Eddie Cantor moved from hard luck to Hollywood

In the show business world before modern broadcasting, Vaudeville was the source of live entertainment that brought singers, dancers and comics on a daily basis to communities from Manhattan to Spokane.

Among the thousands of jugglers, ventriloquists and voice impressionists who trod those well-worn stages, most would disappear into history with the advent of talking pictures and radio. But a few, such as the great Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen would catapult to the pinnacle of modern-day stardom.

One of the most unlikely candidates for pop culture immortality, the orphaned son of Russian immigrants from the lower East Side of New York City, turned out to be one of show business’s longest-running stars. Isidore Iskowitz, his name transmogrified to a more marquee-friendly Eddie Cantor, graduated from Vaudeville to become an internationally famous singer, actor, comic and all-around entertainer.

Known as “Banjo Eyes,” the pop-eyed Cantor would dance across the stage during his numbers, comically rolling his eyes at lyrical double entendres. From humble beginnings, Cantor would rise through the golden age of radio to become one of America’s greatest entertainers and the second most recognized voice in the nation next to that of the president.

During his more than 50 years in show business, Cantor became star of Broadway shows and Hollywood movies, a recording artist, radio and television pioneer and best-selling author to name but a few of the fields he conquered.

Even today many of Cantor’s hit songs – Whoopie, If You Knew Suzie, Margie, and Ida (Sweet as Apple Cider) – are considered durable standards.

But living a hand-to-mouth existence in his grandmother’s basement apartment on Henry Street around the turn of the 20th century, the young Eddie filched fruit from pushcarts and sang in local taverns to hone his talent.

“It wasn’t an easy life,” says his grandson Brian Gari.

Cantor’s hard-knocks upbringing didn’t dampen his essentially optimistic outlook and fundamentally good nature.

“He was just a funny, very nice guy,” says Gari who remembers his grandfather playing kid games with him as a youngster. “He’d take a coin, make it disappear into one of your ears and reappear out the other, that kind of thing.”

Cantor’s show business apprenticeship was rife with memorable acquaintanceships and mentors. Landing a job as a singing waiter at a Coney Island saloon, Cantor became fast friends with the piano player: none other than Jimmy Durante. Later he fell in with the cast of Kid Kabaret, a virtual training school for stars-in-the-making headed by producer and talent scout Gus Edwards.

By the early 1920s, Cantor’s wide-eyed talent had come to the attention of Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who quickly promoted Eddie to the Ziegfeld Follies. He became its star. Their 1927 musical collaboration “Whoopie,” with songs by Walter Donaldson, gave Cantor his most memorable hit.

Cantor’s development as a stage talent brought him into close contact with all of the show business greats of his generation including W.C. Fields, Jolson, Sophie Tucker and Will Rogers. Over the course of several decades, he would surpass them all in the sheer scope of his accomplishments.

Cantor was frequently at his best recounting stories of showbiz and the road. Once, while touring with the Follies in Boston, roommate W.C. Fields produced two bottles of champagne and suggested a toast to the younger showman’s health.

“We drank to my health until we darned near ruined it,” Cantor said.

And later, when the dram-loving Fields confessed his doctor had warned he might lose his hearing if he didn’t quit alcohol:
“You are going to stop, aren’t you Bill?”

“No, I don’t think soooo. You see the things I’ve been drinking are so much better than the things I’ve been hearing.”

In Hollywood, Cantor capitalized on his stage mastery to star in a number of madcap vehicles ranging from a movie version of “Whoopie” to “Roman Scandals” and “Ali Baba Goes to Town.” On radio, he would cash in on his stage, movie and record persona to host a string of popular programs.

Cantor’s personal life, thanks to his radio exposure almost as well known as his records and films, was equally colorful.

Eddie Cantor Memorabilia Prices Realized

1. Photographs, set of Eddie Cantor original photos, one signed $432

2. Book, “Take My Life,” Doubleday & Co., 1957, first edition, Cantor inscription on the first blank page $40

3. Lobby card from “Ali Baba Goes to Town,” signed, framed, with two signed cards from supporting actors Allan Dinehart and Douglas Dumbrille $80

4. Photograph, 8 inch by 10 inch, sepia toned, matte finish, signed by Cantor $120

5. Boardgame, “Eddie Cantor’s Automobile Game ‘Tell it to Judge,’” 1936 $35

The young Eddie and his future wife, Ida Tobias, were neighbors in the lower East Side where they met in a school yard. Not surprisingly Cantor appropriated a popular song that had been co-written by old-time minstrel Eddie Leonard entitled “Ida” and made it his own.

Together Eddie and Ida raised five girls, whose doings produced reams of material for Cantor’s highly-biographical radio shows.

Although he never went beyond grade school, the hard-driving Cantor parlayed his show business acumen into a fortune. When he (along with many millionaires) was ruined in the 1929 crash, he rebounded almost immediately by writing a best selling book “Caught Short” that poked fun at Wall Street’s predicament.

Against the backdrop of economic disaster, the ‘30s became a memorable high point for Cantor.

With his antic presence on stage, in movies and on records, Cantor – along with the Marx Brothers – made it possible for Americans to find momentary relief from the Depression in laughter. One of his hit records “Now’s The Time To Fall In Love (Potatoes Are Cheaper)” is a direct attempt at finding a silver lining in decidedly adverse times.

If Cantor had proved to be an incandescent talent as a singing comic, he would make a more serious impression as a political activist and humanitarian.

Cantor risked his reputation and radio sponsors during the 1930s through his support of public protests against Fascism and his vocal criticisms of Father Charles Coughlin, a radio priest who was a noxious anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.

A supporter of 1920s presidential candidate Al Smith, Cantor identified strongly Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Roosevelt asked Cantor to become involved in a national fundraising campaign against polio, it was the durable song and dance man who suggested that the request for donations be set at 10 cents.

The “March of Dimes” proved to be the most successful disease-fighting campaign in history. Publicly-funded research ultimately resulted in vaccines that eradicated polio worldwide.

Despite his humanitarian contributions and immense popularity during his career, Cantor is not well remembered in comparison to modern entertainers. Although he lived until 1964, recurring heart attacks made it difficult for the old Vaudevillian to entertain actively after the early 1950s. And while recognized as a television pioneer, kinescopes of many of his live telecasts have long since vanished says Gari.

Today, memorabilia associated with Eddie Cantor consists mainly of books, vintage records and paper items like autographed sheet music folios, books and studio publicity photographs. Personally autographed collectibles typically range in price from about $50 to more than $250, depending on significance and condition.

Rare artifacts can bring a good deal more. A promotional moviehouse banner from Cantor’s 1930s hit “The Kid From Spain” recently sold for $535 in an eBay auction.
The best news for collectors is the accessibility of memorabilia associated with Cantor. Collectibles from the singer’s heyday have been declining in value for the last 20 years, says expert Dr. Al Radwill of www.guaranteedautographs.com.

“Usually it’s the bad boys whose collectibles are at a premium,” says Radwill. “If you were remembered as a nice person with basically a good reputation, you’re not as collectible.”

But Cantor collectibles and the legacy they represent remain priceless reminders of the power of show business to transform as well as entertain.

For those interested in material from the Cantor and vaudeville eras, possible sources include estate sales, flea markets and house sales says Radwill. There are also numerous reputable dealers who specialize in entertainers.

Those who would like to relive Cantor’s life and times are in luck because many of his hit records and live recordings of his radio shows are still available either on vintage media or as reissues on CD. A good source is Cantor’s own fan site, www.eddiecantor.com.

Rick Foster, a career newspaper reporter, was introduced to the world of Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson and other Vaudeville and Broadway pioneers after seeing the biographical movies “The Al Jolson Story” and “The Eddie Cantor Story” as a child. A part-time musician, he’s also a member of The Dixie Diehards Jazz Band, www.dixiediehards.com, which plays early 20th century music associated with Cantor, Jolson, Fanny Brice and Billie Holiday.

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