Thursday, September 8, 2011
THE FADED MEMORY OF EDDIE CANTOR
THE DEATH OF EDDIE CANTOR
by Michael Sean Morris
Prior to his death, Eddie Cantor was one of the biggest stars in the world. Time, though, has not been kind to his memory, and in the years since then his contemporaries - George Burns, Bob Hope, Jack Benny - saw their careers flourish while Cantor's legacy has languished.
Cantor's career began as a singing waiter at Coney Island, where his accompanist was his fellow future legend Jimmy Durante. Cantor made the transition to vaudeville as early as 1907, working his way up to headlining for Florenz Ziegfeld by 1916 alongside such stars as Will Rogers and W.C. Fields, at which point he'd already begun appearing in films. Cantor's first radio appearance was in 1931, and he made the transition to television almost the minute it went on the air in the late 1940s.
Although he was financially wiped out by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Great Depression also gave Cantor's career (not to mention his bank account) just the boost it needed. His recordings of songs like Cheer Up, Smile, Nertz! were just what the public needed, and his book Caught Short! A Saga of Wailing Wall Street was credited by none other than H. L. Mencken himself for single-handedly taking the depression out of the Depression.
Part of the reason Cantor's popularity has not been sustained, I think, is that he often worked in blackface; even though he frequently worked alongside the black minstrel Bert Williams - unlike, say, Al Jolson - blackface of the malicious variety practiced on Amos 'n' Andy has rightly been out of favour since the 1930s.
Despite his use of blackface, though, Cantor's politics were always in the right place.
When he was hosting The Colgate Comedy Hour in the 1950s he had on a young performer named Sammy Davis, Jr. Cantor was so familiar with Davis during the broadcast - hugging him, wiping Davis' brow with his own handkerchief, and so forth - that NBC protested by threatening to pull their backing from the show. Cantor's response was to book Davis for the rest of the season. He had responded in a similar manner when during the late 1930s he was outspoken in his opposition to Adolf Hitler's Nazis, and many affiliates refused to carry his show.
Late in life, Eddie Cantor suffered from heart troubles, and it was a heart attack that claimed him on this day in 1964; the following year he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his body of work in the movies, charitable work on behalf of the March of Dimes (which he co-founded), and in general his contributions in all areas of show business over most of the previous 60 years...