Friday, May 28, 2010

Cantor Cantori Cantoral

The image above is scanned and cropped from the cover of the Eddie Cantor Picture Book from 1933. It was a gift from the generous Aleta Medowlark, author of the blog Omnomicon.

Eddie Cantor was born on January 31, 1892, as Edward Iskowitz. Both of his parents died before he was three. So he was raised by his grandmother on the Lower East Side. He became a street performer, and sang and danced at a saloon on Coney Island. He won an amateur night contest and started performing vaudeville. He toured with various theater companies the most renowned of which was Ziegfeld’s Follies. More here. He was performing on the radio as early as 1922. The Connecticut Bridgeport Telegram reported his as follows:
"Local radio operators listened to one of the finest programs yet produced over the radiophone last night. The program of entertainment which included some of the stars of Broadway musical comedy and vaudeville was broadcast from the Newark, N. J. station WDY... G. E. Nothnagle, who conducts a radiophone station at his home 176 Waldemere Avenue said last night that he was delighted with the program, especially with the numbers sung by Eddie Cantor..."
In 1931 Cantor appeared with Rudy Vallee on The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour. That led to a four week stint on The Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC. It went well enough that CBS gave him his own show "The Eddie Cantor Show" in 1931. Over the years it was sponsored by Pepeco toothpaste, Chase and Sanborn Coffee, Bristol Meyers, Texaco, and Camel Cigarettes. He lost his job because of that last sponsor. R.J. Reynolds, makers of Camel cigarettes, threw a fit when Cantor denounced Father Charles Coughlin as a Nazi and Fascist. The irony here is twofold. First Coughlin was in fact a supporter of the Nazis and fascism. Second, Couglin had already denounced Cantor for being Jewish. If you need an analogy, Couglin is very similar to Glenn Beck in modern terms.

In 1940 Jack Benny got him back on NBC where he started a new program Time to Smile. That program ran until 1946. In 1946 sponsor Pabst Blue Ribbon launched a show hosted by Cantor. That program ran three years ending in 1949. After that he was the host of The 64 Dollar Question but only for one season.

In 1949 he began hosting a weekly program for Philip Morris called 'Show Business Old and New'. Some sources put that as only the programs between 1952 and 1953 but others over the whole life of the program 1951 to 1954. He made the leap to TV after that. But the transition didn't seem to do his career any good. He was one of the hosts of the Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC. Most interestingly he hosted the first NTSC Color TV broadcast November 22nd 1953. He was also the recipient of some of the first TV censorship in 1944 on WPTZ-TV where they blurred the screen and cut the audio over some key lines in the song "We're Havin' A Baby, My Baby And Me." NBC's Continuity Acceptance Department had already cut dialogue from the script... then censored even what they had previously allowed. TV was a poor fit for Cantor. He retired from TV in 1955 after a heart attack.

In the 1960s he came back to radio to do a weekly 5-minute short called "Ask Eddie Cantor." It was sponsored by "Aluma-Glow" a product which strangely still exists. This in a strange way was Eddies best show. He answered listeners questions with jokes and sometimes in song. It tapped into that improvisational talent that he had honed in vaudeville. It was the same reason that he had been the first radio performer to insist on a live studio audience. He wanted that instant response. Btu the result had been laughter and applause making his show sound more lively on air. That program was cut short. He died in 1964 at the age of 72.