Sunday, 28 December 2014
Remley had what must be the most improbable career in radio, as part of the career wasn’t really his. It came about very gradually. Remley was part of Phil Harris’ orchestra and when Harris was hired as Benny’s orchestra leader in 1936, Remley came along. Harris started out as a combative foil for Benny (or, occasionally, very vocally subdued) until the writers realised making him a brash boozer was a far better character. And the only person even more of a boozer than Harris, said the scripts, was Harris’ guitar player. Finally, the writers decided to use Remley’s name and pretty soon, Remley’s phoney alcohol-soaked antics were getting huge laughs. All during this time, Remley was never heard on the air, except when his unidentified laughter soared into the microphones from the bandstand on the back of the stage.
Harris became such a hot commodity, he was courted for his own radio comedy show. His writers went looking for characters, and since Remley was synonymous with Harris from the Benny show, the writers decided to make Remley a character on the show. But Remley didn’t play Remley. The great radio producer-actor Elliott Lewis did. And that caused no amount of confusion for him, as we can see in this syndicated story from the North American Newspaper Alliance. This was in the Long Island Star-Journal of July 29, 1949
Remley Hopes Film Job Will Prove He's Real
By Harold Heffernan
PERSONALITY PARADE: Frank Remley gets so confused at time that he pinches himself to see if he exists. Most people who have heard Jack Benny talk about him on Jack's radio program, and Phil Harris and Alice Faye on theirs think he's strictly a fictional character.
They say when introduced to Frank, "oh, come now, you're not Frank Remley on the Phil Harris show. You can't fool us. We know—because the announcer at the end of the program always says, ‘Frank Remley was played by Elliott Lewis.’"
Remley then tries to explain that Elliott Lewis does play him on the radio but nevertheless he—Frank Remley—does exist in the flesh and blood. He's no fictional character. He does play the second guitar in Phil Harris's band and when the instrument is heard, that's the genuine Frank Remley. But when Frank Remley talks, that's Elliott Lewis.
• • •
"I'M NOT GOOD enough to play myself," said Remley. "I tried out for the role but everybody said that a famous character like Frank Remley should sound better over the air. They chose Elliott Lewis which is okay by me because I want to sound good. He's given me quite a reputation back in my home town of Fargo, N. D.
Remley, who's been a pal of Harris's for 27 years, is coaching Phil now on how to make love to Betty Grable in "Wabash Avenue" at 20th Century Fox. Vic Mature provides the competition. Remley himself is acting a small part in the film just to prove to people that he's not something out of Jack Benny's imagination.
"Jack started it all," said Remley as he awaited his next appearance in the movie. "When Phil went on the Benny show 13 years ago, I was playing second guitar, like I had been in Phil's band for 10 years before that. Jack took pot shots at me in his ad libbing and soon I was getting fan mail.
• • •
"WHEN PHIL and Alice started their show four years ago Phil decided to give me a buildup. At first it gave me a strange feeling to watch Elliott Lewis play me. I felt like I was watching my own ghost. But I've gotten used to it. I go to rehearsals, sit there strumming my guitar and saying to myself, 'golly, that Frank Remley's a great actor.' I always say to Elliott before the show starts, 'don't let me down tonight. Remember, my reputation is at stake.'
"Elliott has played me so well that, the other night, when I went to a party with Phil and Alice, a producer offered me a leading role in a film. I said, 'but you've made a mistake. I'm not Frank Remley. I mean I am but not the guy you think I am.' He got sore and said, 'wise guy, eh? Well, I'll give the role to someone else.'
"Elliott is swell about it. Here he is building up my name but not his. But he doesn't mind. Sometimes when we go out together, someone will shout, 'hello, Frank.' At first, we didn't know what to do. Now. we both shout back and the fans probably think one of us is crazy."
• • •
A HAIL-FELLOW-WELL-MET with a rugged physique and a handsome face, he finds the fictional character of Frank Remley embarrassing at times.
"Especially that part about me being a hard drinker," Frank said. "If I go to a bar where I'm known, I always hear someone whisper, 'uh-uh, there he goes again.' I'm so conscious everyone's watching me that I usually down a coke and go home."
On the "Wabash Avenue' set, Remley plays gin rummy by the hour with Phil. The two met in 1922 on a ship when Harris was taking a band, the Dixie Syncopators, to Hawaii for an engagement. Remley was playing a banjo in the ship's orchestra and Harris offered him a job. They've worked together over since.
"Many of the incidents we use on the air actually happened to Phil and me," he said. "We blow them up of course, to get the most laughs possible but basically they're true stories."
Release of this movie will be a red-letter day for him, Frankie says.
"Folks will know then," he declared, "that in spite of Benny and Harris there is a real Remley. That is," he added and the thought almost overcame him, "unless they slap me down en the cutting-room floor."
Remley’s on-air situation got more bizarre. Harris left the Benny show at the end of the 1951-52 season. But his orchestra stayed, including Frank Remley. But this seems to have sparked a change on Harris’ own show. Starting in the 1952-53 season, Frank Remley was known as “Elliott Lewis.” Yes, Lewis used his real name and a contrived explanation was given for the name change on the season opener. All those years of Remley jokes went down the drain; Elliott Lewis being called Elliott Lewis just didn’t seem right. The real Remley ended up making the occasional on-camera appearance on the Benny TV show and even had a line or two. As an actor, he was no Elliott Lewis. But he was a great friend of Benny’s; they took trips together and Jack wrote him letters which, I understand, weren’t quite G-rated.
Remley had a heart attack and died in Newport Beach, California on January 28, 1967, age 67. He may have provided more laughs for more radio listeners by not being on the air than anyone else.