Comics and Humor

September 10, 1957 – Jerry Lewis Solos at Ben Maksik’s Town and Country Club

Jerry Lewis (Not Nutty Yet)

On September 10, 1957, singer, dancer, and comedian extraordinaire Jerry Lewis gave a powerhouse solo performance at Ben Maksik’s Town and Country Club in Brooklyn, New York.  After years of second-billing behind Dean Martin doing successful comedy nightclub acts, radio and television programs, and films, Jerry was on his own before a live audience with his unique brand of slapstick comedy.  The duo’s breakup in July of 1956 ended a relationship that had become increasingly strained by Lewis’ dominance in popularity.  Each went on to success as solo performers.  Neither would ever comment on the split or consider a reunion.

In the Paramount film released in June of 1957, The Delicate Delinquent, Jerry became a major comedy star in his first solo role playing a juvenile delinquent mistaken for a gang member.  Officer Darren McGavin put Lewis through police training – compete with amusing “mishaps” – and young Jerry finally “reformed” and redeemed himself by graduating from the academy.

Later that summer, reviewer Robert W. Dana of the New York World Telegram and Sun covered Lewis’ act at the Town and Country Club for his column, “Tips on Tables”.  Dana admitted “I haven’t always been an ardent Lewis fan.  I am now after this performance.”  He continued, “Given the keynote at the outset by Ned Harvey’s crack band, the man with the shorty  haircut never let up.  He’s Mr. Rhythm with a voice.  He’s Mr. Hoofer, with a loose-jointed grace of a true showman.  And he’s Mr. Clown, who makes each line count for a laugh.”

Lewis, the son of a vaudeville entertainer father and a radio-station-piano-playing mother, spent part of his opening night kidding around with a Spanish dancer act, poking fun at rock and roll, crooning a “Danny Boy” spoof, and giving a side-splitting portrayal of “Tokyo’s foremost singing star”.  After initially bumbling about, he “caught on” and joined in a tap dance number.  And he gave serious and skillful renditions of “Shine on Your Shoes”, his top forty hit “Rock a Bye, My Baby”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, and closed the evening with the somewhat poignant “I’ll Go My Way By Myself”, which Dana described as “a touching, straightforward conclusion”.  Lewis deeply appreciated Dana’s column, sending him a signed note on September 12th “to express my heartfelt thanks to you for your very, very nice column.  I more than appreciate your kind words, and my only hope is that I can live up to them.”

Jerry Lewis went on to great fortune and fame all over the world.  He received numerous rewards for his film and television work.  In spite of suffering nagging health concerns through much of his adult life, he maintained a full work schedule. Until stepping down in 2011, Lewis dedicated himself to his yearly Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, raising 2.6 billion dollars over the years for research and treatment of the crippling disease.

Image Credit: Public Domain Publicity Photo

Vintage 1957 – Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind”

Story Mankind Color PosterIn 1957, disaster film maestro Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno) directed and released his first feature film, The Story of Mankind. Story was also a disaster film, with a very 1950s trope – potential nuclear-bomb annihilation of the world.

The setting is a courtroom – a “High Tribunal” in “The Great Court of Outer Space.” Scientists have almost unlocked the secret to H-bomb production. Can they be allowed to continue? The court is in session.

The fate of mankind is debated by Vincent Price as devilish “Mr. Scratch” and film legend Ronald Coleman as “The Spirit of Man.” Price and Coleman recall great and horrific moments in mankind’s history to present their case. Allen used stock footage from previous movies interspersed with close-up clips featuring history’s most famous or infamous characters.

And speaking of film legends, take a look at this partial cast list (in alphabetical order):

  • John Carradine – Khufu
  • Charles Coburn – Hippocrates
  • Reginal Gardiner – William Shakespeare
  • Cedric Hardwicke – High Judge
  • Edward Everettt Horton – Sir Walter Raleigh
  • Dennis Hopper – Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Hedy Lamarr – Joan of Arc
  • Peter Lorre – Nero
  • Groucho Marx – Peter Minuit
  • Chico Marx – Monk
  • Harpo Marx – Sir Isaac Newton
  • Virginia Mayo – Cleopatra
  • Agnes Moorehead – Queen Elizabeth I
  • Cesar Romero – Spanish Envoy
  • Marie Wilson – Marie Antoinette

Screenwriter Charles Bennett maintained that Allen paid each of the many near-the-end-of-their-career actors a slender $2000 to appear.

The Great Court’s verdict? No spoilers, now! Should you see it? Utgard14, one of IMDB’s Top Reviewers, has this to say:

“This film has the reputation of being one of classic Hollywood’s biggest stinkers. Personally, I like it! But part of why I like it is because it’s so flawed. It’s got an all-star cast, most of whom are laughably misused. The script is terrible with some of the corniest dialogue you’ll ever hear and some truly cringeworthy speeches. The history is inaccurate and blends myth with fact. It’s all filmed in lush Technicolor but on cheap sets with tons of stock footage. Still, I can’t help but enjoy it. It’s a movie that falls squarely into the ‘so good it’s bad’ camp for me. Taken seriously, it’s ridiculous and offensive to your intelligence. Taken lightly it’s quite a bit of cheesy fun.”

Story Mankind BW Poster

Image Credit: Warner Brothers

Vintage 1957 – A Comedy Revolution

 

In the 1950s, stand-up comedy went through something of a revolution. In broad outline, comedy of the 1930s most often took the form of physical slapstick in the movies – think the Marx Brothers, Abbot & Costello, etc. In the 1940s, the rising popularity of radio broadcasts ushered in less physical and more verbal comedy. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns & Gracie Allen, and Henny Youngman all perfected the art of one-liners, story gags, and “groaners” (“I just flew in from St. Louis . . . and boy are my arms tired!” or “Take my wife . . . please!”).

Comedy in the 1950s turned topical. Journalist and author Gerald Nachman, who covered entertainment news for the New York Post, the Oakland Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, shines a light on the shift in his 2009 book, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. Nachman provides detailed biographies of 26 comedians, including Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and Steve Allen. Politics, sex, race relations, drugs, self-angst, pop media and celebrity, all were suddenly fair game for public airing, often in satirical or cynical ways.

How does comedy work? What makes us laugh?

Laughter can be cathartic. It can lighten our spirits in difficult times. The Great Depression and World War II of the 1930s and 1940s were dark times. People looked to comedy for relief from anxiety and despair.

But laughter also serves as a leveler. It can burst bubbles and open eyes, providing a wake-up call for others or for ourselves. It can be a subtle instrument or sharp weapon against complacency, pretension, self-absorption, mindless conformity, and attitudes of superiority and arrogance. It can slip in “under the radar” to powerfully say, “Take a look at yourself and your culture.”

The comedians of the 1950s – subtle or blunt – had new, sometimes uncomfortable things to say. And they were heard.

Image Credits: ABC Films; NBC Television; New York World-Telegram & Sun; Towpilot; Rollins & Joffe; Allan Warren; AP; Concord Jazz

Vintage 1957 – The Wonder Boy X-100

 

Power_Mower_Deluxe

Can technology change the lives of suburban husbands and wives? You bet!

In 1957, Simplicity Manufacturing Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin rolled out its first riding tractor – the Wonder Boy X-100. This was no ordinary riding tractor, however. Packed under its metal hood and plastic dome resided an all-purpose lawn system for mowing, weeding, fertilizing, seeding, and pest spraying. It could be used as a snow plow and as a tractor for hauling other equipment. Its on-board electric-generating system provided the driver air-conditioned comfort from atop an air foam cushioned seat, along with a radio telephone and drink-chilling system. Savings in lawn maintenance time could allow its lucky owners to get in an early round on the links. Just snap on the Wonder Boy’s running lights and drive it off to the course as a golf cart.

Simplicity’s promotional photo illustrated not only the mower of the future, but something of gender roles of the future. While a man relaxes with his pipe and a drink, a stylish woman confidently pilots the marvel from a space-age cockpit.

Image Credit: AP Images

August 1, 1957 – Austin City Council Deals with an Infested Lake

AUSTIN

Austin, Texas skyline from I-35. February, 1957.

On August 1, 1957, the weekly meeting of the City Council of Austin, Texas took place in the Council Chamber of City Hall. On the agenda: urban renewal and land use resolutions; construction contracts for gas mains, concrete culverts, and street paving; various building permits; and questions about the extent of the fire protection districts. The meeting lasted six hours and twenty minutes, with very likely a break for lunch.

Which item led off the morning, seemingly most pressing in everyone’s mind? After an invocation by Mr. B. R. Reynolds of the Y.M.C.A., and approval of the minutes of the previous meeting, the August 1st minutes read:

“MR. GILBERT SMITH, and a delegation, appeared before the Council stating the area up the lake was infested with flies and mosquitoes, had lots of moss and green scum, and asked that something be done right away, and suggested lowering the lake to get rid of the weeds. The Mayor stated that the council had promised that if the weed cutter did not do the job, that the lake would be lowered at a suitable time. The City Manager gave a report on the weed cutter operations stating operations had been slowed down by six weeks by the rises in the river; that the mower did do a good job; and that if another mower or additional men were added, and it did not do the complete job, he would recommend lowering the lake a very few feet.

“Mr. ED GRIMMER stated if the weed cutter operated eight hours a day, instead of about three, the problem would be solved, and he did not want the lake lowered. Mr. TOM BRADFIELD asked that the lake be lowered at a satisfactory time. The Mayor stated that the cutter should be operated ten hours a day at this time of the year, and he asked that a daily report be [made] on its operation. After much discussion, the matter was turned over to the City Manager.”

How times stay the same. Anyone who has ever attended a city council meeting has experienced the turmoil of a fiercely debated local issue which ends up unresolved. The qualities of the best City Managers through time have probably been similar to those of cat-herders.

Image Credit: Neal Douglass/The Portal to Texas History, UNT Libraries

July 29, 1957 – Jack Paar’s First Night on The Tonight Show

Jack Paar

Jack Paar

On July 29, 1957, Jack Paar took over the hosts’ chair on the set of The Tonight Show.  Steve Allen, the show’s first host from September 1954 to January 1957, had been instrumental in establishing the format of NBC’s successful late evening talk show: an opening monologue, celebrity interviews, audience participation, comedy bits in which cameras were taken outside the studio, and music with guest performers and a studio band.  Paar added his own touches to the show, including his signature quip “I kid you not” and surrounding himself with a group of regulars and semi-regulars (including Zsa Zsa Gabor).  Paar also started the tradition of having guest hosts, one of whom would go on to become the show’s longest-running host – for over thirty years – Johnny Carson.

Paar’s career had started in radio as an announcer and humorous disc jockey.  He was on the air on WGAR-Cleveland the night Orson Welles broadcast his famous War of the Worlds over the CBS network (WGAR was an affiliate).  Jack tried to calm panicked listeners by announcing, “The world is not coming to an end.  Trust me.  When have I ever lied to you?”  Paar was part of a special services company in the South Pacific entertaining troops during World War II.  He met Jack Benny in Guadalcanal in 1945, and Benny was so impressed he took the young comedian under his wing and sponsored Paar’s career at NBC on several occasions.

Paar was unpredictable and emotional.  His pointed jibes at commanding officers in the Pacific repeatedly got him in trouble.  He feuded publicly with Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell.  He asked Mickey Rooney to leave the show one evening when Rooney arrived in an inebriated state.  After a questionable joke he made regarding a “W. C.” was cut by censors, Paar walked off The Tonight Show set in mid-show.  He returned three weeks later, explaining, “Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing.  I have been guilty of such action in the past and will perhaps be again.  I’m totally unable to hide what I feel.  It is not an asset in the show business, but I shall do the best I can to amuse and entertain you and let other people speak freely, as I have in the past.”

During Paar’s tenure, NBC’s policy was to videotape The Tonight Show and tape new broadcasts over old ones.  Only a few minutes of tape now exist of The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar.

Image Credit: pbs.org

July 20, 1957 – Hank Aaron Visits Captain Kangaroo

Bob_Keeshan_Hugh_Brannum_Captain_Kangaroo_1960

Shhh! Mr. Green Jeans has a surprise cake for Captain Kangaroo in 1960.

On July 20, 1957, future Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Hammerin’ Hank Aaron stopped by the Treasure House of Captain Kangaroo. Aired live daily by CBS and now in its second year, Captain Kangaroo was conceived by and starred Bob Keeshan. Bob based his role as the Captain on “the warm relationship between grandparents and children.” Bob was joined by Hugh Brannum and Cosmo Allegretti, who between them played fifteen different supporting roles.

In 1957, Aaron and his team, the Milwaukee Braves, were in the middle of a great season and on their way to winning the World Series against the Yankees. Hank himself would win the National League MVP award, batting .322 (third in the league) and leading the NL in home runs and RBIs. You can be sure that Little Leaguers across America were listening carefully when Mr. Green Jeans (Brannum) asked Hank for some baseball tips.

Bob Keeshan would continue as Captain Kangaroo until the multiple-Emmy-winning series ended in 1984, a 29-year run. Several writers and producers of Captain Kangaroo went on to work on the longest-running, highly-awarded children’s series, Sesame Street.

Hank Aaron continued to play for the Braves until 1974 (a 20-year run), moving to Atlanta with the team for the 1966 season. On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit career home run 715 to break Babe Ruth’s iconic record. After two seasons as a Milwaukee Brewer, Aaron retired and joined the front office of the Atlanta Braves organization. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

Milwaukee Braves Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron heads to first base (and the World Series championship, the NL MVP, and Captain Kangaroo’s Treasure House) during spring training, March 30, 1957.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain; John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated