Radio stars (May 1933)

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RADIO STARS Through the Years with Eddie Cantor her only grandchild, Eddie Cantor. Along with the old violin and the sense of rhythm, Eddie had inherited from his father a distaste for work. "Work is for subway diggers, not for Cantors," he used to say. It must have been from his grand- mother, then, that he inherited the de- moniac energy which he put into his play. Until her death in her eighty-fourth year, Grandma Esther was a character on the East Side. She made a living for herself and Eddie by plying a thriv- ing trade in safety-pins and servant girls, buttons and bologna; trudging the streets with her baskets, climbing five, six flights of stairs with servants girls' trunks strapped to her broad back, never resting, never complaining. And in odd moments, getting the irrepressible Eddie out of his latest scrapes. When Grandma Esther thought him safe in bed he would climb down the fire escape to disturb the neighbors' honest sleep with caterwauling. He gained fame as a champion delicates- sen plunderer. And once in his tender teens, he tried to run away with a mournful Rus- sian girl, who found his antics a cure for her perpetual blues; that is, until Grandma Esther found him out and hauled the youthful Casanova home, by the ear. His first formal theatrical perform- ance took place at the age of ten, at Surprise Lake Camp, an outing spot for Ghetto boys. On Saturday nights, around the campfire, each boy had to do a piece. Eddie chose to recite "The Traitor's Deathbed" with gestures. The gestures included a dramatic rolling of the eyes, intended to have devastating effects. The effects were devastating all right, but not the way Eddie had intended. The boys hooted with laughter. When Eddie recovered from the shock, he found that he liked it. He de- cided to make them laugh some more. And right there a potential Booth be- came a comedian. THE week at Surprise Lake Camp had other results. Eor one thing, it has brought similar outings to countless Ghetto boys since, who would not have had that chance. With his first deep breath of real fresh air, that he had ever drawn in his life, Eddie vowed that he would make up for it some day by giving someone else the same oppor- tunity. They call it the Eddie Cantor Camp now. He has kept his vow, although he has had to dig pretty deep sometimes to do it. This outing also bred in him a pas- sion for wide-open spaces, for sunshine and growing things, that has driven him restlessly to Mount Vernon, to Great Neck, to Hollywood and to Flor- ida. And which also brought strange unpredictable consequences in its wake, (Continued from page 21) as will be seen later in this life story. Eddie returned from camp and fell in love. He zvould pick Ida Tobias, the blue-eyed, honey-haired belle of Henry Street and star girl athlete of Public School No. 177! The only boys fair Ida had eyes for were athletes. And Eddie was no athlete. He couldn't jump or play basketball. But he could hop and howl. So, relying on those talents to at- tract Ida's attention, he beguiled a Ger- man band to the playground one day, and with its stolid brassy chords for support, he touchingly rendered: "My Mariuch she took-a da steam- boat !" Ida was impressed. And Eddie en- tered the lists. But soon Ida was disturbed by rumors of social instability on the part of her newest swain. He had been seen suspended from a lamp post by his necktie, eyes rolling, and tongue protruding, in realistic imitation of a hanging man. He had been seen with a tin cup, crying imaginary woes on a street corner to gouge nickels from passersby. There followed, for Ida's sake, a fevered but futile attempt to overcome the Cantor Curse, i.e., distaste for work. In rapid succession he sold himself to an insurance firm, a brokerage office, sundry storekeepers. Each ejected him with equal rapidity. In odd moments he made his debut at Miner's Theater on amateur night in a pair of borrowed trousers, to catcalls and jeers, and played to impromptu curbstone audiences. He even obtained a short profes- sional engagement with a burlesque troupe, known, nobody is sure just why, as "The Indian Maidens." On Christ- mas Eve, in Shenandoah, Pa., "The In- dian Maidens" made their last stand, leaving Eddie stranded, for the first, but by no means the only time. But at length he reached a compro- mise with steady work by becoming a singing waiter in Carey Walsh's Saloon at Coney Island. THE piano player at Carey Walsh's was none other than Jimmy Durante, whose famous Schnozzola had at that time attained its present proportions, but not its present reputation. I asked Eddie once how he learned to sing. "Why," he answered simply, "you were up there and you had to sing." According to that formula, he must have had many a good singing lesson at Carey Walsh's. The belligerent customers, when three sheets to the wind, were in the habit of demanding a rendition of their favorite ditty. And getting it—or they threw things. Meanwhile Ida's sister was getting married. Eddie decided on the grand gesture. Using all his savings, he hired a tuxedo and threw a champagne party for the wedding guests. Papa Tobias was taken in by this rash display of affluence to the extent that he told Eddie he was willing to consider his formal application as a son- in-law, provided he would get together twenty-five hundred dollars and set up in the gents' furnishing business. At that critical point, Eddie who was already the curbstone star of Henry Street, received an offer to join the juggling act of Bedini & Arthur. Maybe it meant losing Ida. But he couldn't go into the haberdashery busi- ness even if he could have raised the twenty-five hundred. The Curse of the Cantors was too strong for him. He accepted the offer. Eddie's first part was taking Bedini's suits out to be pressed. It was weeks, he recalls, before Bedini even allowed him on the stage. Then, in a magnan- imous moment, he let Eddie hold a plate for his juggling act. That was all Eddie needed. When John Barrymore isn't in the thick of things, he plays for audience attention by making faces or striding rapidly up and down. Eddie Cantor learned all those tricks in the actor's art of- self-defense with Bedini & Arthur because he had to. He invented business that got him a laugh on his single exit; and before long it was "Bedini & Arthur—with Eddie Cantor." THE Eddie Cantor we know was be- ginning to bloom. Bedini made Ed- die work in blackface, with Arthur, so that his own "business" would stand out. So Eddie created his famous darky character with the white spectacles, the wide white mouth, the sissy manner, and stole the applause. Here he developed his nervous, jumpy, energy-consuming style of delivery. He devised it to put over one of the first jazz songs, "The Ragtime Violin," written by a young man who had been a singing waiter himself, Irving Ber- lin. On the same bill was a dapper ten- year-old named Georgie Jessel. Eddie big-brothered him. A year later they were in the same act, Gus Edwards' Kid Kabaret, and Eddie, a seasoned trouper of nineteen, was big brother to the whole company which included such future stars as Lila Lee, Eddie Buzzell and Georgie Price. That was the beginning of one of the strangest, and closest friendships of the theater. Two opposites. Cantor, the family man, and Jessel, the gay blade of Broadway. Two rival comedians. Yet, as Eddie says, "Each would lay down his laugh for the other." They never played together again from the Kid Kabaret days until their famous nine weeks' run at the Palace two years ago. But their friendship burned brightly, surviving distance and the years. Eddie left the show when he was twenty-one, a man-of-the world with 41