Wednesday, 27 June 2018

The Crazy Smash Hit

How many stars would, basically, turn over half of their show to someone who audiences barely knew and let him loose?

Jack Benny did.

On April 9, 1950, much of the Benny radio show that evening was taken up by impressionist Frank Fontaine. He used Jack as a straight man for a brain-addled sweepstakes ticket holder character of his named John L.C. Sivoney. Later, Fontaine was given full reign to pull off some of the impressions he had used in his act (his Winston Churchill was exceptionally good).

Fontaine had appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town earlier in the year but the Benny show turned him into a sensation. Benny kept inviting him back and kept having to stifle laughter because Fontaine’s gooney routine broke him up. Fontaine milked Sivoney for several years, then brought him back as Crazy Guggenheim on Jackie Gleason’s TV show in the ‘50s.

We printed a newspaper column on Fontaine’s sudden fame in this post. It turns out the columnist loved Fontaine, too, as we’ve found a different article he wrote several months earlier. This was published a little over six weeks after Fontaine’s first Benny show.

Two Radio Bit Parts Make Unsuccessful Movie Actor A Star Comedian Overnight

North American Newspaper Alliance
HOLLYWOOD, May 24 — "I was just hangin' 'round ... I was mindin' my own business ... I wasn't doin' nothin' . . . just hangin' round . . . then he came along ... I asked him for a dime and he gave me fiddy cents! ... I was just hangin' round . . ." etc.
This strange line of jargon coming over the ether waves on a Jack Benny program several Sundays back — from a panhandler identified in the script as "Mr. Sevony" — touched off a major explosion in show business.
Allowed To Drift
Listeners throughout the country sat back and howled. Benny himself was convulsed to the point of stopping his own show. One Sunday later, "Mr. Sevony" played an encore on the Benny show and from that moment big things began happening for him.
"Mr. Sevony" is really Frank Fontaine, a talented young character actor who had been trying for the past 18 months without success to find a foothold in Hollywood pictures.
Signed to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract and given a role in "Nancy Goes to Rio," he was allowed to drift away by that studio. The actor kept going by working in small night spots and finally in a Hollywood musical revue called "A la Carte." It was there that a 20th Century-Fox scout noted his remarkable impersonations and signed him for a role in "Stella." He finished his part and was allowed to go his way.
Jack Benny was Fontaine's unwitting rescuer. It is now acknowledged that through those two brief guest appearances with Benny, Fontaine overnight became the top comedian and the most sought-after actor in film business.
In his debut for Benny, Frank shattered the traditionally tight-fisted reputation of the star by announcing, to the crashing of falling tinware, "I asked him for a dime and he gave me fiddy cents."
This led to another comedy routine, wherein Jack was congratulated on his generosity by famous personages, among them Winston Churchill and Cary Grant. Fontaine handled these impersonations.
Critics Doubtful
After the first radio fill-in, all Hollywood voted Frank one of the funniest men uncovered in a decade. But the critics were doubtful. Possibly he was just a one-show flash-in-the-pan. The "Mr. Sevony" repeater on the following Sunday removed any doubts.
By another of those freakish turns of events in movie-town, Frank Fontaine had become pedestaled as a smash hit. From a nobody faced by the unwanted sign on every movie lot, he was now sought by all. "Jack Benny better get that fellow off his program and quick or he'll steal it," warned all the Hollywood "brains."
What happened to Fontaine the following morning— a Monday— is typical of sudden recognition in fickle filmtown. His phone in the little Culver City hotel where he occupies a small hall room began jangling early. People he'd never heard of before were calling to congratulate him— and making with the "pal" and "buddy" stuff.
A Fat Contract
Nicest message of all, however, came from Republic Studio. John Auer, producing that company's biggest picture of the year, a musical "Hit Parade of 1951," asked Fontaine to come over for an interview.
Frank took a bus across to Auer's valley office and emerged two hours later with a remarkably remunerative contract and the star comedy role in the feature. From 20th Century-Fox, where he had finished his small part in "Stella" two weeks before, came a frantic plea. The Zanuck studio, with its ear to the radio ground, wanted him back for what they termed "retakes." Actually, they sought Frank for an enlargement of his part as Ann Sheridan's job-dodging brother-in-law. Frank obliged— but received a fee for the so-called "retakes" that made his original deal look ridiculous.
Radio agencies, with eager advertising sponsors, were standing in line, too. Frank had two wired offers from Broadway show producers. And during all this time, he was in a great daze, torn between a desire to be back in Boston with his wife for an important family event and the economic necessity of staying around Hollywood and sorting those Jack Benny-propelled offers.
Fontaine, who is only 30 years old— looking five years younger— finally decided on flying east to be with his wife to quarterback the arrival of their seventh child. The newcomer safely checked in, Frank scurried right back to Hollywood to take charge of his quickened career.
The rest of the Fontaines, at one time packed and ready to move West when MGM suddenly dropped his contract, are a cinch now to make the move.
Born in New York, the son of a vaudeville team, Frank managed to get the feel of show business early in life— by setting up a shoe-shine stand at 46th and Broadway. Here he polished the brogans of many a great name in the amusement world, among them Cary Grant, George Jessel, Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien and others he now imitates so impeccably.
Fontaine's fabulous new popularity includes a startling offer from C.B.S. to play Amos and the Kingfish on the Amos and Andy air show when Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll retire, as announced, next year. The Fontaine bid was a straight 25-year deal— optionless!
Fontaine's "discovery" is additional proof that no one in Hollywood is a Solomon when it comes to judging talent. Only a few months ago, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's experts were so certain Fontaine wouldn't do, they passed up his $500-a-week contract— and that barely a week after he'd been assured it would be O.K. for him to move his family out from Boston. Frank had sold his furniture, given up his house and purchased bus tickets for the family to travel west.
Now it will be different! The Fontaines will come out on the Super-Chief, in bedrooms. They'll probably live in a Beverly Hills mansion, have fancy furniture and a swimming pool.


  1. Fontaine would revisit his John L.C. Sivoney role on the Benny TV show in early 1961, after he already had become a semi-regular on the Gleason show (which was easier for Frank to do, since he opted to live in the Boston area) --

  2. Used to watch Fontaine all the time on Gleason's Saturday night Miami Beach show. " Joe The Bartender " skit. Guggenheim, a human Pete Puma.