Friday, April 8, 2011

Happy birthday, Bert Gordon!

I know what you’re thinking…there’s an “I” missing in there.  But today is not the 116th natal anniversary of the man who helmed such motion picture classics as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958) (that would be “Mr. B.I.G.”—my pal Kliph Nesteroff explains the difference between the two Berts here); we instead observe the birthday of one Barney Gorodetsky, a perennial second banana and dialect comedian whose vaudeville double act with his brother Harry (both bros changed their last name to Gordon) soon gave way to a pairing with showgirl Jean Ford and led to his first big break on stage as one of the headliners in the 1921 production of George White’s Scandals.  For the next ten years Gordon toiled in vaudeville (often with different partners) and when that form of entertainment began to wither and die on the vine he turned to radio, landing a few gigs on The Jack Benny Show.  It was Benny’s writing staff who developed a sort of embryonic version of the Slavic screwball that would soon make regular appearances on The Eddie Cantor Program…and become known as “The Mad Russian.”

Gordon’s Russian character—who made a boisterous entrance on each Cantor broadcast with a heavily accented “How do you doooo???”—became a huge favorite with audiences, essentially serving the same function as Jerry Colonna’s “Professor” did on Bob Hope’s radio program (OTR historian John Dunning describes each man’s function as “a lunatic so addled that his presence immediately converted the boss into a straight man”).  Bert’s bread-and-butter was as a Cantor regular but he also made the rounds on the likes of programs headlined by Mel Blanc, Al Jolson and Milton Berle.  (Berle even took credit for creating Gordon’s “Russian” in his 1974 biography.)  Bert also became a cast member on radio’s Duffy’s Tavern on that show’s declining years, essentially playing the Mad Russian under another name (as the saloon’s new waiter).

Bert Gordon was primarily a radio personality but he made occasional forays into films like School for Swing (1937), Sing for Your Supper (1941), Let’s Have Fun (1943) and an oddity he made at PRC with Cantor announcer Harry Von Zell entitled How Doooo You Do? (1945; the title puts the emphasis on the wrong ‘do”).  He also made a cameo appearance in the 1943 all-star Warner Bros extravaganza featuring his boss, Thank Your Lucky Stars.  After Cantor called it quits in radio, however, employment for Bert slowed to a trickle and outside of a memorable guest appearance on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (“The Return of Edwin Carp”) he was unable to reach the heights he attained as Mr. Cantor’s resident crazy man.  OTR listeners today may debate as to why so many people were tuned into Cantor’s program in the 1940s (Eddie pretty much peaked in the early-to-mid 30s and then sort of coasted afterward) but if you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing a dialect master like Bert Gordon ask “Do you min it?” it’s not too hard to figure out why.

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