Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Unmasking the Host of Masquerade Party

When Ajax Cassidy opened a door for the first time on Allen’s Alley, he wasn’t known to radio audiences, but the man who played him was.

By the time Peter Donald arrived on the Fred Allen show, he had spent several years as the joke-teller on Can You Top This?; the show appeared both on Mutual and NBC in the 1946-47 season.

Like Fred Allen, Donald moved into television. And like Fred Allen, Donald’s medium was radio. His TV career was mainly restricted to B-List game shows, including one on the Du Mont Network. He hosted one and was tabbed for another in 1961 called Shoppers Keepers that doesn’t appear to have made it to air. Donald faded away and moved to Florida, where he died of cancer at the age of 60 in 1979.

Fan magazines aren’t exactly known for their veracity, but this feature story in the TV Radio Mirror of January 1955 seems legit and has information I didn’t know about him. These photos accompanied the article. He would have been in his mid-30s when these were taken but he looks older.

Peter Donald's Masquerade Party
Mr. Donald has met people the world over — and he can imitate them all, without benefit of disguise


Peter Donald collects people the way other folk collect curios or stamps.

In fact, people are not only his hobby but his business. Peter, who moderates Masquerade Party, over ABC-TV, is a master mimic and dialectician, and anyone he meets is apt to add something to his vast gallery of characterizations and dialects. Peter has what he calls "a parrot's ear." Let him just hear a few sentences from anyone, in any language, and he's off in a perfect imitation. This trick, which has put money in the bank, has also caused him a bit of trouble now and again — for some people shy away from him, fearing that they will otherwise see or hear themselves in one of his after-dinner or TV performances.

Actually the sandy-haired Scotch-Irishman would never dream of doing an unkind or cruel characterization. His respect for people is too great. Peter's fondness for the human race stems from the fact that he has met so many different types and nationalities. From the age of ten months, he travelled all over the world with his parents, who were music hall performers.

"I had a Zulu warrior for a nursemaid in South Africa," he recalls, "lived through a tidal wave in the Indian Ocean, survived a plague of locusts in Australia, and tried to learn the Indian rope trick in Calcutta. I find people very much the same everywhere. Pretty wonderful, in fact. But you have to learn to understand them. Never make the mistake of trying to make them conform to your ideas."

Like a great many humorists and comedians, Peter Donald is basically a serious and thoughtful person. There's not a bit of the "laugh, clown, laugh" pose about him and life and people are not to be taken lightly in his book. For instance, when he is scheduled to make an after-dinner speech (he does almost as many banquets as George Jessel), he will go to the town or city a day or two ahead of time to get the feel of the place and to know the people. He learns what their interests are, what their prejudices may be. "In this way," he declares seriously, "I avoid stepping on toes or probing sore spots. It makes no difference whether I'm talking to a group of twenty or 8,000. They are people — not numbers — and it's my business to please them, to make them laugh. If I succeed," he continues, "that makes me happy."

Peter Donald takes to the stage like a duck to a pond. It's in his blood, his heritage from his parents. His father was born in the same Scottish village as the late steel magnate Andrew Carnegie — who financed his trip to America — and was "discovered" aboard ship by George Primrose, whose minstrel show was as famous in its day as any name band or top TV or movie star today. Peter's father was a tenor and sang his way around the world. He was with the famous Weber and Fields Company at the turn of the century and had supper with Lillian Russell. He also played with the Lew Dockstader Minstrels, the last of the large "blackface" groups to tour the big time. Peter's mother played the piano and sang a bit, so it was inevitable that some of the greasepaint should rub off on the youngster.

"When I was ten," Peter recalls, "I was living an almost normal life going to the Professional Children's School. But, one day, Noel Coward — who was casting for his famous operetta, 'Bitter Sweet' — came by the school and picked me to play a busboy in one of the scenes. That was twenty-six years ago, and I have never been far off stage since." It was impossible that his gift for dialect should remain undiscovered for long and, while he was still in his teens, he got into radio playing such parts as Ethel Barrymore's husband or Helen Hayes' father.

"What those distinguished ladies of the theater thought when they were confronted with a beardless boy, whose only talent was the ability to imitate any voice he heard, I cannot imagine," he laughs. "But anyway, they were very kind and probably put it down to just another eccentricity of radio — that upstart of the theatrical profession. However, I went right along imitating the voices of statesmen and other celebrities on The March Of Time, and found time to do a radio show called Light Up And Listen — which I wrote and emceed for the magnificent sum of twenty -five bucks a week. But," he roars, "that's not the half of it. On that show we had Dinah Shore, Dennis Day and, hold your breath — Hildegarde — for eighteen dollars a week!"

In spite of the fact that Peter always loved a joke and has an enormous sense of humor, he never thought of himself as a funny man until, in 1940, he became emcee of the Senator Ford-Harry Hershfield radio show, Can You Top This? Here the panelists vied with each other in telling funny stories, and Donald's job was to set the pace by teeing off with a yarn which he usually built up as he went along. But it was as Ajax Cassidy, the irascible Irishman in "Allen's Alley," on the Fred Allen show, that he really came into his own as a comedian.

His present show is fun. "It's really a giant gag," he explains. "Our panel — made up of Ogden Nash, Ilka Chase and Buff Cobb, with a guest panelist — attempts to unmask our contestants, who are famous people dressed up in masquerade costumes. The costumes usually reflect either their name or their occupation and there is a verbal clue. For instance, Pee Wee Reese, captain of the Dodgers, appeared as Napoleon. You know, he's called 'the little Napoleon of baseball.' That's the way it goes. Herbert Wolf, our producer, is a genius at thinking up the disguises. The costume department does such a good job that sometimes I'm just as startled as the panelists."

Peter's humor is never turned off long and he roars with laughter at the recollection of the time that Broadway columnist Leonard Lyons and his wife Sylvia were guests. Sylvia was sitting in the costume room, done up in a flowing garment and a long beard, when Peter rushed in for something. He forgot for a moment who was going on the show, and just stared. Sylvia Lyons looked up through tangled eyebrows and beard and said, "Oh, Peter! I didn't recognize you for a minute."

"That's what I like," he says, "somebody who can think fast."

Peter himself is no slow wit. His interest in everything is enormous. He buys and reads five papers a day, all the major magazines, and even finds time for a novel or two. "I learn by living," he says. "I never had time for college, so I've never lost my curiosity." His curiosity leads him into strange bypaths. He's a fire-buff, for one thing — a man who goes to every fire he can. In fact, he belongs to The Fire Bell Club, a group of men interested in the science of fire-fighting, who receive alarms over short-wave radio. He carries an accredited badge and, if there is a big fire and things really get tough, he and the other buffs lend a hand wherever they can. He's an honorary fire chief in Chicago and other cities, and when he goes to these towns the local fire chiefs usually have the red carpet out for him.

There's something basically boyish about Peter. In some strange way, he's like a youngster who never had much time for play. His interest in fire-fighting is a small boy's projection of what he wants to be when he grows up. His passion for sports cars is another manifestation of a man who, as a boy, didn't have time for playmates or games. His pride is his Kaiser-Darren car done in pale green with matching leather upholstery.

Peter's apartment in Manhattan's busy Forties reflects his combined interests. There is a huge file of jokes — classified — although he says, "I seldom refer to it any more." He has a dog — not any particular breed — just a dog. And there's a talking mynah bird brought him from Singapore by explorer Carveth Wells. In evidence are also a fire helmet and ax. For a showman and someone who has lived and breathed the theater for years, Peter shows small enthusiasm for show people. "I hate talking shop," he explains, "so I spend most of my time with business people. I hope to be in business someday myself. Of course, it will have to be allied with show business, but it will be away from the acting end of it."

Although Masquerade Party is his main stint these days, eight weeks a year he also subs for Don McNeill as host on the Breakfast Club. "I love it," he says simply. "The women are wonderful. They have a wonderful time, and so do I."

He at one time commuted back and forth from Chicago, with his portable typewriter in action both ways. He did a morning show in Chicago and an evening show in New York. "It was rugged," is his sole comment.

But, in his thirty-six years, he has traveled a million miles by air, plus countless miles by ship and train before air travel became so easy. It's no wonder that, at the drop of a hat, he'll be off for anywhere to make a speech or tell a joke. His whole life has been one of movement, here today and there tomorrow, meeting people, collecting new experiences.

"It's been wonderful," Peter says, "and I've been lucky. I like to think that I have been able to make a few people forget their troubles and have a good laugh. For, if you can laugh, you're all right."

There's not much chance of Peter Donald ever forgetting how to laugh — and his sense of humor has given him a balance and understanding he will never lose.

1 comment:

  1. In the 1940 census, he's listed as Peter Donald, Jr., age 21, living at 319 East 50th Street, occupation radio actor, born in England, education up through completion of high school, father Scottish-born, mother Irish-born, father unable to work. Peter, Jr. earned $5,000.

    He is also listed in the 1930 census. His parents' occupations were listed as actor and actress in the theatre. They lived as boarders at 113 West 76th Street in Manhattan.

    A Peter Carson Donald, living at 319 East 50th Street (same address as the 1940 census) was naturalized as a U.S. citizen on January 17, 1944.

    Social Security records indicate that he was born June 6, 1918, and died in April of 1979 in Ft. Lauderdale.