Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Not-So-Crazy Frank Fontaine

“I can’t look at him,” Jack Benny confided in an ad-lib to his radio audience, as he, and they, broke up over the routine of Frank Fontaine. If you know him at all, it’s for his appearances on the Joe the Bartender segment of The Jackie Gleason Show as Crazy Guggenheim.

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

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.
* * *
“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.
* * *
“I can’t have nine children and bring them up properly if I’m in Chicago, New York or California and away from them all the time,” he says. “A father really has to be there. It’s really fair to my wife or the kids if I’m not at home, so I mix my family with my business. I work in New York or somewhere two or three weeks and stay at home for two or three weeks.”
* * *
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.
* * *
Walking into the Fontaine home is an experience a visitor is not likely to forget. First he is surrounded by youngsters, a circumstance he might have expected. But then he notices with considerable shock that the children are all similar in a way that he could hardly have foreseen. They all roll their eyes wildly, stretch their mouths from ear to ear, and give out with a special brand and tone of lingo that is punctuated with idiot-like sounds. In short, they are living, walking miniatures of John L.C. Sovoneeeyy, the fictional character who shot their father to fame.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
“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.”
* * *
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.”


  1. Frank Fontaine was originally to have been another voice on Walt (the man himself) Disney's 1967 release "The Jungle Book" following King Louis Primate's "I Wanna Be Like You" ape as a rhino but Walt knew it was mutually self-cancelling (Leonard Maltin having mentioned this in his famous 1973 book "The Disney Films").

    His voice, of course became imitated in both theatrical and television animation by many:Stan Freberg as the orginally one-shot Pete Puma at WB, Daws Butler at WB,MGM, HB, UPA (as Magoo's teen college nephew Waldo), Ward (in "Fractured Fairy Tales" and "Aesop and Son"), and Lantz (as the big bad wolf featured a few times, most notably in possibly the last true classic from the studio, "3 Little Woodpeckers"), Dallas McKennon for Clokey ("Pigeon in a Plum Tree" and "Witty Witch", both with Gumby and Pokey), and Lantz (same time as Butler's impressions!) (the "Doc and Champ" series), Leo De Lyon (Brain in "Top Cat'), Allan Melvin (many of the comic Hanna-barbera series, and also in the 1970s on the generally creatively bankreupt Filmation's rare almost watchable-and ONLY due to Allan's,m voice, which had Fontaine's straight man Jackie Gleason-"Wacky and Packy"-in the semi live aciton "Uncle Croc", where Charles Nelson Reilly made it one barely watchable), and finally in the 1990s by Billy West ("Ren and Stimpy" in the ONLY actual Ren lines-done otherwise till that fateful season 2 in 1992 by John Kricfalsui, the creator-anytime Ren, or West's official character, Stimpy, got excited--seeing something to eat or a pretty girl--the "EEEEE"_). Also Dick Clark recalled in his 1976 "Rock Roll and Remember" that (one of his more talented teen stars in my opinion) Bobby Rydell could do Fontiane impressions even as a teenager too.

    (I had to have REAL mettle to even MENTION Filmation without criticism even on THIS blog where we're unanioumsly critical of it, and to actually admit to getting intended humor out of the above mention cartoon, Wacky and Packy which had Allan Melvin as I mention, doing the Gleason/Fontaine (bartender/Crazy) routine merged with Sherwood Schwart'z show "It's about time"'s format of stone meets the 20th century.EEEEE) Thanks for the article, Yowp!!

  2. It would be good to have someone track down the kids today and do a family retrospective ๐Ÿ˜Š

  3. I very recently discovered frank and his iconic character "crazy guggenheim." I must say the man was certainly a comic genius. Watching old clips of Jackie Gleason show & seeing this completely wacky, madcap character made burst out in laughter so hard that I just couldn't stop. His brilliant & natural ability to create such a unique personality and to hold audiences in stitches is unparalleled my any actor or comic I've ever seen. To find out that he was in real life a very humble guy with a great family life makes him stand out among his Hollywood peers for sure. His work in entertainment needs to be better known.

    1. Hi, Unk. Craze is great. Fontaine can pull off hoary old vaudeville corn with that weird delivery of his because he's just so ridiculous.
      Gleason plays a perfect straight man, just watching, then reacting after the laugh is done; no upstaging.