Born in 1904, Colonna started his career as a trombonist in orchestras and dance bands in and around his native Boston; he can be heard with Joe Herlihy's orchestra on discs recorded for Edison Records in the late 1920s. During the 1930s, Colonna played with the CBS house orchestra, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and developed a reputation for prankishness. During his tenure at CBS he occasionally worked under bandleader Raymond Scott, and made several recordings with Scott's famous Quintette which involved Colonna mouthing nonsense syllables over Scott's band. His off-stage antics were so calamitous that CBS nearly fired him on more than one occasion. Fred Allen, then on CBS, gave Colonna periodic guest slots, and a decade later he joined the John Scott Trotter band on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall.
Colonna and Bob Hope on Hope's NBC radio program, 1940. In an opera parody, Colonna hollered an aria "in a deadpan screech that became his trademark on Bob Hope's show, Nachman noted. Colonna was one of three memorable 1940s Kraft Music Hall discoveries. The others were pianist-comedian Victor Borge and Trotter's drummer, music "depreciationist" Spike Jones.
Colonna had the ability to stretch a syllable to extreme lengths. In addition to songs (such as "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall, or nothing at aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall..."), he worked this bit into Road to Rio along with another of his catchphrases. The action periodically cuts to a cavalry riding to the rescue of Bing and Bob. At one point he exhorts his riders, "Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarge!" At the end of the film, when all is resolved and he is still "charging," he pulls up and tells the audience, "Well, what do you know... we never quite made it. Exciting, though... wasn't it?!"
According to radio historian Arthur Frank Wertheim, in Radio Comedy, Colonna was responsible for many of the catchphrases on Hope's show, notably, "Give me a drag on that before you throw it away", a crack the cast came to use to lance any bragging. Colonna's usual salutation to Hope was, "Greetings, Gate!" and listeners soon began saying it. Colonna was part of several of Hope's early USO tours during the 1940s. Jack Benny's singing sidekick Dennis Day, a talented impressionist as well as a singer, did an effective imitation of Colonna's manic style and expressions.
Colonna joined ASCAP in 1956; his songwriting credits include "At Dusk", "I Came to Say Goodbye", "Sleighbells in the Sky" and "Take Your Time." He released an LP of Dixieland-style music, He Sings and Swings (Mercury-Wing MGW 12153), in the late 1950s.
Colonna left the Hope show as a regular in 1950, but he continued appearing with Hope on holiday television specials and live shows. He hosted his own television comedy series, The Jerry Colonna Show which lasted a single season.
Colonna married Florence Purcell, whom he reportedly met on a blind date in 1930; the couple adopted a son, Robert, in 1941. Robert is an accomplished thespian, and he wrote a terrific book on his father that you can read about here. The marriage lasted 56 years. After his guest shot on The Monkees television program in 1966, Colonna suffered a stroke. Its paralytic effect forced his retirement from show business (save for a couple of brief, silent cameo appearances in late '60s/early '70s Bob Hope specials), and a 1979 heart attack forced him to spend the last seven years of his life in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital. Florence stayed by his side to the end, when he died of kidney failure in 1986. She died eight years later at the same hospital.
I implore anyone who wants a good laugh or just feel good to seek out radio shows and records Jerry Colonna made. Sometimes they are hard to come by, but his comedy was never dirty or vulgar. His humor made soldiers feel better during World War II and made the country smile again after a devastating war. Jerry has been gone for 27 years, but hopefully new fans will continue to discover the magic of Jerry Colonna so he will never be completely forgotten...