In a way, it’s appropriate that Larry Storch’s big break included a stop at radio’s “Kraft Music Hall” when it was guest-hosted for a few weeks by Frank Morgan. Years later, Storch borrowed Morgan’s voice for Phineas J. Whoopee, the answer man on the cartoon series “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.”
And while Morgan is best known to us for his title role in “The Wizard of Oz,” Storch is known to us not for his impressions, or even his cartoons, but as Corporal Randolph Agarn in the slapstick, Civil War-era comedy “F Troop.”
Storch was already adept at doing Morgan’s befuddled blustery voice when the two men were introduced in one of those stories that could only happen in Hollywood. Or Palm Springs. More on that in a moment.
Storch was the son of Alfred and Sally Storch of New York’s West 87th Street. His dad was a taxi driver who had come from Russia, giving him his first accent to try to master. But he also loved baseball and tried out as a catcher with the New York Giants. One of his school buddies was Don Yarmy, better known to you as Don Adams. He worked with Adams on “Tennessee Tuxedo.” Another buddy was Bernie Schwartz, better known you as Tony Curtis. Curtis cast him in several movies. The Schenectady Gazette wrote of their friendship in an unbylined story of January 18, 1969:
Larry Storch Aided in Career By Old Shipmate Tony Curtis
The theory that actors cannot remain close friends because of ego conflict goes right under the drain when you consider the long-time friendship of Tony Curtis and Larry Storch.
Storch, star of “The Queen and I,” the new situation comedy which premiered Thursday, Jan. 16 (7:30-8) in color on the CBS Television network, enlisted in the Navy at 17. He had been making people laugh with his jokes and impersonations since his Brooklyn childhood and had been squeezing out a living at it since he quit school at 14. But he was still a long way from having any measurable success as a comedian.
Aboard the Navy submarine tender to which he was assigned, Larry Storch continued to do what he did best. He tried out all his old routines and some new ones on his shipmates. The gob who laughed the loudest was a fellow New Yorker who was later to gain fame as actor Tony Curtis.
After their naval service the two friends went their own ways and their paths did not cross again until Storch was knocking ‘em dead with his comedy act at the famed Copacabana Club in New York. Curtis was making very little progress with his plans to be an actor, so he dropped around to visit his old friend.
Storch put Curtis on his payroll, and for the rest of the Copacabana engagement he did odd jobs for Storch backstage and became more determined than ever to equal his friend’s success. A few months later Storch got offers to tour the country with his act, and Curtis chose to stay in New York and take another crack at becoming an actor.
A few years later, Storch landed a role in the Broadway comedy hit “Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?” creating the Russian spy character who brought down the house nightly and got rave reviews from the critics.
Storch had already been touring before Uncle Sam came calling. He was hopping around the midwest with Wee Bonnie Baker in July 1942. A column by Sandy Oppenheimer in the Wilmington Sunday Star, August 16, 1953, picks up the story.
In 1943, Storch was tagged for a hitch in the Navy. For part of his three years as a seaman he sweated it out in the South Pacific with banjoist Eddie Peabody’s entertainment outfit.
Mustered out in 1946, but still in Navy garb, he ran into three radio writers who introduced him to Hedda Hopper in Hollywood. One phone call later and Larry was on his way, with an engagement at Ciro’s night club and a fantastically beautiful increase to $500 a week, over his $96-per-month Navy pay. It was all solid progress after that—plush night club spots in Hollywood, Chicago and New York, and now his own full-hour comedy show on a major network.
Here’s how Hedda told what happened in her column of December 8, 1945:
The good neighbor story of the week concerns a couple of our ace writers, Stanley Davis and Elon Packard. While enjoying a drink at Palm Springs, they invited a sailor to sit with them. He turned out to be Larry Storch, who, after 15 months In the South Pacific, was hitch- hiking back to his home in New York. More than that, they soon discovered he was the greatest mimic they’d ever heard. So they turned his footsteps around and brought him back to Hollywood. In one hour they had him set for a radio performance with the Music Hall, and another with the Christmas program sponsored by a watch manufacturer. They then brought him to my office, and when he opened up I'd have sworn I was being entertained by Humphrey Bogart, Frank Morgan, Peter Lorre, Clark Gable, Jimmy Gagney—in fact, all the male stars in Hollywood—so perfect was his imitation of them.
So I sent him to Ciro’s for an audition with Lt. D. Hover. Then he went to rehearse one of the radio shows with Frank Morgan. Frank had forgotten his glasses, so Larry took over and became Frank Morgan. Frank was so enthusiastic he took him over to Ed Gardner, and said, “Do Ed Gardner.” That sold Ed. Now he’s writing special material for Larry for two of his shows. Bewildered by this sudden storm of success, the sailor said, “Now I know how it feels to be king for a day.”
Storch appeared on the “Music Hall” starting December 6, 1945, and was greeted with applause for his impressions of Jimmy Cagney and Wallace Beery in a sketch with Morgan (it would have been funnier for him to do Morgan). When Bing Crosby returned to host the show on February 7th, Storch was gone. In the interim, he made an appearance on Gardner’s “Duffy’s Tavern” on January 11th and had performed at the National Press Club dinner for President Truman in Washington D.C. on the 26th.
Someone who evidently was a Storch fan was another New York nightclub comic, Jackie Gleason. The Great One decreed that Storch would be his summer replacement, a concept carried over from radio into early television. Storch got the fill-in job on July 4, 1952 after Gleason’s final season on the DuMont Network then again following his first year at CBS. He ran from July 5 to September 12 to some fuss in the press. The King Features Syndicate provided this story to newspapers on August 30, 1953. It gives a bit of Storch’s perfoming philosophy, something he repeated in similar interviews that year.
Larry Storch Hit the Jackpot When He Started Minting His Own Characters
By MEL HEIMER
When CBS was casting about, grimly and desperately, for a summer replacement for the Saturday night show of Jackie Gleason, its bulky gold mine, it came up happily with Larry Storch. There was a marked similarity in their talents, in that both specialized in unleashing for the public a dazzling gallery of strange and wonderful characters. Jackie offered the celebrated society sleuth, Reginald Van Gleason, III, as well as Ralph in The Honeymooners, Loudmouth Charlie Bratton, etc. Larry presented Smilie Higgins, Larry the Sailor, Railroad Jack and 10-year-old Victor.
There was one sharp difference. Jackie’s charactizations, founded up after an earlier life of night club performing, were virtually his first steps in mimicry. Larry, well, Larry Storch learned the hard way.
TV fans, most of them, are laughing with Larry for the first time. He’s virtually field-fresh strawberries to them. But saloon-goers, especially in and around New York, have seen the 30-year-old Bronx-born comedian for years. Those who haven’t been in the cafes for a few years remember him this way:
“Larry Storch—oh, yeah. The guy who does the wonderful imitation of Ronald Colman. Great. Just great. So what else is new?”
For Larry Storch, who went right into show business after leaving DeWitt Clinton High School, was an imitator in his early career years. He was a good one, better than most, and he could “do” anyone you named.
But guys who do imitations are like rookie sensations in the big leagues. They go fine once around the league—but the second time, the Musials and Ted Williamses have seen that trick curve of theirs…and wham! They tee off. The busher is back in Chattanooga. Celebrity mimics usually have their little day in the limelight—but you can only do Hepburn, Bankhead, Bette Davis and Barrymore so often.
Storch, a saxophone-playing, cat-loving baseball nut who is a bachelor, fortunately didn’t take long to catch on. Slowly he rebuilt his act. The cash customers saw less and less of Ronald Colman and Charles Laughton—and more and more of what has now become Storch’s classic gallery of odd souls. A Hollywood columnist shooed him into a job at Ciro’s and he went on from there to the Copa in Manhattan, Chicago’s Chez Paree and so on. Then came television—and Larry Storch, now a big wheel as Gleason’s stand-in, was much more soundly prepared than he would have been years earlier. Television audiences are talent-hungry. A man imitating Ronald Colman might hold them for 10 minutes—but not 13 weeks.
There’s no secret about how he gets his funny characters; he gets them the way every good comic does—by watching people. People are a lot funnier than you might think. “When I see an unusual face, I stop to watch it,” Larry says. “I ask myself, ‘Who is this person really? Why is he doing what he’s doing?’ I’ll admit I often highlight certain characteristics and shade others, but I try to present what I see realistically.”
So—when you watch Larry Storch on Saturday nights this summer and giggle at his cultured Englishman, his movie badman, his ballet dancer or his barfly, file and forget the idea that he has created a little ragbag of fantasies. They’re all right out of the subway, the grocery store, the neighborhood tavern or Macy’s window. Tugged just a trifle out of proportion, they’re you and you and you. It’s enough to make one pause.
If the networks came knocking after Storch finished his job for Gleason, nothing blossomed. Storch had his nightclub work and revues to keep him busy, with an occasional supporting role in Tony Curtis movies. It was almost like he was a newcomer when he surfaced on the tube again in 1965 in “F Troop,” a show filled with Sennett-like physical antics, a satire of Hollywood movie Indians, Melanie Patterson (to keep the guys interested) and even a spoof of the show starring Storch’s buddy Don Adams—“Get Smart.” He busied himself in cartoon work in the ‘60s for Hal Seeger, Total TV, Filmation and Warner Bros. in its last days.
Adams’ Tennessee Tuxedo used to tell Storch’s Phineas J. Whoopee: “You’re the greatest.” There’s got to be something great about a guy who can sound like the Wizard of Oz and stops on the street when anyone shouts “Agarn!”