enough to make one wish he had seen it.” But, when television wasn’t keeping people from caring much about this Sunday night spectacular of the mind’s eye (“you could almost hear the sequins,” the critic Gerald Nachman has written), Jack Benny (and other former NBC stars who had followed him jumping to CBS a year or so earlier) was. The show was probably lucky to live two years.

Throwback and forward pass at once; The Big Show revived the earliest successful radio style of the music-and-mirth variety---not for nothing, perhaps, did such far earlier radio stars as Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn turn up---and introduced a kind of pilot fish for Ed Sullivan’s weekly television variety spectaculars, even if The Big Show wasn’t going to go far enough in absurdism to follow an operatic aria with an animal act. Here was a star at least sensible enough to know it was best to make her own fun of her diva-eccentric image, with a writing team (led by the redoubtable Goodman Ace) that knew how to make the inversion fit, for herself and in her badinage with performers as diverse as Fred Allen, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Barrymore, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Jose Ferrer, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Rex Harrison, Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Robert Merrill, Laurence Olivier, Claude Rains, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, and even a New York Giant or Yankee. (She actually had Leo Durocher and “Old Reliable” outfielder Tommy Henrich as guests on one or another installment.)

So who knew Tallulah’s Big Show would prove an unintentional laboratory for Eddie Cantor’s unintentional possible co-invention of rap?

Cantor has been remembered in terms far less flattering than the ignobility of an imaginary rap curlicue. The song-dance-and-joke man was anything but a consciously forward-looking performer when first he slipped from stage and screen through American living room furniture. It is reasonable to ask how many among the millions who adored his in-character niceness each week couldn’t admit they had no idea, oftentimes, what was so funny about Ol' Banjo Eyes. “On none of his various shows . . . did Cantor exhibit an especially funny delivery or voice,” Nachman has written of him, in Raised on Radio, “but he made up for it by projecting himself with a mechanical freneticism. Despite the liberal use of guests and wacky burlesque relief like the characters of the Mad Russian and Parkyakarkus, or a comic violin virtuoso named Rubinoff, Cantor was caught in a comic time warp, yet he lasted until he moved over to TV in 1949.”

Nor did he exhibit an allergy to pilferage, if you take the word of his one-time supporting cast member Arnold Stang, who told Nachman that Cantor had the habit of rehearsing his radio shows before live audiences, stealing the other performers’ best laugh lines, and rewriting the script to give those lines to himself, whether or not the lines had actually been written to Cantor’s on-air persona. Said Stang, when leaving the Cantor show, “I’m not going to keep breaking in your material for you.”

Cantor’s first slot on the 19 November 1950 edition of The Big Show (the third of the series) involved either a little unintentional irony or head writer Ace slipping him a fast one. (Ace probably knew more inside business than you might have gleaned if your only experience with him was the quietly absurdist Easy Aces.) Behind Tallulah’s ironic enough opening monologue about stage egos, Cantor led a campy little kvetchfest (the other participants: Mindy Carson, Perry Como, Jimmy Durante, Jose Ferrer, and Ray Middleton) over whom among the cast was getting how much love in terms of which performance slots and what level of salutary adjectives, beforeTallulah brought him directly to face the audience and asked why he’d put on the sulk.

CANTOR: All I know is I’ve been in show business forty years. I have never been treated as badly as I have been here today. Not even by Milton Berle. Why, when I went on his show he not only stole my best jokes but he stole my glasses so I couldn’t even read the bad jokes he gave me. (Laughter.) That’s Berle.

BANKHEAD: You mean you don’t like the jokes you’re supposed to tell? The last one just got a laugh.

CANTOR: Yes, but who got the laugh? Berle . . . (muted laughter) . . . See? That’s two for him.

Cantor in short order reeled off a little routine recalling his radio career, singing a bit from his sugary signoff theme (“I love to spend this Sunday with you . . .”), spinning one or two of his better jokes, and including one of his customary gags about his five unmarriagable daughters. “But a comedian, no matter how funny, is dependent entirely upon his material,” he purred. “Night after night you go to bed hoping to dream up a new gag, a screamingly funny line, there’s no sleep—no sleep for any of us.”

Then Meredith Willson’s percussionist rumble-rolled a slightly tribal-sounding drum pattern, and Cantor warbled, “always, there’s a pounding, pounding in your brain…,” before slinking rhythmically into half-chant, half-holler:

Who, who—
was, was—
Who was that lady I seen you with?
Jokes, jokes, pounding in my brain again
Jokes, jokes, riddles to explain again
Farmer jokes, drummer jokes,
These are cold, those are hot
Winter jokes, summer jokes
Summer jokes, some are not
When the program has been done
Another program has begun
Jokes, jokes, find a subject, start to kid it
Soon you find that Wynn did it
Durante did it
Even Danny Thomas did it
Groucho did it, Hope did it
The guy who’s selling soap did it

If you hit on something good
They grab it up in Hollywood
Harris, funny fellow, does it
Learn that Abbott and Costello does it
Then it’s kicked from coast to coast
Refusing to give up the ghost
Soon it’s dead, out of date,
No one dares to do it—wait!
Who’s just found a novel twist
That the other minds have missed
So it’s polished up, and then
The vicious cycle starts again
Wynn does it, Durante does it
Even Danny Thomas does it
Groucho does it, Hope does it
The guy who’s selling soap does it

Gags, puns, kids today are reared on it
Jokes, puns, each one has a beard on it
Find a new one, pull a killer
Someone hollers, “That’s Joe Miller.”
Jokes, puns, quips, gags
Comics, critics, stooges, wags,
Laughs, laughs, laughs, laughs
But from now on I’ll be tough
On guys who want to steal my stuff
And to my fellow comics
This challenge I hurl
Let’s go steal our jokes back
From Mr. Milton Berle!

If Arnold Stang and Gerald Nachman were right, Eddie Cantor rapping about guys stealing his stuff compared to studying tolerance under Mao Tse-tung. (If a lot of people were right, Cantor mistook frenetic for funny, made enough people fall for it to make a career, and probably did his vaudeville and film act--nutjob costumes included--in front of a live radio studio audience because watching him was funnier than listening. As a radio comedian Cantor would have made a terrific television act, if television was up and running two decades sooner.)

But if rap’s foundations in due course were as much expropriated as excavated, then Ol' Banjo Eyes inadvertently proves a worthy if unintended seed. It's not quite as far as you think from "Jokes! Jokes!" to "Rapper's Delight," even if Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Danny Thomas, Groucho Marx, and Bob Hope weren't quite in the Sugar Hill Gang's 'hood.


Blogger Mike Hobart said...

Hmmmm, a good point. I used to watch Eddie Cantor's television series when I was at school, so my reactions to listening to him on the radio would be influenced by this. "Eddie Canor - the best television comedian on radio" would seem to sum up this theory.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

I'd seen one or two of his movies (Strike Me Pink especially) and a couple of grainy kinescope videos of his term hosting The Colgate Comedy Hour in the early television years, long before I heard anything of his radio work. I learned subsequently that he often wore costumes and acted out his routines on radio for the live audience, but he wasn't as effective as Ed Wynn in subordinating the visual for the studio audience to the aural for the listeners.--EA.

11:35 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home