On Saturday, October 30, 1937 Eddie Cantor was honored with a testimonial dinner at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The event, which was broadcast by the Columbia Broadcasting System was in celebration of Cantor’s 25th anniversary as a star. In attendance were the Postmaster-General, James Farley, the governor of California, Frank Merriam and the Hollywood elite, many of whom Eddie called friends. At that time, Eddie Cantor’s 7th feature film and 7th consecutive box-office hit, David Butler’s ALI BABA GOES TO TOWN was in theaters and he was the top radio entertainer in the country hosting the weekly variety show, The Texaco Town Follies, which had an audience of 20 million. In other words, Eddie Cantor was at the top, but that celebration also served to remind the entertainer of the slums of New York where he’d started his quest for stardom.
‘It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.”
Eddie Cantor was born Isidore Itzkowitz on the Lower East Side of New York in 1892. Note that his original first name is noted as ‘Israel’ in many places, but I’m using Isidore, which is what Cantor listed as his birth name in one of his autobiographies. The last name change to Cantor happened as a result of his grandmother’s misunderstanding when he started school. Years later Isidore became Eddie in order to impress a girl.
Eddie lost both his parents by the age of two and was raised by his maternal grandmother, Esther Kantrowitz. Esther did what she could to provide for her grandson, but Eddie still overcame an extremely poor childhood. Poorer even than many others who’ve said they were poor. He wore rags in the summer and rags upon rags in the winter. There was very little to eat in the Kantrowitz basement apartment. Grandma Esther sold candles, ran an “on the side” employment agency for immigrant girls to get them jobs as servants and also worked as a matchmaker. If Esther met a young man she thought was a good match for one of the girls she’d invite him over for tea and cookies – or the closest to tea and cookies she could manage. If the two hit it off that first meeting was the beginning of the courtship and if they ended up getting married Esther would be paid $25. Eddie would later say that every couple looked to him like a potential new pair of shoes or a pair of pants, both of which he had few throughout his childhood.
As one of the original “East Side Kids” as he referred to himself and his buddies, Eddie was prone to getting into trouble. He’d skip school regularly, which meant the truant officer and Grandma Esther knew
each other quite well. Eddie also found out very early he liked being the center of attention and was prone to start juggling or singing whenever an opportunity presented itself. He also began to enter local talent contests, winning often and in 1908 took a chance at amateur night at Miner’s Bowery Theatre,
borrowing a friend’s pair of pants in order to go on. Eddie won that amateur night contest and took home $10 in prize money plus an additional $2 in loose change that had been tossed onto the stage. That was not only big money for him and his Grandma, but the earnings served to solidify Eddie’s hunger to entertain.
Eddie continued to work odd jobs and perform anywhere where someone would listen. One of my favorite stories as told in Cantor’s 1957 autobiography, “Take My Life” recounts how Eddie, while still a pre-teen, got a job at the National Cloak and Suit Company. One Friday after the boss left Eddie borrowed a girl’s muff and jumped onto one of the tables to do a rendition of “I just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave.” His co-workers enjoyed the show, but suddenly fell silent when J. C. Weir, the boss, entered the room unexpectedly. Eddie was fired so fast he didn’t have a chance to grab his cap, the only one he owned. Eleven years later, the night Cantor opened with the Follies he was given a note by one of the security guards at the theater who was holding something behind his back. The note read, “Congratulations, Eddie. Here is the hat you didn’t take when you left.” – J. C. Weir.
Two years ago I barely knew who Eddie Cantor was. Sure, I knew his name and that he’d been a star of stage, radio and screen. But the details of his story were unknown to me as was the scope of his talent and fame. I’d heard he had a huge ego and had seen only a handful of video clips on YouTube before I attended Capitolfest in 2012 where the De Forest Phonofilm, A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor (ca. 1923) was screened. That film shows Cantor performing one of his Vaudeville routines – a rare pre-Hollywood era clip of the entertainer. I enjoyed the routine and was intrigued by the man I saw perform on that short. He stayed on my mind.
A few months later I happened across David Butler’s THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943) on Warner Archive Instant followed by ROMAN SCANDALS (1933), which was screened at this year’s Capitolfest. Suddenly I was an Eddie Cantor fan. About a week after returning from that festival I was catching up with episodes of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and there he was again. Or rather an actor playing Eddie Cantor performing at a gathering. Although that particular scene is just one of several on the HBO show to feature Cantor, I took it as a sign. I went online, bought Cantor’s 1957 autobiography (one of the many books he wrote) “Take My Life” and read it. I loved that too. And so here I am dedicating this post to Cantor for The Forgotten Stars Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.
Though he is virtually forgotten today, Eddie Cantor was one of the biggest stars during the Jazz Age. He was second only to Al Jolson in popularity and it can be argued that Cantor conquered more mediums of entertainment than powerhouses Bob Hope, Will Rogers or Jack Benny with successes in vaudeville, Broadway revues and book musicals, films, radio, television, songwriting, writing and – because he was as much a singer as he was a comedian – recordings. Here’s a sample, a 1920 rendition of Cantor’s hit, “You’d Be Surprised.”
Cantor’s “Take My Life” is filled with fascinating stories of his career from the early days in vaudeville and the relationships he forged as he became a star. What I found most interesting is the tone of the book, however. It turns out that the man who I’d heard had such a big ego wrote about life-long friends, people like Fanny Brice, Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, W. C. Fields and a few others with such affection and admiration that I was taken aback. There is no ego in “Take My Life.” Instead the book offers a glimpse of a man who was always appreciative of the success he gained while never forgetting where he came from.
“I don’t know where I’m going, but I know where I’ve been.”
By the time Eddie Cantor was seventeen he’d given entertainment more tries than I could keep track of. He made his professional debut in 1907 at New York’s Clinton Music Hall, but would follow that with countless jobs where he worked for meals. Cantor would experience his first hit with “Kid Kabaret,” a
stage show in which he appeared with Georgie Jessel who would become a life-long friend. “Kid Kabaret” was followed by several more years of hard knocks during which Cantor hoofed it from show to show with nothing to show for it, but experience. A few years after “Kid Kabaret,” while working as a singing waiter in Coney Island – where he met a young piano player named Jimmy Durante with whom he hit it off immediately – Cantor was able to amass his first fortune, $400, most of which he blew trying to impress Ida Tobias, the girl of his dreams whom he would later marry. Ida would always support Eddie and his career, but at this point in their relationship impressing her was paramount so she wouldn’t think him a bum. So naturally he told her he managed the restaurant in Coney Island and when he was invited to her sister’s wedding he bought Champaign for all the guests with his $400. There was no doubt he made an impression on Ida and her family, but the day after the wedding he had a total of $25 left to his name, which he used to have business cards printed that read “Eddie Cantor, Dialectician” and to buy his first-ever new suit with the intention of finding himself an agent.
Eddie Cantor had his mind set on having Joe Wood manage his career and hounded the man for weeks until Wood had no choice but to acquiesce. To get Cantor out of his office the agent sent the performer to Gaine’s Manhattan Theatre where Cantor did his act of improvisational dialects during a matinée. According to Cantor himself the act garnered him no applause or laughs that day, but Joe Wood was there and liked what he saw. Eddie Cantor had an agent.
Joe Wood booked Cantor into small-time theaters making approximately $2.85 a day. It was something, but it left Eddie with about $1 in his pocket at the end of each week after paying rooming, meals and the required 10% to Wood. Then one day Wood booked him at the West End Theatre in Harlem to do another matinée show after which a man walked backstage to hand Eddie his card, “Joseph M. Schenck, president, People’s Vaudeville Company.” The card noted other names Eddie didn’t recognize: Nicholas Schenck, Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew. Schenck told Cantor he liked his act and offered him a job at the same salary, but only if he had new material. Cantor assured the man he had a new act at the ready so he was hired to perform in the chain of theaters owned by People’s Vaudeville Company, which were situated across New Jersey and into Brooklyn. Despite the fact that Eddie had lied about having a new act and simply changed his accent from Italian to Dutch to Hebrew as he toured the circuit, he was a hit. Unfortunately, by the fourth go-around in the circuit Cantor had run out of accents and thought he might try adding make-up to spruce up the act. This resulted in blackface, which he’d use in his act for years to come.
Using the blackface character as his mainstay on-stage Eddie gained more and more recognition throughout the theaters in the circuit, which led him to join the popular and by then veteran “Bedini and Arthur” act. “Bedini and Arthur” was a duo that consisted of a juggler and a blackface stooge who brought him props. Cantor claimed to have learned the art of improvisation while part of the Bedini act during which he took chances to ad lib whenever possible. Audiences began to notice Cantor more than either Bedini and Arthur and when he started to get more laughs than them he was fired. But Cantor had made his mark on the circuit and continued in steady employment as an entertainer, eventually starring in his own shows and joining bigger, better known circuits. Eddie’s big break came while he was touring with Lila Lee as part of the Cantor & Lee act on the West Coast in a show called, “Canary Cottage.” It was then that he was singled out by none other than Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in “Midnight Frolic” at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City.
Eddie Cantor impressed with his energy, leading to his being called “the apostle of pep.” Even the great Ziegfeld had never seen anything like him – the signature song illustrations and the exaggerated eye movements. By now Cantor had perfected the art of improvisation and would take every opportunity for a laugh, including telling jokes at the expense of the notable personalities, politicians and millionaires who attended the shows. Those important persons may not have liked it, but the rest of the audience did. And when “Midnight Frolic” closed after 27 weeks, Eddie Cantor was hired as a featured performer in the “Ziegfeld Follies of 1917.” He’d made it to the big time.
Cantor started his work in the 1917 Follies with the act he’d used for years, which included the blackface comedian although Cantor played the character out of stereotype for the times, as a nerdy intellectual. In the Follies he often played the son of the great Bert Williams‘ in sketches. I might add that Bert Williams, an entertainment pioneer thought great by those we consider great is another “forgotten star” worthy of attention. Anyway – Cantor continued to use blackface on occasion, but beginning with the 1918 Follies he decided to play it straight for the first time and he was a hit.
I must mention the other talent on the bill of the 1917 Follies because it was a dream comedy cast if there ever was one. Aside from Eddie Cantor and Bert Williams also featured were W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers whom Cantor idolized. He’d often say that Rogers was the first guy he’d ever met from West of the Bronx. In any case, it was an extraordinary cast of players and yet – by all accounts – they exhibited generosity toward one another, offered advice, watched each other perform from the wings and so forth – stories that conflict with the cut-throat competition one would expect to have been the case.
Cantor continued on a great run with the Ziegfeld Follies through 1919 when he fell out of favor with Ziegfeld after becoming involved with the Actor’s Equity Association, playing a big part in closing down theaters in protest of actor’s rights. Ziegfeld refused to cast Cantor, but his career didn’t suffer at all because the Shuberts jumped at the chance to headline him in the touring review, “Midnight Rounders.” Another successful show for the Shuberts followed before Ziegfeld rehired Cantor back for the “Follies of 1923” and a few months later gave him his own show, “Kid Boots,” which would become Cantor’s first silent feature for Paramount in 1926 also starring Clara Bow.
Eddie Cantor was a household name and a millionaire when he had his biggest show with Ziegfeld with “Whoopee!” in which he starred opposite Ruth Etting, Frances Upton and Ruby Keeler. Unfortunately, Eddie was also a big spender, lent money freely and saved nothing. He and Ida even bought a huge house in the country, which their friend Fanny Brice decorated. When the stock market crashed Cantor lost it all. The ever-resourceful Eddie rebounded quicker than most, however, when he decided to write a book about the ordeal, “Caught Short,” which became an enormous hit. It seemed that Cantor’s success was destined. He thought he’d hit the big time by the end of the 1920s, but the most successful decade of his career lay ahead of him – the 1930s, during which he’d become one of the premiere radio stars in the country as well as a top-notch movie star.
Eddie Cantor had been making radio appearances since as early as 1922, but it was his appearance on Rudy Vallee’s The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour on February 5, 1931 that started him on a radio career that lasted two decades.
Cantor during his early days on radio, with Deanna Durbin who became a star on Cantor’s show and later with Billie Burke who joined the cast of his radio show in 1948.
The Vallee Show guest appearance led to Cantor replacing Maurice Chevalier on The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Chase and Sanborn was extended from 30 minutes to an hour, became the highest rated radio show of its time and Eddie Cantor the highest-paid radio star. Cantor’s other radio hits would include Texaco Town Follies, which ran for a couple of years in the latter half of the 1930s and in which Eddie would discover talents such as Deanna Durbin. Cantor was also a radio staple in the 1940s first with Time to Smile (1940-1946) and the Pabst Blue Ribbon Show, also referred to as The Eddie Cantor Show, which ran through 1949. After that Eddie served as emcee of The $64 Question (1949-1950) and hosted a weekly disc jockey program for Philip Morris (1952-1953). All the while he recorded hit records and made movies having signed a contract with Samuel Goldwyn in 1930, which led to huge box-office hits like WHOOPEE! (1930), ROMAN SCANDALS (1933) and KID MILLIONS (1934). Later contracts with 20th Century Fox and RKO yielded a few other popular standouts.
Eddie worked in the medium of Television as well throughout the 1950s either on his own show, The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater or playing himself in variety/comedy series that were popular at the time – as was the case with many other television pioneers who transitioned to television from vaudeville and radio. Cantor was one of the semi-regular hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour and has the distinction of being the host on the only night NBC programming ever beat The Ed Sullivan Show. Here’s an episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour hosted by Cantor. While the show is historically significant and includes entertaining sketches and numbers, I was rather surprised (and disturbed) to see Cantor in blackface for the finale of this 1952 show.
Eddie Cantor may have had ups and downs in his career, but his family life was rock solid. His wife Ida stuck by him through thick and thin and together they had five daughters, which he mentioned often in his acts through the years. Eddie suffered a heart attack in 1952, which slowed him down a bit but the second a few years later forced him into retirement. Suddenly the apostle of pep was forced to rest and he didn’t like it saying that it was like death to him, he wasn’t “the robe and slippers type.”
In hopes of recreating the success the studio had with THE JOLSON STORY (1946), Warner Bros. made THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY in 1953. The Alfred E. Green-directed movie in which both Eddie and Ida Cantor make a cameo appearance, created a lot of buzz and Eddie himself is said to have been supportive and excited about the project. However, after the film was made and Eddie saw the finished product he was disappointed and tried to distance himself from the production as much as he could.
I just saw THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY myself for the first time last week thanks to the Warner Archive Collection and its head of PR, Marie Remelius who sent me a review copy. I can only say that I was a little disturbed. In 1953 critics had complained about Brasselle’s performance, calling it a caricature. In truth, they were kind. The movie is beautiful to look at and includes many of Cantor’s songs, which are always entertaining, but Brasselle contorts his face in trying to emulate Cantor to an uncomfortable and distracting extreme. The movie did not do well in the box office. After watching THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY at the premier Cantor reportedly said, “If that was my life, I didn’t live.”
In 1959 Eddie and Ida lost their daughter Margie to cancer, which devastated them both. Ida passed in 1962 and Eddie followed four years later. The world lost a class act when he went.
When Eddie Cantor’s name was up in lights he was one of the biggest names in show business, but he was also a man of substance. Eddie worked with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the March of Dimes Campaign for which he worked for several years. In addition Cantor became involved in causes to benefits actor’s equity serving as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) from 1933 to 1935. In fact, he was the first recipient of the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award in 1962. As if that weren’t enough, Eddie Cantor also served as the first president of the American Federation of Radio Artists and the Jewish Theatrical Guild. And during WWII he tirelessly entertained troops and was one of the first entertainers to go abroad to bring aid to our fighting men and women. Cantor demonstrated a generous spirit by way of his life-long friendships in and out of show business, in the countless loans he made to down-on-their-luck actors (according to the New York Times) and in later years discovering new talent to whom he’d offer chances few others would. Add to all of that and to his impressive professional resume that among the songs he either wrote or co-wrote stands “Merrily We Roll Along,” the Merrie Melodies Warner Bros. cartoon theme. Need I say more?
Eddie Cantor’s biggest regret (as he mentions throughout his book) was that his Grandma Esther never saw him perform. During his bar mitzvah Eddie ad libbed “This is for Esther Kantrowitz. She was mother and father to me.” That was the only time Esther saw Eddie on a stage. He’d wished to have had the opportunity to show her J.C. Weir’s note about the cap or to tell her all about his discussions with President Roosevelt or about the celebration at the Ambassador Hotel. Grandma Esther had worried Eddie would become a bum. I think he well exceeded her expectations by becoming one of the all-time great entertainers instead.
As mentioned above, this is my entry to the Forgotten Stars Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film Blog Association. Please visit the site to read about many more stars who’ve fallen out of our collective memories.
If you’re not tired of reading by now you get a bonus. As part of my “research” for this post I watched a few of Eddie Cantor’s films and thought I’d offer at least a blurb on each as encouragement to watch him in action. Many of Cantor’s films were screen versions of hit shows he’d starred in and as such they are largely musical revue-type movies. So far I’ve found no deadbeat among the ones I’ve seen with several featuring an interesting mix of entertainers aside from Cantor. So here goes…
Thornton Freeland’s WHOOPEE! (1930) is an early Technicolor, pre-code, musical-comedy set in the old West produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and Samuel Goldwyn based on the stage show of the same name. Eddie Cantor is hilarious as a hypochondriac who also happens to dance and sing. The story is basically about a young woman (Ethel Shutta) who is torn between marrying the sheriff who’s in love with her, marrying the man she loves who happens to be half Native American or running away with a third man just to spite everyone. She chooses the third option and the man she elopes with is Henry Williams (Cantor).
WHOOPIE! is a hoot thanks in large part to Eddie Cantor, but if you happen to enjoy scantily clad show girls there are many of those strewn about as well. This movie happens to be the debut of The Goldwyn Girls although they’re uncredited in the movie. Almost the entire cast of the stage version of “Whoopee!” reprises their original roles. Excepting, unfortunately, Ruth Etting and Buddy Ebsen. WHOOPEE! is available from the Warner Archive Collection. Here’s a clip of Cantor singing “Makin’ Whoopie” from the movie.
As I mentioned above, I was able to see Frank Tuttle’s ROMAN SCANDALS (1933) on the big screen at Capitolfest and I loved it. This is another Samuel Goldwyn production starring Eddie Cantor with a terrific supporting cast, which includes Gloria Stuart, Edward Arnold, David Manners, Ruth Etting (in her feature film debut) and the added bonus of then Goldwyn Girl, Lucille Ball making an appearance throughout. Not surprisingly, but luckily ROMAN SCANDALS plays to Cantor’s talents, which are substantial. There are many hilarious sequences and fantastic songs and dance sequences choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
In ROMAN SCANDALS Cantor plays a kind-hearted young man named Eddie who lives in a corrupt town in Oklahoma. One day he falls asleep and dreams of being in Ancient Rome and involved in the murder plot to kill the Emperor. Terrific fun! To my knowledge ROMAN SCANDALS is not yet available for purchase, but I can’t wait to add it to my collection.
In Roy Del Ruth’s KID MILLIONS (1934) Cantor plays Eddie Wilson Jr., the son of newly deceased Professor Edward Wilson who has left him a $77 million fortune. This film also stars Ethel Merman, Ann Sothern and a host of other great players who add to the mayhem as the new millionaire makes his way to Egypt to claim his fortune while others are trying to kill him off. As an added bonus you’ll see several members of Our Gang as well. This is typical, fast and funny entertainment with great musical numbers. KID MILLIONS is available from the Warner Archive Collection.
Perhaps my favorite in the bunch is David Butler’s THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS (1943) in which Cantor plays dual roles, one as himself, an egotistical superstar and the other as regular guy, bus driver Joe Simpson. This film is similar to HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (which is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant) in that it includes an impressive number of Hollywood stars making cameo appearance as themselves. Among them is Humphrey Bogart.
In THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS Edward Everett Horton and S. Z. Sakall are producers Farnsworth and Dr. Schlenna (respectively) who are staging a show called “Cavalcade of Stars” in order to raise money for Allied charities during World War II. The duo have their minds set on getting Dinah Shore to perform in the show, but in order to do so they have to get approval from Eddie Cantor with whom Shore is under contract. Cantor agrees to allow Shore to be in the charity benefit, but with the caveat that he be made chair of the committee. Farnsworth and Schlenna try to resist Cantor’s offer fearing the egotistical star will take over the show, but acquiesce because they really want to feature the popular Shore. And what happens is – Cantor takes over the show.
In the meantime, aspiring singer Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and aspiring songwriter Pat Dixon (Joan Leslie) set up a plan to get their talents showcased in the Cavalcade Show by replacing Cantor with himself. Or rather, the other character that Cantor plays in the movie, Joe Simpson.
I watched THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS on Warner Archive Instant, but it’s no longer streaming. I’m hoping that means it’ll be released on DVD soon.
There you have a few Eddie Cantor movie recommendations – for now. On my “to watch” list are: THE STORY OF WILL ROGERS (currently streaming on WAC Instant), Gordon Douglas’ IF YOU KNEW SUSIE (1948) and Edwin L. Marin’s SHOW BUSINESS (1944). And, once again, I extend a sincere thanks to Marie Remelius at Warner Archive for sending me review copies of THE EDDIE CANTOR STORY, WHOOPEE and KID MILLIONS.
Signed Aurora – Eddie Cantor fan.
Thanks to the Classic Movie Blog Association membership for voting this entry “Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker” for 2015.