In 1954, Decca Records released a fascinating ten-inch relic titled Music For Screaming!? Jerry Colonna at his Best.* - the majority of which I have posted for your listening pleasure here (podcast number twenty). Bob Hope's sidekick was not as some might assume Bing Crosby, nor was his closest ally in show business simply constant US military intervention. Although there is little question that those were among his most dependable associates, his real right hand partner was the unmistakably bug-eyed, and with each passing year increasingly forgotten, Jerry Colonna - one of the most strangely compelling figures of American radio and film in the thirties, forties, and fifties.
Colonna's persona could have easily been described as an "ethnic character" back in the day, if it were not for the fact that his odd accent wasn't exactly an Italian stereotype, that of the hackneyed European emigre, or anything else particularly specific. Instead his accent was vague, a put-on of undetermined origin, for the most part void of any Italian references - thank goodness - as many of those Vito Scotti type characters can be cringe inducing today. In almost all the films in which the beloved moustachioed comedian appeared, his vocal gymnastics were on display.
Each song he sang started with the first word dragged out, starting quiet, but increasing in volume, as if the singer were "winding up." Hence the title of his record, Music for Screaming!?. Colonna started out in the thirties as a trombone player in various groups, first with CBS Radio's house orchestra then, allegedly, with The Hal Kemp Big Band, and finally The John Scott Trotter Band. His first film roles placed him in eleven pictures between 1937 and 1938, usually as a member of a nightclub band. It was on the set of an extremely enjoyable 1938 b-musical, College Swing, that he and Bob Hope would first share the spotlight. The spunky flick featured a rather incredible cast of established character actors alongside many stars-to-be who would become huge shortly thereafter. Other than Hope (appearing in just his second feature length picture), College Swing showcased George Burns, Gracie Allen, Betty Grable, Edward Everett Horton, Ben Blue, Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan, with Mary "Mrs. Jack Benny" Livingstone, hoofers turned nightclub mavens The Slate Brothers, and clumsy comedienne Martha Raye. A few weeks after the shoot, Hope ran across Colonna performing with the John Scott Group at a series of parties they were both booked for at Bing Crosby's Del Mar Turf Club. It was at these gigs that Hope's admiration for the man's unique comedic abilities began. Colonna would leave his weekly spot with Scott's group on The Kraft Music Hall when Hope promised to feature him as a regular on his new radio program, The Pepsodent Show.
Although the novelty of Jerry Colonna's amusing face was absent on radio, he still managed to become wildly popular with listeners. This was thanks to both his absurdist delivery and the writing staff's careful crafting of a Colonna persona which placed the character in surreal scenarios. In College Swing, Colonna appeared as a crazy professor type, so when Hope's writers started on their first Jerry Colonna featured script, they had him appear as Professor Colonna, a man who generally had some kind of strange scheme going on. Sherwood Schwartz, best known as the creator of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, along with Larry Gelbart of M*A*S*H* fame, were both Hope writers and explain the nucleus of a Colonna gag, "It would generally revolve around Professor Colonna building enormous bridges or contraptions ... sometimes a sky-scraper from the top down." An example of a typical Colonna joke is recounted by Gerald Nachman in his book Raised on Radio. "Hope asks, 'Professor did you plant the bomb in the embassy like I told you?' to which Colonna replied in that whooping five-alarm voice, 'Embassy? Great Scott, I thought you said NBC!" No explanation is given to why Colonna was participating in acts of terrorism, but no explanation is neccessary since Colonna's personality was designed to be a mix of Warner Brothers cartoon and Salvador Dali.
To be sure, Jerry's living cartoon identity lent itself well to the satirical pens of artists like T. Hee and Cal Dalton who would feature Jerry Colonna in hilarious Looney Tunes items like Hollywood Steps Out (1940) and Daffy Doodles (1946). The latter featured a demented Daffy Duck, pathologically scribbling moustaches over every face on every bilboard in the city. When an annoyed Porky Pig as law enforcement officer arrests the screwy duck and takes him to court - he is acquitted by a jury of twelve Jerry Colonna look-alikes. Years later, Colonna himself would provide the voices for animated Disney items like Casey at the Bat (1946), The Brave Engineer (1951), and most famously as the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland (1951).
Colonna's persona also spawned nonsensical catch phrases that he would usually utter upon entrance. "Who's Yehudi?" and "Greetings Gates, Let's Operate!" were his two most famous, always eliciting laughter even without context, justification, or logic. Occasionally those on the Hope show would use such a line sans Colonna as an ad-lib - always a sure fire laugh. The "Who's Yehudi (sometimes spelled Yahoodi)" craze spawned a song that became a best selling 78 covered by several bands of the era. The phrase often popped up as a cheap laugh, although an esoteric reference today, in several cartoons and even a few movies like Topper Returns (1941) and Whistling in the Dark (1941). Friz Freleng's 1942 animated short Lights Fantastic features a "Yahoodi Cafe." Likewise, the Merrie Melody short Slightly Daffy (1944) has a Native American with a Mel Blanc voice shouting, "Greetings Gates, Let's Scalp-atate!" The Dell Comics adaptation of Carl Anderson's comic strip Henry featured a saxophone playing child named Yehudi. After a couple seasons worth of the stupid gimmick, critics demanded an explanation for the phrase. In one episode Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appeared in the guise of their famous Universal Pictures characterizations of Sherlock Holmes and Watson trying to figure out who was Yehudi. Simultaneously NBC held a contest for people to send in their answers to the question. The listener who won stated that Yehudi was "the little man who turns out the light in the refrigerator when the door is closed."
Controversy struck the show when a Christmas themed episode had Colonna playing Santa Claus. The end gag had Bob Hope shooting Colonna and killing him. Just moments after the show went off the air, the network was bombarded with phone calls from outraged listeners. Telegrams and letters quickly followed from shocked parents who failed to see the humor in the murder of both the beloved Colonna and the even more beloved Santa. The level of reaction was so intense that Pepsodent actually considered cancelling Hope's show altogether! Eventually the pandemonium blew over as Colonna's character returned to the show the following week unharmed, just as if he were a character in a cartoon.
At the start of Hope's tenth season, critics panned the debut episode for, as Variety put it, "its sad saga of sameness." The unfriendly reviews left Bob Hope wondering if it was the same sentiment of his listeners. Despite great ratings and popularity, had the show slid into predictable monotony? The show continued the rest of the year in "sameness", but come the following September, Hope decided to shake things up. Jerry Colonna was fired from the show and replaced with Doris Day! This wasn't a reflection of Hope's feelings towards his buddy in any way but merely a business decision, trying to appease his naysayers. Hope still made sure to drag Colonna along for every single USO tour right until the middle of the Vietnam War when Jerry suffered a stroke. In 1951 the new ABC television network debuted The Jerry Colonna Show, which lasted all of one season. I've never seen it, never met anyone who has seen it, and like most early television tapes or kinescopes - any episode that survived was likely destroyed long ago. From what can be deduced the show most likely followed a variety type format with Colonna hosting a series of broad comedy sketches occasionally laced with "straight" numbers from musical guests, and probably the occasional musical bit that Colonna and his trombone would participate in. However, these theories seem to be completely contradicted by IMDB's opinion that "If you like this title, we also recommend 'The Amazing Race' (2001)."
Despite Colonna's failures like the series that bore his name, Hope helped sustain his career. Beyond the constant military revues, Hope threw Colonna the occasional film appearance in things like Road to Rio (1947) and The Road to Hong Kong (1962). Colonna's final on-screen appearance came in 1966, playing a doctor in an episode of The Monkees. If anyone has video of this appearance please feel free to upload it or link us to it. Convalescing for the remainder of his life in the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital with much of his body paralyzed, one of old bug eyes' few visitors remained old ski nose, who always made a point of providing Colonna with money. Unable to perform, Colonna put his creative energy towards writing a novel titled The Loves of Tullio - no need to go into detail about it here as I'm sure you've read it a hundred times.
It could be argued that Jerry Colonna was a product of his time - that Hollywood era when unique looking character actors were more in demand than they are today. And even though Colonna's comedy was often very broad and outrageous, a style generally associated with the vaudeville hacks of yesteryear, it is most likely that his unequalled appearance, demeanor, and delivery would have found him popularity in the seventies and eighties as a great character actor in the same league as the instantly recognizable mugs of the Chuck Lanes, Dick Millers, or Warren Oates types. I just hope that when his kidneys were failing him on November 21st, 1986 that a good natured doctor shouted in his failing ears, "Greetings Gates! Let's Operate!"
*Other Jerry Colonna LPs include Jerry Colonna Plays Trombone on Liberty, Let's All Sing with Jerry Colonna also on Liberty, Jerry Colonna Sings and Swings on Mercury, Jerry Colonna Entertains at your Party on Bravo Records, not to mention countless 78s and 45s.