Today I pay tribute to one of my all-time favorites, Imogene Coca who passed on this day in 2001. Imogene is best remembered for her work with Sid Caesar on his classic TV show, “Your Show of Shows.” If you’re not familiar with Imogene Coca’s comedic style just think of Carol Burnett and “The Carol Burnett Show” and you’ll get a good idea of the kind of talent I’m referring to. Coca is – to me – a direct precursor to Burnett.
(On Imogene Coca) It was her malleable face and pixyish mannerisms that kept the audiences entertained. She could mime, do slapstick comedy, or perform dramatic scenes; her versatility shined in this innovative show. (Caesar’s Hours)
Imogene Coca was born on November 18, 1908 in Philadelphia to Joseph Fernandez y Coca, a violinist and orchestra conductor, and Sadie Brady, a magician’s assistant and vaudeville performer. Imogene also had four aunts and uncles who were performers so it’s no surprise that Imogene was encouraged and inspired by her family to pursue a career in entertainment. Preparing her for the inevitable Imogene’s family made sure she got a variety of music and dancing lessons throughout her childhood while her father tried to get her on stage in vaudeville. Imogene made her stage debut at age thirteen at the Dixie Theater in Manayunk, Pennsylvania. (PA Center for the Book)
When Imogene was fifteen her family moved to New York City. She continued to perform there with appearances in some of the best nightclubs in town. Imogene made her Broadway debut in 1925 in the chorus line of “When You Smile,” which also starred Jeanette MacDonald. Subsequent Broadway roles were sporadic throughout the 1930s, however, although Imogene made a mark in 1934 when she stumbled into comedy.
During her stint in the show, “New Faces of 1934” Imogene borrowed a coat from another performer, Henry Fonda, because the theater’s heating system had failed. You can imagine what the coat looked like on her. Fonda was over 6′ tall and Imogene was just over 5′ tall. In an effort to keep warm Imogene did a mock strip tease while jumping up and down in the oversized coat. The audience was silent for a moment, but then burst into laughter. The bit was written into the show and critics soon hailed Imogene Coca as a combination of Fanny Brice and Beatrice Lillie. From then on Coca was cast in comedic roles almost exclusively. In 1935 she appeared in the stage production of “Fools Rush In” where she met actor/musician Robert Burton who she married as soon as the show closed. They were together until his death in 1955.
Despite moderate success and good reviews Broadway roles didn’t come easily to Imogene Coca. The rest of the 1930s and 1940s meant nightclubs, the Catskills and the Poconos although she worked alongside such future notables as Danny Kaye and Carol Channing. Coca got the opportunity to appear in a couple of movie shorts as well, but it wasn’t until TV came into her life that ‘Imogene Coca’ the name and the woman became staples in households across the country.
“She’d originated “The Straw Hat Revue” with Danny Kaye that eventually went to Broadway. I always called her Immy because she was so little. We had chemistry right away and liked each other immediately. We did one or two sketches together early on and I didn’t even have to think about her timing. We were in sync.” – Sid Caesar
The Admiral Broadway Review… (February to June 1949)
Producer Max Liebman, a friend of Sid Caesar’s called him one day and said he’d set up a lunch meeting with the VP in charge of television at NBC, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. This was 1949 and Caesar was making an astronomical $3,500 a week working at the Roxy and the Copacabana. He was willing to take a pay cut to be on television, however, but hadn’t a clue exactly what Weaver had in mind. According to Sid, who discussed his life in comedy in his 2003 book, Caesar’s Hours, the exchange went something like this:
Pat Weaver: Can you do a show every week?
Max Liebman: Yes.
Weaver: Do you want a half hour, an hour or an hour and a half?
Liebman and Caesar: An hour and a half.
Both Caesar and Liebman were stunned at how quickly the matter had been decided. Their panic at the prospect of doing television dissipated quickly when the two decided that if the show bombed who would know. No one they knew owned a television set.
Max Liebman who’d helm the show as both producer and director did the hiring. Sponsored by Admiral, manufacturer of radios and television sets, the show’s title was to be “The Admiral Broadway Revue” as it would follow a similar format as a Broadway variety/revue to include dancers, a singer and a comic to play off Sid Caesar. For the latter Liebman brought in two actress Mary McCarty and Imogene Coca who Max Liebman knew from the nightclub circuit and Broadway.
“The Admiral Broadway Revue” was broadcast live every Friday on both NBC and the Dumont network and it was an instant hit. Each episode was an hour-long – instead of the hour and a half Liebman and Caesar originally planned for – and aside from Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca the show boasted the talents of dancing duo Marge and Gower Champion and a variety of guests. Even Milton Berle made an appearance.
You may be asking yourself why then would a hit show be cancelled after such a short run? Well, because it was too successful as Sid Caesar would learn from the president of Admiral. As it turns out the company could not keep up with the demand of producing as many TV sets as the public was demanding. Pre-orders were up to as many as 5,000 sets a day thanks to the ads that appeared on “The Admiral Broadway Revue.”
Your Show of Shows (1950-1954)
“The corpse of ‘The Admiral Broadway Revue’ wasn’t cold and Max Liebman and Pat Weaver were planning our return to television.” – Sid Caesar.
The plans for Sid Caesar’s next foray into television were loftier and lessons learned from the previous show were considered seriously. First they agreed that more than one sponsor was needed to carry a show of this magnitude. Secondly, they considered an audience starved for entertainment who could get quality and variety in their living rooms on Saturday nights. Lastly, everyone agreed they didn’t simply want to recreate “The Admiral Broadway Revue.” Max Liebman in particular wanted innovation and quality in order to elevate taste. Liebman’s vision included operas and ballets as well as memorable comedy. Max wanted lofty, the best there ever was and came up with the show’s title with that frame of mind, “Your Show of Shows.”
“Your Show of Shows” premiered on Saturday February 25, 1950 with a dream cast and an inspired group of writers. Howard Morris was cast as Sid Caesar’s comic sidekick, Carl Reiner became the show’s straight man and back because Sid loved working with her was Imogene Coca as the female jack-of-all-trades. That group of people who came together by what I can only describe as a miracle remains unequaled. Not only was the cast outstanding, but – as everyone knows – the show boasted the greatest group of writers ever assembled. At the onset of “Your Show of Shows” Liebman and Caesar wrote the show with Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen who’d also worked on “The Admiral Broadway Revue.” Sid Caesar’s friend Mel Brooks would submit ideas without being an official staff member at first. (Caesar’s Hours) Brooks would later join the writing staff along with an impressive list of names that would change television forever. “Your Show of Shows” has direct and indirect links to the best shows to ever appear on TV.
The performers appeared live every week bringing to life long, complicated sketches in a variety show that set the stage for many popular comedy variety shows that followed. Anyone who takes a look at the work of that group of geniuses can easily see that its collective dedication to entertainment has not been bettered. Proof of this, by the way, comes by way of my students who are rarely impressed with “old stuff,” but are blown away by these people every semester. Not only is it impressive to think that each episode of “Your Show of Shows” was broadcast live for an hour and a half, but that each season ran thirty-nine weeks compared to an average of what, twenty-two or so now-a-days? Also, each half-hour show in those days demanded 26 or so minutes of entertainment after commercials as opposed to about nineteen minutes today. In other words these people worked their talented asses off.
The work paid off though. “Your Show of Shows” became one of the most popular television programs of its time. Before long Broadway ticket revenue was down because people were staying home on Saturday nights. Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca became television’s golden couple. In fact the pair performed so many skits as husband and wife so convincingly that the American public believed that they were married in real life.
“Imogene was the perfect foil for Sid Caesar. They never spoke, never conversed off camera but as soon as they were on camera they knew who they were, it was an incredible symbiotic thing that happened. I used to call Coca the strongest human being I ever met. She was a frail little thing. She could work longer and harder. While we did our sketches she was in most sketches we did, She was also doing dance numbers. The full chorus of dancers behind her and singing and never got tired. She was, is a phenomenon.” – Carl Reiner
“Her leer was superb, her wink epochal. Her eyebrow could rise to moronic bewilderment or descend to gold digger torch time. Her chin could jut out with the indignation of a dowager caught cheating at canasta or vanish into the pathos of an abandoned woman. And the wide, silent mouth could curl into almost anything: outrage, boredom, smugness, sweet innocence, and on and on.” – Robert D. McFadden, New York Times
As a performer Imogene Coca could and would do anything and she was as popular as Sid Caesar himself. Once “Your Show of Shows” became a hit her name was elevated to appear in the credits next to Sid’s. Since I don’t think there are words that can accurately describe how good these people were I’m sharing a couple of the skits that prominently feature Imogene and Sid. Deciding on which to go with was murder since there are so many memorable ones, but I think you’ll enjoy these two:
Some of my all-time favorites are the “Your Show of Shows” take on popular movies of the time so I chose this terrific send up of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Sid Caesar playing Stanley Kowalski and Imogene Coca playing Blanche Dubois.
“Your Show of Shows” ended on June 5, 1954. As had happened with “The Admiral Broadway Revue” NBC decided it was too popular. This time, however, the decision had nothing to do with the sponsor. Instead the network thought it could increase its wealth by taking advantage of the popularity of Caesar, Coca and the producing/directing genius of Max Liebman individually by splitting them into three hit shows instead of one. Max Liebman went on to produce more shows, without missing a beat Sid Caesar premiered “Caesar’s Hour” that September sans Imogene Coca. Caesar managed to put together a terrific show with even longer, more elaborate skits. As the female lead in the show Caesar hired Nanette Fabray who was completely different from Coca, but a fantastic performer in her own right. Lasting only two seasons Fabray was later replaced by Janet Blair for the last season of Caesar’s Hour. As for Imogene Coca, whose agent had also pushed for the cancellation of “Your Show of Shows” so Imogene could branch out on her own, she didn’t get the opportunity to even try for her own show for four years.
It’s a well-known fact that Sid Caesar was not an easy man to work for or with. It may have been because he was difficult that Imogene Coca chose not to interact with him off stage, but it certainly didn’t hurt the chemistry and trust they had in each other while performing. Sid Caesar would say that two people could not have been more different from he and Immy, but that they were miraculously creatively and instinctively connected. Imogene and Sid reunited on “Sid Caesar Invites You,” a short-lived 1958 series that failed to capture the magic of “Your Show of Shows.” The pair teamed up again in 1967 in the Emmy Award winning, “Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris Show” and in 1991 in a nationwide theater tour for the show entitled, “Together Again.” About working with Sid Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” Imogene Coca would say many years later, “You know what I wish for most in the world? That Sid and I could work together again. I’d run twenty miles in sheer joy. It was the most fulfilling time in my life. I’d take fifty bucks a week to work with him again.”
The Imogene Coca Show (1954-1955)
Imogene Coca’s attempt at a half-hour comedy/variety show of her own lasted only one season.
1955 was a difficult year for Imogene. Her husband died on June 17 and her mother passed away a few weeks later. After her show was cancelled and after taking what time off she could after her loss Coca was seen regularly on TV as a guest star on many popular shows. She’d gotten another chance at her own show with Grindl in 1963, a situation comedy, which again only lasted one season…
…but it was her guest appearances, which started in the 1950s and lasted for the rest of her life, that kept Imogene Coca in the public eye and recognizable to several generations. Through the years she appeared in live TV dramas, soap operas and variety shows as well as an occasional movie or two. Here are a few images from shows I remember her in that you might recognize…
As Mary, the Good Fairy on Bewitched
As Aunt Jenny on The Brady Bunch. She’s the one Jan was insulted to look like, but then…Aunt Jenny proved too groovy not to emulate.
As Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
As Clara DiPesto on Moonlighting
In 1960, while she was on the road for a summer theater tour, Imogene met and married actor King Donovan. The two were together until his death in 1987. Imogene survived a serious car accident in 1973, which left her without sight in her right eye, but that didn’t stop her. In 1978, she was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in “On the Twentieth Century,” in which she played a religious fanatic, a role she reprised for the show’s national tour.
Imogene Coca died of natural causes on June 2, 2001 at the age of 92. A national treasure, Imogene left behind unforgettable moments of comedy that encapsulate the essence of those who pioneered the medium of television, but that are also works of art of the highest measure for all time. I can – and do – spent hours watching the DVDs of “Your Show of Shows” and no matter how many times I watch them I marvel at the talent.
Imogene Coca (November 18, 1908 – June 2, 2001)