Wednesday, 6 December 2017

An Actor Playing Comedy, Arnold Stang

Which name doesn’t belong on this list—Frank Sinatra, James Dean, Leif Garrett, Arnold Stang?

Okay, this is a trick question. They all belong on the list. They were all teen idols.

Yes, it’s true Stang was no Aaron Carter. Or Aaron Burr for that matter (look it up). But it seems he got wild support from young people for his role of Gerard on The Henry Morgan Show on radio. It’s where Stang first made his name, before going on to aggressively berate Milton Berle on TV.

Gerard was a wonderful character, and I’m sure he was a stand-in for part of Morgan’s own personality. He didn’t have much respect for anything.

Here’s a great piece from Swing, a magazine published by WBH radio in Kansas City back in the days when radio stations wanted to entertain listeners instead of endlessly self-promote. You can ignore Stang’s age reference in this piece from the June 1951 issue. He lied about his age for years and was born in 1918, not 1922. It helped him get kid parts when he was younger.

When you’re finished reading this, you can find more Stang posts on the blog HERE, HERE, and HERE. Sorry, no Leif Garrett posts, even though he was made for dancing, I once heard. (Now, if Arnold Stang sang that when he had his RCA record contract, it’d be a scream).

Arnold Stang steals the show from stellar comedians; and his eventual triumph as a top-rank comic in his own right is predicted.
HE HAS fan clubs in Detroit, Hollywood, Chicago and New York — but millions of Americans never heard of him. Bobbysoxers chase him in the streets, but in his own words, "I look like a scared chipmunk who forgot to come out of the rain."
He is the world's greatest exponent of "Brooklynese" — and a native son of Chelsea, Massachusetts. Famous as being one of the best, if not the top, comedy stooge in the business, he hates being considered a stooge. Because he is often funnier than the stars he works with, he sometimes finds it tough to get a job.
That's Arnold Stang — better known to Henry Morgan fans as "Gerard", whose cracked-voice "Hi-ya!" is a signal for mirth from coast to coast. Television fans are also getting to know Stang through his frequent guest shots on the Milton Berle show. Stang, who commands higher pay than many stars, was until recently relatively unknown. Yet he's appeared with all the yuk masters — Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Kay Kyser, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, Ed Gardner and the late Al Jolson.
There are two kinds of comics, according to Stang. Those that can pay him, and those that can't. There are two other kinds, those who will risk hiring him, and those who won't. Stang is a show stealer. Not deliberately, perhaps, but too many top comics have complained, "This boy is too funny." One frankly told Stang's agent he wouldn't hire him for that reason.
Like the platypus, Stang seems born to be laughed at. Nature endowed him with a ridiculous appearance, and added the "insult" of a comical voice. Stang improved on Nature by using a bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses as his trade mark. Added to his solemn face and stunted toothpick figure, these help him resemble nothing so much as a starved baby owl.
Stang was very much upset when the director of "Sailor, Beware", which hit Broadway in 1944, refused to allow him to wear glasses in the featured role he was playing. Before the show opened, Stang went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to play in a benefit. Having a late supper with the C. O., Stang demanded, "Are sailors allowed to wear glasses?"
"Over three hundred of them at this base do," acknowledged the Commander.
"Put that in writing", Stang ordered. He bore the Commander's note triumphantly to the director of "Sailor, Beware". When the show opened, Stang was wearing glasses.
The glasses he wears have empty rims. His prize pair are the specs Harold Lloyd used in making his famous silent, "The Freshman". Lloyd gave them to him when a deal was pending for Stang to play Lloyd's old part in a remake of the film. Though the movie was never made, Stang kept his treasured gift. The veteran Lloyd's glasses have symbolic importance to the little comic, because Lloyd was his ideal from the start of his career, and unquestionably influenced Stang's concept of comedy.
Apart from Harold Lloyd's artistry, one of the great comedian's attributes which appeals strongly to Stang was his ability to parlay laughs into a million dollars. "I asked myself", Stang recalls, "how did all those other actors get rich — Lloyd, Chaplin, Hope and so on? You know how? Each built up a popular character in the public mind, a character everybody can identify — a simple little guy, very appealing, who gets kicked in the teeth, but who always comes out on top because he doesn't know when he's licked!"
In "Gerard", Stang has perfected his theatrical alter ego. He is a little guy against the whole world. His greatest defense against society is his refusal to be impressed by anything or anybody. If Henry Morgan boasts of having shaken the President's hand, Gerard answers, "Big deal". If someone explains something that is obviously over his head, Gerard mutters darkly, "Whassamatta, y'a wise guy?" If another character reacts with surprise at something he has said, Gerard explodes, "I tell him yes; he tells me no!" And in those eight words, his scratchy voice ranges up and down the entire musical scale.

STANG considers himself first an foremost an actor playing comedy. He emphasizes that his approach to comedy is through characterization, not gags. For that reason he likes to sit in on the writing of all shows in which he is scheduled to appear; so that his role, as written, will be consistent with the character, Gerard.
Although Stang's appearance by itself can provoke belly laughs, the secret of his success is his voice. He uses it as Heifetz uses a violin. Stang is a master of mimicry, speech rhythm, intonation, pronunciation and voice curve.
Stang's Brooklynese is considerably toned down from the Kings County English. "Nobody could understand it otherwise," he explains. "Furthermore, it isn't a Brooklyn dialect. You can hear exactly the same kind of speech in Jersey City, Chicago and a dozen other cities. The dialect really represents the slovenly speech of the average tenament district."
Stang didn't know he was a born comedian until he tried out for a serious role in a school play. "I walked on stage", he recalls, "burning with an artist's desire to emote. Inside of two seconds, I was just burning. I didn't even get a chance to open my mouth, and the faculty dramatic coach was laughing. I ignored him and read the role with real intensity. By the time I finished, the coach and everybody else was rolling in the aisles. So that's how I got the lead. The comedy lead, that is, in another play."
Realizing that comedy was his forte, Stang decided to try for an audition on Horn and Hardart's "Children's Hour." He won a nod simply by sending a postcard to the New York radio station airing the show. Money he had saved for his mother's anniversary gift bought him a ticket from Chelsea, Mass., to New York. The year was 1934; Stang was twelve.
At the audition he felt extremely nervous, probably because the audience was composed of hostile mothers and their equally hostile progeny. He delivered a soliloquy in dialect, and won laughter in all the wrong places. He left the station discouraged, sure he'd lost out. But he received word to report back for comedy roles.
Stang stayed on the "Children's Hour" for three years. He was paid ten dollars a week, less his agent's 10 per cent. For this net take of nine he was required to rehearse Fridays and Saturdays, and broadcast on Sundays. But the show gave him an opportunity to branch out as a radio type on other programs. Any director with a script calling for a horrible brat with a Satanic sense of humor put a call in for Stang. He was "That Brewster Boy", and Seymour in "Rise of the Goldbergs". There was only one voice like his in all radio.
Stang soon found himself tapped for Broadway. After "Sailor Beware", he was cast as a little guy from the Bronx in "All in Favor". After that he was featured in "Same Time Next Week", a first-class flop which proved expensive to the show's angel, Milton Berle. For a long while afterward Berle complained, "It cost me $25,000 just to get to know Arnold."
Stang recalls that on opening night of the Berle show, the prop phone in the stage set booth didn't ring on cue for an important bit of exposition. After stalling desperately, Stang ad libbed, "I think Til call So-and-So." Finding himself without a nickel, he dialed anyhow. Whereupon the ear-piece fell apart. Struggling with it, Stang managed to stammer his necessary lines into the mouthpiece. During which the phone bell suddenly rang shrilly. Shaken, Stang hung up, and the earpiece promptly fell apart again.
"It's a wonder Berle didn't lose $50,000", Stang sighs.

WHEN the little comedian's stage work won him a movie contract, in true Gerard fashion he refused to be impressed by Hollywood. On the first day, a pompous producer took him in hand and taught him technique for a solid half-hour while everyone on the set waited. "I mean it was solid", Stang recalls. "He didn't even give me a chance to say yes, no, or even what. Just kept telling me to look through the camera at this, look through the camera at that, and sounding off nonstop like a very big wheel".
Finally he ran out of breath and snapped, "Well, is it all clear now?"
It was the first chance Stang had had to open his mouth. So he said, "Wait till I get my glasses, and you can explain it again. I couldn't see a thing". The producer didn't talk to him again for three weeks.
Stang worked with Rosalind Russell in "My Sister Eileen", and Bob Hope in "They Got Me Covered". While appearing in "Seven Days Leave" with Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, he and Mature toured the local cafes as a team. He would step out from behind the shadow of Mature, who bulked approximately one hundred pounds heavier than Stang. The act was introduced, understandably, as "Mature and Immature".
During the war, Stang toured Army camps with the Kay Kyser show as a replacement for Ish Kabibble. The unit flew around the country in beat up Army planes, whose engines had a disconcerting habit of catching fire. "As Gerard would say", Stang recalls with a shudder, " 'Oooo, I'm dyin'!" The little comic, who doesn't smoke, kept his grateful father supplied with cigarettes during the tour.
In 1949, Stang married an ex-girl-reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle, JoAnne Taggart, who had once interviewed him four years before. JoAnne had switched to publicity when they met again. She acquired Stang as a client, and he took her as his wife. They were married between rehearsals for the Henry Morgan show, with Stang insisting on time out because he "had to have it". Morgan only found out why during the broadcast, and the news almost broke up the show.
Recently JoAnne visited her doctor for a "rabbit" pregnancy test. She phoned Stang at their apartment to tell him that they were going to have a "little rabbit". Stang chatted casually with her, hung up, then went in to take a shower. It was while standing under the water that his eyes suddenly glazed and he fainted. When he came to, he had a tremendous bump over one eye, plus a severe headache, and had to go to bed.
"Probably the longest double-take on record", he muses with a pardonable touch of professional pride.
Stang's greatest source of annoyance is the fact that every time he switches his allegiance to a new comedy star, he wins a fresh burst of enthusiasm as a talented "newcomer". Until recently nobody ever seemed to know his real name . . . or care. Arnold Stang is a relative unknown compared to his creation, Gerard. And few radio or television fans identify Gerard with any of Stang's other comedy characters in his sixteen-year career.
Still, Stang gets comfort from the fact that his fame is beginning to take root. There is a definite boom of Stang fan clubs, to whom he is a figure as heroic as Sinatra to his coterie. Little-girl squeals of adoration follow Stang's appearance on any stage, and teen-agers trail him for blocks after the show, begging him to part with tie, handkerchief or shorts.
Stang's eventual triumph as a top-rank comic is taken for granted by most of show business. Not willing to trust to luck, he continually perfects his talents as "an actor playing comedy". For the time being, he is content to let the stars twinkle in their firmament — as long as they remember to reward him handsomely for his help in keeping them there.

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