Jewish Actors, Playwrights, Comedians, Musicians
Eddie Cantor (January
31, 1892 – October 10, 1964), born Edward Israel Iskowitz,
was an American "illustrated song" performer, comedian, dancer,
singer, actor and songwriter. Familiar to Broadway, radio, movie and
early television audiences, this "Apostle of Pep" was regarded
almost as a family member by millions because his top-rated radio
shows revealed intimate stories and amusing anecdotes about his wife
Ida and five daughters. Some of his hits include "Makin' Whoopee,"
"Ida," "If You Knew Susie," "Ma! He's Makin' Eyes at Me," "Margie"
and "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen
Paree?)" He also wrote a few songs, including "Merrily We Roll
Along," the Merrie Melodies Warner Bros. cartoon theme.
Eddie Cantor was born in New York City, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Meta and Mechel Iskowitz. His mother died in childbirth one year after his birth, and his father died of pneumonia when Eddie was two, leaving him to be raised by his beloved grandmother, Esther Kantrowitz. As a child, he attended Surprise Lake Camp. A misunderstanding when signing her grandson for school gave him her last name of Kantrowitz (shortened by the clerk to Kanter). Esther died on January 29, 1917, two days before he signed a long-term contract with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. to appear in his Follies.
He had adopted the first name "Eddie" when he met
his future wife Ida Tobias in 1903, because she felt that "Izzy"
wasn't the right name for an actor. Eddie Cantor married Ida in
1914. They (famously) had five daughters, Marjorie, Natalie, Edna,
Marilyn and Janet, who provided comic fodder for Eddie Cantor's
longtime running gag, especially on radio, about his five
unmarriageable daughters. Several radio historians, including Gerald
Nachman (Raised on Radio), have said that this gag did not always
sit well with the girls.
Saloon songs to vaudeville
By his early teens Eddie Cantor began winning talent contests at local theaters and started appearing on stage. One of his earliest paying jobs was doubling as a waiter and performer, singing for tips at Carey Walsh's Coney Island saloon, where a young Jimmy Durante accompanied him on piano. He made his first public appearance in Vaudeville in 1907 at New York's Clinton Music Hall. In 1912, he was the only performer over the age of 20 to appear in Gus Edwards's Kid Kabaret, where he created his first blackface character, "Jefferson." He later toured with Al Lee as the team "Cantor & Lee." Critical praise from that show got the attention of Broadway's top producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, who gave Eddie Cantor a spot in the Ziegfeld rooftop post-show, Midnight Frolic (1917).
A year later, Eddie Cantor made his Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917. He continued in the Follies until 1927, a period considered the best years of the long-running revue. For several years Eddie Cantor co-starred in an act with pioneer African-American comedian Bert Williams, both appearing in blackface; Eddie Cantor played Williams's fresh-talking son. Other co-stars with Eddie Cantor during his time in the Follies included Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields. He moved on to stardom in book musicals, starting with Kid Boots (1923) and Whoopee! (1928).
Radio and recordings
Eddie Cantor's appearance with Rudy Vallee on Vallee's The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour on February 5, 1931 led to a four-week tryout with NBC's The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Replacing Maurice Chevalier, who was returning to Paris, Eddie Cantor joined Chase and Sanborn on September 13, 1931. This hour-long Sunday evening variety series teamed Eddie Cantor with announcer Jimmy Wallington and violinist Dave Rubinoff. The show established Eddie Cantor as a leading comedian, and his scriptwriter, David Freedman, as “the Captain of Comedy.” Eddie Cantor soon became the world's highest-paid radio star. His shows began with a crowd chanting "We want Can-tor! We want Can-tor!," a phrase said to have originated in vaudeville, when the audience chanted to chase off an act on the bill before Eddie Cantor. Eddie Cantor's theme song was his own lyric to the Leo Robin/Richard Whiting song, "One Hour with You." His radio sidekicks included Bert Gordon, (comic Barney Gorodetsky, aka "The Mad Russian") and Harry Parke (better known as "Parkyakarkus"). Eddie Cantor also discovered and helped guide the career of singer Dinah Shore, first featuring her on his radio show in 1940, as well as other performers, including Deanna Durbin, Bobby Breen and Eddie Fisher.
Indicative of his effect on the mass audience, he agreed in November 1934 to introduce a new song by the songwriters J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie that other well-known artists had rejected as being "silly" and "childish." The song, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," immediately had orders for 100,000 copies of sheet music the next day. It sold 400,000 copies by Christmas of that year.
His NBC radio show, Time to Smile, was broadcast from 1940 to 1946, followed by his Pabst Blue Ribbon Show from 1946 through 1949. He also served as emcee of The $64 Question during 1949-'50, and hosted a weekly disc jockey program for Philip Morris during the 1952-'53 season. In addition to film and radio, Eddie Cantor recorded for Hit of the Week Records, then again for Columbia, for Banner and Decca and various small labels.
His heavy political involvement began early in his career, including his participation in the strike to form Actors Equity in 1919, provoking the anger of father figure and producer, Florenz Ziegfeld. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, Eddie Cantor publicly denounced antisemitic radio personality Father Charles Coughlin and was dropped by his sponsor, Camel cigarettes. A year and a half later, it was his friend Jack Benny who was able to get him back on the air.
Eddie Cantor began making phonograph records in 1917, recording both comedy songs and routines and popular songs of the day, first for Victor, then for Aeoleon-Vocalion, Pathé and Emerson. From 1921 through 1925 he had an exclusive contract with Columbia Records, returning to Victor for the remainder of the decade.
Eddie Cantor was one of the era's most successful entertainers, but the 1929 stock market crash took away his multi-millionaire status and left him deeply in debt. However, Eddie Cantor's relentless attention to his own earnings in order to avoid the poverty he knew growing up caused him to use his writing talent, quickly building a new bank account with his highly popular, bestselling books of humor and cartoons about his experience, Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street  in 1929 "A.C." (After Crash), and Yoo-Hoo, Prosperity!
Eddie Cantor was also a composer, with his most famous song seldom attributed to him. In 1935, along with Charles Tobias and Murray Mencher, Eddie Cantor wrote "Merrily We Roll Along," which he recorded in the 1950s. It was adapted as the themesong for the Merrie Melodies series of animated cartoons, distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures between 1937 and 1964. Eddie Cantor himself was frequently caricatured in Warner cartoons of the period, (see Film and television: Animation).
Film and television
Eddie Cantor also bounced back between movies and on radio. He had previously appeared in a number of short films, performing his Follies songs and comedy routines, and two silent features (Special Delivery and Kid Boots) in the 1920s. He was offered the lead in The Jazz Singer after it was turned down by George Jessel. Eddie Cantor also turned the role down (so it went to Al Jolson), but he became a leading Hollywood star in 1930 with the film version of Whoopee!, shot in two-color Technicolor. He continued making films over the next two decades until his last starring role in If You Knew Susie (1948).
In the 1950s, he was one of the alternating hosts of the television show The Colgate Comedy Hour, in which he would introduce variety acts and play comic characters like "Maxie the Taxi." However, the show landed Eddie Cantor in an unlikely controversy when a young Sammy Davis, Jr. appeared as a guest performer. Eddie Cantor embraced Davis and mopped Davis's brow with his handkerchief after his performance. Worried sponsors led NBC to threaten cancellation of the show; Eddie Cantor's response was to book Davis for two more weeks.
On May 25, 1944, pioneer television station WPTZ (now KYW-TV) in Philadelphia presented a special telecast featuring Eddie Cantor, which was also fed to the NBC television station in New York City, WNBT (now WNBC). Eddie Cantor, one of the first major stars to agree to appear on television, was to sing "We're Havin' a Baby, My Baby and Me". Arriving shortly before airtime at the Philadelphia studios, Eddie Cantor was reportedly told to cut the song because the NBC New York censors considered some of the lyrics too risqué. Eddie Cantor refused, claiming no time to prepare an alternative number. NBC relented, but the sound was cut and the picture blurred on certain lines in the song. This is considered the first instance of television censorship.
Eddie Cantor appears in caricature form in numerous Looney Tunes cartoons produced for Warner Bros., although he was often voiced by an imitator. Beginning with I Like Mountain Music (1933), other animated Eddie Cantor cameos include Shuffle Off to Buffalo (Harman-Ising, 1933) and Billboard Frolics (Friz Freleng, 1935). Eddie Cantor is one of the four "down on their luck" stars (along with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson and Jack Benny) snubbed by Elmer Fudd in What’s Up, Doc? (Bob McKimson, 1950). In Farm Frolics (Bob Clampett, 1941), a horse, asked by the narrator to "do a canter," promptly launches into a singing, dancing, eye-rolling impression. The Cantor gag that got the most mileage, however, was his oft-repeated wish for a son after five famous daughters. Slap Happy Pappy (Clampett, 1940) features an “Eddie Cackler” rooster who wants a boy, to little avail. Other references can be found in Baby Bottleneck (Clampett, 1946) and Circus Today (Tex Avery, 1940). In Porky’s Naughty Nephew (Clampett, 1938) a swimming Eddie Cantor gleefully adopts a "buoy."  An animated Eddie Cantor also appears prominently in Walt Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (Wilfred Jackson, 1938) as Little Jack Horner, who sings "Sing a Song of Sixpence."
Books and merchandising
Eddie Cantor's popularity led to merchandising of such products as Eddie Cantor's Tell It to the Judge game from Parker Brothers. In 1933, a set of 12 Eddie Cantor caricatures by Frederick J. Garner were published by Brown & Bigelow. These advertising cards were purchased in bulk as a direct-mail item by such businesses as auto body shops, funeral directors, dental laboratories and vegetable wholesale dealers. With the full set, companies could mail a single Eddie Cantor card each month for a year to their selected special customers as an ongoing promotion. Eddie Cantor was often caricatured on the covers of sheet music and in magazines and newspapers. Eddie Cantor was depicted as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, one of the very few balloons based on a real person.
In addition to Caught Short!, Eddie Cantor wrote or co-wrote at least seven other books, including booklets released by the then-fledgling firm of Simon & Schuster, with Eddie Cantor’s name on the cover. (Some were "as told to" or written with David Freedman). Customers paid a dollar and received the booklet with a penny embedded in the hardcover. They sold well, and H. L. Mencken asserted that these books did more to pull America out of the Great Depression than all government measures combined.
Eddie Cantor was profiled on the program This Is Your Life, in which an unsuspecting person (usually a celebrity) would be surprised on live television by host Ralph Edwards, with a half-hour tribute. Eddie Cantor was the only subject who was told of the surprise in advance; he was recovering from a heart attack and it was felt that the shock might harm him.
On October 29, 1995, as part of a nationwide celebration of the 75th anniversary of radio, he was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame at Chicago's Museum of Broadcasting Communication.
In 1953 Warner Bros., in an attempt to duplicate the box-office success of The Jolson Story, filmed a big-budget Technicolor feature film, The Eddie Cantor Story. The film found an audience but might have done better with someone else in the leading role. Actor Keefe Brasselle played Eddie Cantor as a caricature with high-pressure dialogue and bulging eyes wide open; the fact that Brasselle was considerably taller than Eddie Cantor didn't lend realism either. Eddie and Ida Cantor were seen in a brief prologue and epilogue set in a projection room, where they are watching Brasselle in action; at the end of the film Eddie tells Ida, "I never looked better in my life"... and gives the audience a knowing, incredulous look. George Burns, in his memoir All My Best Friends, claimed that Warner Bros. created a miracle producing the movie in that "it made Eddie Cantor's life boring".
Something closer to the real Eddie Cantor story is his self-produced 1944 feature Show Business, a valentine to vaudeville and show folks that was RKO's top-grossing film that year. Probably the best summary of Eddie Cantor's career is in one of the Colgate Comedy Hour shows. The Colgate hour was a virtual video autobiography, with Eddie Cantor recounting his career, singing his familiar hits, and re-creating his singing-waiter days with his old pal Jimmy Durante. This show has been issued on DVD as Eddie Cantor in Person.
As talented as Eddie Cantor was, he is an excellent example of the mega star who virtually vanishes with the passing of time. His biographer, Gregory Koseluk, wrote in 1995 that Eddie "is all but forgotten," (from Eddie Cantor: A Life in Show Business [Introduction]). In recent years, Eddie Cantor has been a recurring character on HBO's series Boardwalk Empire, where he is played by Stephen DeRosa. He appeared in three episodes of the show's first season and one episode of the second season.
Goldman, Herbert G. (1997). Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom. New York: Oxford University Press.
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