[Dixielandjazz] FW: Eddie Cantor
bhaesler at bigpond.net.au
Tue Oct 18 18:31:21 PDT 2005
An interesting new article via the Australian Dance Bands list.
Staying Alive: Eddie Cantor and the March of Dimes
by David Hinckley
New York Daily News, October 18, 2005
Eddie Cantor -- or Edward Isidore Itzkowitz, as he was known to his
childhood pals on the lower East Side -- was a born ham who parlayed
that urge into one of the great vaudeville careers of all time. When
they talk about the vaudevillians who could do it all -- sing,
dance, tell a joke, make 'em laugh and leave 'em panting for more --
"Ol' Banjo Eyes" usually shows up in the short sentence that
includes Al Jolson, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice and Sammy Davis Jr.
But it was an almost incidental performance that may have left his
most enduring legacy.
In early 1938, Cantor was helping his old buddy Franklin D.
Roosevelt, who by now was President of the country, raise money for
a charitable foundation Roosevelt admirers had set up to fight
infantile paralysis, better known as polio.
Roosevelt himself was polio's most famous victim, having lost most
use of his legs to polio years earlier.
Strictly by the numbers, polio killed only a tenth as many American
children each year as accidents and only a third as many as cancer.
But more than any other disease of its day, it sparked sheer terror,
perhaps because of its apparent randomness, its disrespect for
economic and social lines, the fear it could strike anyone anywhere.
In 1934, the year after Roosevelt became President, his friends
began using his birthday, Jan. 30, as a day to hold annual balls
that raised money for polio research and treatment of victims.
Then, on Sept. 23, 1937, Roosevelt accelerated the campaign by
announcing a new charity called the National Foundation for
Infantile Paralysis. It was officially chartered the following
January, to coincide with his birthday. To give it a higher profile
and raise an early wad of cash, a radio broadcast was held and
hosted by Cantor, the biggest star of the day.
Cantor was long skilled at raising money for charities, and he knew
you needed a gimmick: Almost casually, he tagged this polio fund
drive the March of Dimes.
Everyone could part with a dime, he told America, even if this was
the Depression. And that dime would help save some poor young child
in an iron lung. March those dimes right up to the White House. We
can lick this thing.
Other stars -- Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante --
stepped up to second Cantor's call. Two days later, Roosevelt's
White House started getting America's mail.
On the third day, there were 30,000 envelopes.
The next two days, 200,000 more.
By the end, the White House had received 2,680,000 dimes.
Cantor modestly deflected the credit. But no one underestimated the
role of the man who over the preceding quarter century had built
himself into a Babe Ruth of the American stage.
Orphaned at 2, he was raised by a grandmother and never finished
grade school, instead dancing and singing on streetcorners. By 20 he
was in blackface in Gus Edwards' Kid Kabaret revue, and in 1916 he
joined showman Flo Ziegfeld, landing a spot in Ziegfeld's "Midnight
Frolic." By the early '20s he was a Ziegfeld regular, known for an
animated, eye-rolling, hand-waving stage act in which he sang
classics like "Alabamy Bound," "If You Knew Susie," "Dinah" and "Ida
(Sweet As Apple Cider)." In 1928 he scored his biggest success by
singing "Makin' Whoopee" in Ziegfeld's "Whoopee." That show made him
a millionaire twice over, which he remained until the next year when
the stock market wiped it all out.
But a little thing like the Depression wasn't going to stop a man
with Cantor's can-do spirit, and over the next decade he would make
his fortune back -- though not without a few annoyed comments on the
In September 1931, he went into a New York recording studio with
Phil Spitalny's orchestra and recorded a bitingly sarcastic number
called "Cheer Up":
Cheer up, gentle citizens
Though you have no shirts
Happy days are here again
Cheer up, smile, nertz!
Meanwhile, he was starring in a series of musical films, including
the cinema version of "Makin' Whoopee," and writing books joking
about his monetary disaster. By the mid-'30s he was the country's
highest-paid radio star, which helped explain why he was so helpful
in launching the March of Dimes.
The march itself proved even more successful, playing a major role
in funding the research that led, in 1954, to a vaccine that
virtually wiped out polio.
In 1951 Cantor wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post
explaining the secrets by which he had raised $250 million for
various charities over his career.
Basically, he wrote, he was good at soliciting money because he once
had to do it to stay alive:
"Forty-five years ago on the streets of New York's East Side, when I
first sought contributions to my favorite charity at the time -- me -
- I was happy to lay my hands on a nickel."
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