Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Hello, Folksies

If Bill Comstock wasn’t radio’s first female impersonator, he was radio’s best-known, at least before World War Two.

Comstock decided to make fun on radio’s home economy shows of the 1930s and created a hostess named Tizzie Lish. Tizzie achieved national fame when the character joined “Al Pearce and His Gang,” one of the top shows of the ‘30s that petered out in the ‘40s. As far as I can tell, it’s the only thing Comstock did on the show. Tizzie was so well known, she was even parodied as Tizzie Fish in the 1937 Warner Bros. cartoon “The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos”. Tedd Pierce, as Fish, captures the screwiness of character beautifully.

Evidently Comstock’s press agent was working hard in 1937. Several news articles about Tizzie hit the papers.

Radio’s Typical Old Maid Is Amusing Young Fellow
So Tizzie Lish Has to Turn Down Marriage Proposals

(NEA Service Radio Editor)

NEW YORK, Nov. 18. —The old maid ain’t what she used to be. The traditional spinster who led a secluded life with her pet cats and memories of love affairs that didn’t jell, has become as popular as Mae West at an American Legion smoker. Bill Comstock of the Al Pearce program is responsible for the transformation.
Bill is radio’s “Tizzie Lish,” the typical old maid. Tizzie is tall, gawky, coy, romantic and gossipy, with a high-pitched giggle. She airs fantastic cooking recipes and puts her friends through muscle-bound setting-up exercises. She chews gum incessantly and labors under the delusion that some five or six thrilling men are in love with her.
Yet “Tizzie,” in spite of her ways, is a knockout with radio fans. They're always sending her gifts, letters, valentines, clothes of all sorts from silk stockings to expensive fur pieces, and jewelry. She has also received at least a dozen real proposals of marriage.
Bill Comstock’s “Tizzie,” who cavorts on the Columbia airwaves every Tuesday night at 9:15, is a composite of his falsetto voice, an outlandish outfit and the memory of a real woman. The original inspiration for “Tizzie” was a cooking expert Bill used to listen to on the air. He thought her style so unique he began mocking it.
Even today “Tizzie” still uses many of the phrases coined by the cooking expert, who has since given Bill permission to impersonate her on the Al Pearce show. One of the most famous is “Good morning, folks, are you ready for lots of goodies?”
“Tizzie” hasn't always posed in women’s clothing, in the old days, Bill used to get himself into the mood without the aid of a costume. He finally was forced to dress up for a personal appearance at the popular Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles.
He found that “Tizzie” improved so much behind a hat and a polka-dotted veil that he has worn her outfit since.
Her outfit is the same as the one Bill first adopted for her. He hastily borrowed it from the girl who is now his wife. “Tizzie” still wears the same black, tight-fitting skirt hat, veil, brown cotton stockings and brown drop-earrings she lent him. He even wears the same feather boa. It once was white, but from long usage it has become practically black. He doesn’t bother to have it cleaned.

Tizzie Lish wasn’t Bill’s only accomplishment in life, nor was it his start in show business. William Herbert Comstock was born in Oswego, New York on November 11, 1889, the third child of Fred M. and Mary Comstock. His father had worked for a Saskatchewan railroad (his mother was Canadian) and later became a box maker. He was named for his uncle.

Comstock enlisted in service for World War One at the beginning of 1918 and was discharged before the end of the year. He spent part of 1928 in a tuberculosis sanatorium for veterans at Sawtelle, California. His wife, Theodora Belle Comstock, was an actress and 16 years his junior.

This biography is from the Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1937.

Tizzie Lish, Al Pearce’s “Cooking and Health Expert” . . . Real name is Bill Comstock . . . Born and educated in Syracuse, N. Y. . . . Played drums in Keith vaudeville theaters for seven years, until the World War broke out . . . Wounded in action and sent to Saranac [a TB sanatorium in New York] where he was active in promoting benefits for injured soldiers. Bill studied music at Syracuse and in the early days of radio appeared as a member of a Pacific Coast singing trio . . . Rapidly getting nowhere as a vocalist, he decided to try his hand at comedy . . . His high-pitched voice was an asset . . . Earl, the Coffee King, his first act, was just so-so . . . Then came a turn with a partner and they called themselves Null and Void . . . Tizzie was introduced first on a small Los Angeles station . . . No one was more surprised than Bill at the success of the characterization. Writes his act two days in advance of the broadcasts . . . Takes him three hours to bat it out . . . He’s a shade past 40, stands five feet eight inches and has blue eyes and graying black hair.

Comstock’s first appearance as Tizzie was on the Tom Breneman morning programme in 1931. Phil Harris and Helen Gahagan Douglas were featured on the same show. He joined Pearce in 1933.

Pearce’s radio show slowly descended from its peak of the late ‘30s. By 1946, it was on during the daytime and Pearce decided to retire and run a prune farm. Comstock went to work for a talent agency; newspapers reported one of his discoveries was Gloria Henry, who later played Dennis the Menace’s mom on TV. But television beckoned Pearce in 1952 and he assembled part of his old gang, including Tizzie Lish. The show survived seven months (and Pearce took time off during the summer). Comstock took Tizzie to the Garry Moore show for a bit around the same time and even cut an audition radio show for ABC in December that year. Listen to it below, courtesy of Rand’s Esoteric OTR. I think the announcer is Dan Seymour.

Tizzie soon became someone of the past, a name evoking someone’s parents’ generation. And Bill Comstock was forgotten. One of Earl Wilson’s columns in 1971 asked readers if they knew who played Tizzie Lish. He gave the answer next day as “Al Pearce.” One California newspaper story reporting on Arlene Harris declared she had played Tizzie (Harris had her own segment on the Pearce show).

Comstock died in Los Angeles on June 22, 1979; I haven’t found a newspaper obiturary. His wife died December 14, 1984.

Pearce’s show is really a mixed bag, at least if you listen to any of the few broadcasts that have been preserved. But it deserves a second look. Perhaps we’ll do that here next week.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the biography. I have long wondered about how Tizzie came to be. The fact that Bill Comstock was so sadly forgotten after having given so many people so much enjoyment is a sad commentary on the entertainment industry in America. He deserves to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at the very least!