Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy birthday to the Perfect Fool!

Isaiah Edwin Leopold was born one hundred and twenty-four years ago on this date in the City of Brotherly Love—and he’s an important personage here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear because his show business career spanned so many of the areas oft-discussed here on the blog: radio, movies and TV.  He bolted from home at the age of 15 and worked as a hat salesman before getting into show business—and to spare his family the embarrassment of having a son toil in a career that was not as glamorous back then as it is today he renamed himself “Ed Wynn,” inspired by his middle name.

Wynn became a popular headliner in vaudeville, and appeared in quite a few Ziegfeld Follies shows…one of which proved particularly painful because, as legend goes, he was mugging to the audience while fellow comedian W.C. Fields was performing his famous pool routine and The Great Man clocked him with his cue.  Wynn would go on to even greater stage triumphs, notably a 1921 revue entitled The Perfect Fool, which gave him his lifelong sobriquet.

While performing in Fool, Wynn was one of the first entertainers to try out that newfangled medium known as radio by performing the show over WJZ in 1922—but being used to a live audience, he had to round up an audience consisting of studio hands and other hangers-on in the studio he was broadcasting when he was convinced his material was bombing.  A decade later, Ed would be the hottest thing on radio as the host of The Texaco Fire Chief Program, a half-hour show that featured him as “The Chief”, joking endlessly with his announcer and straight man Graham McNamee.  Three years later, however, Wynn’s style of comedy had gone out of style—he tried to bounce back with a series of shows (his last one being in 1944) but was never able to recapture the magic and excitement of the Texaco experience.

Wynn was also one of the first major performers to get a toehold in television with The Ed Wynn Show, a comedy-variety half-hour that premiered on CBS in the fall of 1949 and was one of the first programs to originate from Hollywood (at a time when most of the programming came from New York).  The series only lasted one season but surviving kinescopes reveal the depth of talent who often guested on Ed’s program, including the likes of Buster Keaton, Lucille Ball (with husband Desi Arnaz) and the Three Stooges.

After the cancellation of his show in 1950, Wynn’s television participation was pretty much relegated to guest-starring on such series as The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Burke’s Law, etc.  However, his movie career was going full guns, particularly at the Walt Disney Studios—from the moment he provided the voice of the Mad Hatter in the 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland Ed found himself in demand at Disney, appearing in such films as Babes in Toyland, Mary Poppins, Those Calloways and That Darn Cat!  (My personal favorite is his bit in The AbsentMinded Professor…in which he plays a fire chief.)  His final onscreen appearance was in Disney’s The Gnome Mobile—and it’s fitting that the consummate clown went out making people laugh…which is all he ever wanted to do and proved damn good at doing so.

Here’s who else is having a birthday today:

Marie Dressler (1868-1934) – Academy Award-winning actress whose films include The Patsy, Min and Bill, Anna Christie, Emma and Dinner at Eight

Edna May Oliver (1883-1942) – Peerless stage and screen character actress who made the best films in the Hildegarde Withers series (all three are scheduled to be shown on TCM this afternoon!) and can also be seen in such vehicles as David Copperfield and Drums along the Mohawk

Gertrude Astor (1887-1977) – Silent film actress whose vehicles include Lorna Doone, Alice Adams and The Cat and the Canary; with the advent of sound she appeared in many of the Hal Roach Studio shorts alongside Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy

‘Snub’ Pollard (1889-1962) – Unsung silent comedian who started out as second banana to Harold Lloyd in his Lonesome Luke shorts before graduating to his own one- and two-reel comedies; later appeared in a slew of sound films in uncredited small roles or as an extra—he’s the elderly gent Gene Kelly gives the umbrella to in Singin’ in the Rain

George Regas (1890-1940) – Greek actor who can be seen in such films as Beau Geste, Blood Money, Mr. Moto Takes a Chance and The Mark of Zorro

John Miljan (1892-1960) – Silent and sound film actor who excelled in villainous roles; his vehicles include The Unholy Three, Paid, The Secret Six, The Sin of Nora Moran and The Plainsman

John P. Medbury (1893-1947) – Radio and film comedy writer who contributed to such shows as Amos ‘n’ Andy, Burns & Allen and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet

Mae Marsh (1894-1968) – Silent and sound film actress best known for her roles in the shorts and feature films of D.W. Griffith; she later worked (often uncredited) in many films directed by John Ford

Lou Lubin (1895-1973) – Stage, screen, radio and television comic actor best known as the stuttering Shorty the Barber on radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy; also appears in such films as Shadow of the Thin Man and The Seventh Victim

George D. Hay (1895-1968) – “The Solemn Old Judge”; he started the Barn Dance radio show on Nashville’s WSM which later morphed into The Grand Ole Opry

Frank McDonald (1899-1980) – Film and television director who helmed a megaton of B-westerns in the 30s, 40s and 50s; also directed episodes of such TV series as The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and National Velvet

Anthony Asquith (1902-1968) – British film director whose movies include Pygmalion, We Dive at Dawn, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and The Importance of Being Earnest

Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – That’s Hedley!

Spiro Agnew (1918-1996) – Vice President of the United States under Richard M. Nixon (1968-73) and crooked scumbag

Byron de la Beckwith (1921-2001) – Another real piece of work; KKK clown convicted in 1994 of murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers

Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) – Actress-singer-dancer who left us far too soon and whose vehicles include Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and Tamango

Severn Darden (1929-1995) – Peerless character actor and Second City alum whose films include The President’s Analyst, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Hopscotch

Jim Perry (1933-     ) – Game show host who emceed such shows as Sale of the Century and Definition

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) – Astronomer/author and all around smart guy

Mary Travers (1936-2009) – Sang with Peter (Yarrow) and (Noel) Paul (Stookey) and was one of the few folk singers who actually grew up in Greenwich Village

Stephanie Rothman (1936-     ) – Roger Corman protégé who directed a slew of drive-in exploitation flicks (one of the few female filmmakers to do so) in the 60s/70s including It’s a Bikini World, The Student Nurses and The Velvet Vampire

Charles Robinson (1945-     ) – Film and television actor-director best known for his roles on the TV sitcoms Buffalo Bill, Night Court and Love & War

Bille August (1948-     ) – Danish motion picture director whose works include Pelle the Conqueror, The Best Intentions and Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Lou Ferrigno (1951-     ) – Former body builder turned actor who gained fame in the 1970s as TV’s The Incredible Hulk; demonstrated a fine pair of comic chops by playing himself as next-door neighbor of Doug and Carrie Heffernan on the sitcom King of Queens

Karen Dotrice (1955-     ) – British moppet actress best known for her roles in the Walt Disney films Mary Poppins, The Three Lives of Thomasina and The Gnome Mobile

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Pam said...

Oh my! Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight. Heaven.

Scott said...

MST3K fans will remember John Miljan as the bibulous, neglectful father who forgets his son Jimmy's birthday, thus launching the youngster on a life of crime, in the classic episode, I Accuse My Parents.

Doc Quatermass said...

The added delight to The Absent-Minded Professor and it's sequel, Son of Flubber, is Ed stars with his son, Keenan, and Keenan's son, Ed's grandson, Ned (who had small parts in both movies).