Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Busy! Busy! Busy!

Billy De Wolfe did not disappoint me.

The first time I watched the Rankin-Bass Frosty the Snowman cartoon, De Wolfe’s precise staccato delivery was easily recognisable. I wondered if De Wolfe would say his catchphrase “Bu-sy, bu-sy, bu-sy.” He did not let me down.

I don’t know when I heard him say it for the first time. It might have been on Phyllis Diller’s TV show that started out as The Pruitts of Southampton. It might have been on That Girl. It might have been on whatever incarnation of The Doris Day Show he was on (it seemed to me it changed settings and casts about four times). Or it might have been on a sitcom about a radio station which I have to be prodded to remember that it existed.

We’ll get to the latter in just a moment. First, let’s take you to June 18, 1941. The New York Sun’s “Cafe Life in New York” column came up with a lovely biography of De Wolfe, who was making a name long before a TV or even movie career.
Some Career Notes on Billy de Wolfe, Young Impressionist at the Rainbow Room.

Those elusive big time "breaks," which performers are always seeking and seldom finding in show business, are coming to Billy de Wolfe at last, as a result of the solid success he has achieved at the Rainbow Room, where he is currently a star attraction with his original and amusing characterizations and impressions. When the lightning of good fortune does strike an entertainer, usually after long, lean periods, it often brings a deluge of offers. The irony of this is that the entertainer can look back wryly, on times when it was impossible for him to get any kind of job at any price, whereas, suddenly, overnight, he has more prospective jobs than he can take.
In the case of Billy de Wolfe there is a double dose of irony, for before the war he had been a favorite on the stage and in the smart cafes of London and other resorts of Europe. But up until recently he had been unable to get a real break in New York. His engagement at the Raleigh Room of the Hotel Warwick last winter gave him his first chance uptown. Prior to that he had appeared here only at Jim Riley's Greenwich Village Inn in New York, where he received good press notices but limited popular approval. The Hotel Warwick served as his springboard to the Rainbow Room and public acclaim in this aristocrat of the supper clubs.
Since his engagement at the Rainbow Room professional and public Interest in him has reached a boiling point. Two motion picture companies—Universal and Warner Brothers—want screen tests of him. George Abbott, the producer, is interested in him for a role in a forthcoming musical, "A Young Man's Fancy." Representatives of the Shuberts have been up to see film twice, with a view to featuring him in their musical, "Crazy House." He also is being considered for a role in a new Cole Porter musical, "Let's Face it," which Vinton Freedley will produce, starring Bert Lahr and Martha Raye.
Moreover, De Wolfe has been booked for four weeks at the Strand Theater, starting August 14, and for a return engagement at the Rainbow Room in October.
"Of course it is gratifying," De Wolfe said. "Especially when I can look back to the time I got my first job on the stage. I had been working as an usher in a vaudeville theater in Quincy, Mass. Wages, $7.50 a week. I had always fancied myself as an acrobatic dancer, practicing at the school gymnasium and getting my ideas from acts I had watched at the theater."
On Sunday morning at a rehearsal young De Wolfe secreted himself in a dark corner of the stage and went into his dance when the stage band played "Limehouse Blues." He danced through three choruses, unaware that the leader of the band was watching him from out front. At the conclusion of the dance the leader called out: "Say, you are all right I didn't know you were on the bill."
De Wolfe had to confess that he wasn't a dancer, but an usher. The upshot of the incident, however, was that he was offered $50 a week to join the band's act. He accepted promptly and played with the act for four months.
Then the owner of the Quincy vaudeville house, who had first employed him as an usher, brought De Wolfe to New York, convinced that he had a future in show business. A local producer put together a straight dance act called "Billy de Wolfe and Femmes," which toured for months with no startling success. His next act was with two girls, a dancing trio known as "De Wolfe, Metcalf and Ford." It lasted for five years and played all over the United States and Europe. When the act finally broke up De Wolfe started out as a single, and it was then that he began to add satirical impressions to his dancing routines. He played all over England and France, was a favorite of the London supper clubs and then landed a featured role in the Cochran musical show, "Revels In Rhythm," which ran for over a year in London. Other English shows, like the touring company of "Shout for Joy" and "Bing Boys" followed.
He returned to the United States about two years ago, after eight years in Europe, and played at various places outside New York.
Billy de Wolfe was born in Boston of Welsh parents who were visiting Boston at the time of his birth. He spent his early childhood in North Wales, then his family came to the United States to live, settling first in Boston and then in Quincy, where Billy attended high school.
In his turn at the Rainbow Room De Wolfe has returned to some of his earlier dance routines, in addition to regaling his audiences with his comedy impressions of cocktail lounge types, cheap night club acts and showgirls who give the impression that they are vastly superior to their audiences. His sketches are accurate, based on thorough knowledge and personal observation.
"You must have seen a lot of third rate night club shows to be able to get them down so perfectly," we suggested.
"Seen them!" Billy de Wolfe snorted with a good-natured grin. "I've been in them!"
The Sun reported on his return engagement in the “Cafe Life in New York” column on October 11, 1941, which gives you a better idea of his impressions and characters.
Billy de Wolfe Heads New Entertainment at the Rainbow Room.

Headed by Billy de Wolfe, the talented comedian and impressionist, the new show at the Rainbow Room is Grade A entertainment, a combination of good music, laughs and graceful, stimulating dancing.
De Wolfe, making his second appearance at the Rainbow Room, supplies the comedy in abundance. His first engagement established him as a favorite with Rainbow Room audiences, and in this second appearance De Wolfe brings some fresh new impressions, together with the numbers with which his followers are familiar and which have proved highly popular in the past. He once more demonstrates his versatile talents as a one-man theater, into which he injects a sly note of satire. He introduces Noel Coward characters, does vivid and humorous impressions of Boris Karloff and takes you to a cocktail lounge, where you meet so many unusual people. Mrs. Murgatoyd, for instance, who doesn't frequent cocktail lounges, but who is there for this one, her wedding anniversary.
Mrs. Murgatoyd is both a pathetic and humorous character, and the tightness with which De Wolfe depicts her indicates that he is a shrewd, observing young man.
The strength of De Wolfe’s act resulted in a movie contract in 1943. The war interrupted his career, but he returned to Hollywood. Movies, in turn, gave way to television. Here’s a syndicated column from October 29, 1967, one of a number that profiled him after landing his first major role.
Billy Manages Laughs DeWolfe Plays Station Boss

HOLLYWOOD — Billy De Wolfe was in New York about to appear on Merv Griffin's show when he received an urgent call from his agent in Hollywood. They wanted Billy for a Dick Van Dyke show.
"I can't possibly come because I've just pressed all my suits," complained Billy in his usual perplexed manner. This little episode serves to illustrate one of the "momentous" decisions that can shape one's career.
FORTUNATLEY for Billy, he gave the matter further thought, changed his mind and headed west — pressed suits and all. He was cast as a snobbish dog groomer in the Van Dyke episode — the role that won him an Emmy nomination — and that led to his present part in CBS-TV's "Good Morning World."
Sheldon Leonard and writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff agreed unanimously on Billy for the role of Roland B. Hutton, the stuffy radio station owner. "I STILL think of Sheldon as a gangster, you know," whispers Billy, looking over his shoulder warily. "It's difficult to be at ease around him. Once in a while he laughs and says, ‘Ver-r-r-y good, Billy,’ and that I find comforting."
This is Billy's first series. He really hasn't done too much TV, aside from an occasional talk show. He made one pilot film, and from the way he fondly recalled the format, we can all share his sorrow over its not being sold.
"IT WAS CALLED "Plotkin's Prison," and we did nothing but laugh while making it," he grinned. "Don Rickles played the warden, a com-m-m-plete bungler. As the aristocrat among prisoners, I was continually upset over his activities. ‘Wilcox! What on e-e-earth are you doing now?’ I'd shout." Billy said each prisoner had his own individually furnished cell.
"Word got around about the outlandish fixtures we had, and people like Sinatra came by just to see the sets," he added. "IT’S A SHAME it didn't sell. I understand objections were raised about the way we pictured prison life. Now isn't that silly — and in a half-hour comedy? What a pair Rickles and I made."
Despite his marvelous characterization of Mrs. Murgatroyd, the tippling housewife, Billy doesn't drink at all. And that's the reason he'll never play night clubs on the road.
"They (the patrons) want you out at their tables for a drink, or you're forced to sit around musty dressing rooms between shows," he complained. "I HAVE a thing about dressing rooms, you know. I call 'em canvass lean-tos. That's why I only work in hotel supper clubs. You can go up to your room and relax between shows."
Reflecting about his "Good Morning World" role, Billy added, "I'm really featured in two of the first 13 shows, but I've been promised more to do later. However, the exposure will do me good, my agent tells me, even if the series fails.
"Say . . . I wonder if our show's too polite? After watching "Mothers-in-Law" the other night . . . piano in the swimming pool and all those wild things . . . . hmmm?" That's Billy De Wolfe, being his usual complaining self.
Whether the exposure helped him is anyone’s guess. His work in films years earlier with Doris Day did, and she found a place for him in her TV sitcom as her boss.

De Wolfe’s last role was for Walt Disney, spending his time around a shirtless Jan-Michael Vincent and a fully-dressed Tim Conway (whew!) as the head of a college in The World’s Greatest Athlete. Lung cancer claimed him in 1974 a year after its release, but to the end, De Wolfe’s on-camera career was, well, insert catchphrase here.


  1. Thanks Yowp..I was a waiting for an article on him..

  2. And he really did it all, record FREE TO BE..SC