Wednesday, 30 November 2016
The Not-So-Crazy Frank Fontaine
Crazy was just another name for a character Fontaine did in nightclubs in the late ‘40s. He played an off-kilter sweepstakes ticket winner called John L.C. Sivoney. He brought the character to the Jack Benny radio show for a few appearances and audiences laughed themselves, um, crazy at his ridiculous monologues that were punctuated by a loud, laughing wheeze. That catapulted him into fame.
Fontaine’s home life could have been crazy. He eventually had 11 children. But the way the Boston Globe told it in a feature story published on December 13, 1953, things off stage for Fontaine were very orderly and he was in complete control of his career as well. Incidentally, you can read more about Frank Fontaine in this post.
TV Star Frank Fontaine Sticks Close to His Family of 9
By EDWARD L. JAMIESON
Frank Fontaine, the 33-year-old TV, radio and movie comedian whose livelihood depends on his ability to make people double up with laughter, is quite ready to tell anyone who wants to listen one thing that isn’t a joke.
That, says Frank, is raising a large family, a subject on which he and his wife, who has just given birth to their ninth child, are experts.
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“Having nine kids may seem funny to other people,” says the creator of the muddle-headed John L.C. Sovoneeeyy, whose grimaces and buffoonery send thousands of people into gales of laughter, “but it isn’t funny to us. It’s a job.”
It’s a job, as a matter of fact, that Frank takes with a deadly seriousness that would startle his fans. “It just happened that way,” he said. “I didn’t intend to have 1000 kids. It’s not hard to have nine children. That’s not a big thing. But when all the kids grow up and are fine citizens, have good educations, and are married to nine people, then I have done something in life. That’s when I want to take my bows.”
In order to insure that his kids will grow up the way he wants them to, Frank Fontaine has turned his back on countless enticements of the entertainment work and settled for a moderate professional pace that gives him plenty of time to be with his family.
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To provide their growing family with sufficient space the Fontaines have just moved from a seven-room home in Medford, where they lived for many years, to an expansive 11-room home in Winchester. Since Frank received his start in the big-time on the Ed Sullivan show in 1948, he has twice taken his family to Hollywood to live, has twice returned because his wife became lonesome for her family and friends in Greater Boston.
“I said if she’s not happy I won’t be, so we moved back here,” says Frank. “Now I know that this house is our home for sure, and I’m not going to leave here again.
“N.B.C. offered me a show like Sid Caesar’s and C.B.S. offered me a show like Jackie Gleason’s, but that would mean rehearsing five days a week to do the show the sixth day. I’d spend one night with my family. That’s not good, and that’s why I didn’t take the shows. I could go like a son of a gun, gain a lot of momentum, and multiply my salary many times, buy that would mean not seeing my family nine months or more of the year.”
Frank did 13 bimonthly TV shows from New York last year only because it allowed him to spend every other week with his family. He’s made nine movies, done many radio and TV shows, and appeared frequently in the country’s leading night spots. But he’s turned down anything that threatened to separate him from his family, including a bid to appear in London’s Palladium.
* * *
“I didn’t become a great big star,” he says, “and I’m content not to become one. I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m with my family and I haven’t burned myself out. I’m still a new face in motion pictures and a new face on TV.”
* * *
A couple of weeks ago, when Mrs. Fontaine, a handsome, dark-haired woman the same age as her husband, was expecting their ninth child, Frank came home and took over the household reins. Last week a new son, Eugene, arrived to bring the family up to seven boys and two girls.
Before Mrs. Fontaine and the baby left the hospital recently, Frank was kept busy getting their new Winchester home in shape to receive them. As usual, he had lots of help. All but the youngest of the Fontaine family are experts in some household chore. Bobby, 11, straightens out the clothing drawers and leads his brothers and sisters in prayers before they go to bed at 8 o’clock every night. Frankie Jr., who is 15, wakes everybody up in the morning and gets breakfast. Peter, 8, is responsible for cleaning the yard and making the beds of his brothers and sisters. Irene, 13, sets the table, helps do the dishes, and takes care of Alma, 4 ½; Paul, 3 ½; Lawrence, 6, and Christopher, 2.
* * *
You get mixed up a lot of times and pick the wrong name if you want something in a hurry,” says Frank. But any name is all right in the Fontaine household, because it’s sure to bring someone running. This help is invaluable to Mrs. Fontaine, who, even when assisted by a maid, has all she can do to keep track of her lively brood. “Everybody has got to do his part here, or you’d be walking around all day doing nothing but picking up towels,” Frank says.
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Frank is perhaps prouder of the children’s imitation of his act than any of their other accomplishments. “Anytime I want to make up a show around here I can do it,” he says. As a matter of fact, his four oldest youngsters have already appeared on a Hollywood radio show with him. Frank, Jr., who plays the guitar, will start out in show business on his own when he becomes 16 in February. All the others have similar ambitions.
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The desire of all Fontaine’s children to follow his footsteps in the entertainment world, however premature it may be, is an indication of the veneration they have for their father. “They are,” says Frank, “my most appreciative audience. They think I’m terrific, the funniest, handsomest guy in the world.”
Both Mrs. Fontaine and every member of the family who was old enough at the time have seen all of Frank’s nine movies, some of them more than once. The children always inform their father delightedly that everyone in the theatre laughed at him and that he was, of course, the best one in the picture. Neither Mrs. Fontaine or the children ever miss a radio or TV show on which Frank appears, and they have even gone to nightclubs to see some of his early shows.
Fontaine, who now describes himself as a “comfortable” but “not a wealthy” man, came up from poverty and hard times, and still has a sort of child-like amazement that he is able to give his children some of the things he never had. But neither he nor his wife allow them to become spoiled. When he wants them to do something, he may use a little psychology by clowning with them in John L.C. Sovoneeeyy fashion, but his wishes are promptly obeyed.
Fontaine’s large family has made him the object of jokes and puns which increased as he had more children until they now number, by his own account, “40,000 a day.” People accused him of running a school without a license, sent every lost kid in the area to his house, asked him how he found room to eat at the table, and reminded him when he had only eight children that he needed one more to make a baseball team.
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“I don’t want my family to make me a star,” he says. “When you go to a night club you like to do your act. You don’t want to talk about nine kids 24 hours a day. Anyway, I got confused answering particulars about each one. If nobody mentions the kids, I don’t, but when I’m asked about them naturally I joke about it.”
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Frank will stay at his Winchester home until New Year’s, doing one-night guest shots in New York and flying home. In January he will appear at the Copa Cabana in Miami for three weeks, then come home for three weeks, go to Las Vegas for a three-week appearance, and while he’s there hop to Hollywood for a week or two to do a quick movie and a guest shot on the Jack Benny show.
But wherever he goes, he won’t stay away from his Winchester home very long. “After all,” he says, “entertaining is my occupation, but my family is my career.”