Thursday, October 11, 2007

Yoo-Hoo! It's Me!!

Sure.. I like thoughtful, understated comedy as much as the next guy, but I reserve a special place in my heart for comics like Pinky Lee. Was there ever a harder working entertainer? He wasn't exactly clever, nor was he original, but he was completely genuine. Even the lisp was his own, albeit exaggerated for effect. He was a cyclone, more hyperkinetic than Jerry Lewis, yet still amazingly controlled thanks to loads of talent and decades of experience in burlesque. Kids loved him, adults reviled him. Milton Berle spitefully quipped at a star-studded dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria that "if a bomb hit this joint, Pinky Lee would be a big hit", an odd comment considering that Pinky was a big hit at the time, with kids, at least, and Pinky seemed quite content with that.

Pinky Lee's Circus Time, aka The Pinky Lee Show (1954)

The legend persists that Pinky's uncanny gusto finally caught up with him, resulting in an on-air stroke. Not true, of course, but his tireless show-must-go-on attitude did cause him to ignore a nasal drip that was gradually poisoning him. In 1955, as a result of the infection, Pinky collapsed on live TV during one of his songs, an unimaginably shocking sight for millions of his young fans. His schedule of six shows a week plus personal appearances couldn't have helped his condition much. As a result of his collapse and absence from the air as he recuperated, the story arose that Pinky had died. The networks apparently felt that he might as well have. In their books, Pinky had become a Grade A "risk". In 1957, NBC pressed Pinky into service as the host of The Gumby Show.. for a fraction of what he had been earning before (Pinky claimed a take-home pay of approximately $34 a week). It was a smaller, more intimate program, and Pinky reasonably scaled back his style, but only by degrees. In this final episode of The Gumby Show, Pinky plays the xylophone, sings, tap dances, and is still giving every bit of business 200%. A professional to the end.

And that was more or less the end for Pinky Lee on TV. In 1965, he starred in a weekday revival of The Pinky Lee Show on ABC, but the 7:30 AM timeslot doomed it to a short run. Pinky also complained that he had no creative control, although it must have been becoming increasingly difficult to determine exactly who he was trying to reach even if the show had been ideal. It was now a decade since his heyday. The curtain was coming down fast, not just on Pinky, but on the entire breed of performer that he exemplified. He had survived longer than most because he had taken refuge in children's television where his style could still be appreciated for what it was, but now even that was changing beyond recognition. I can barely imagine a still-popular Pinky Lee on TV in the latter-half of the 60s, doing stock gags about hippies and rock n' roll, but I'm just as sure that he'd have given it the same old 200% had he the opportunity. But when it was over, it was over.

22 minutes and 54 seconds of Tootsie Roll commercials from The Pinky Lee Show and Winchell-Mahoney Time.

Pinky Lee appeals to the least jaded part of me, the part that can still enjoy terrible puns and the sight of a man playing the xylophone while tap dancing. Say what you will about him and his over-the-top style, the guy was the real thing, something his postmodern progeny Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens certainly wasn't (nothing against Paul Reubens, mind you. He wasn't Pee-Wee and it was the cognitive dissonance in the wake of the scandal that wrecked his career as a pseudo-children's entertainer). I find something deeply disturbing in the idea that a Pinky Lee couldn't survive a second on today's network or cable TV without adopting the requisite degree of pre-packaged, thoroughly dishonest cynicism that has become de rigueur even for children's entertainment. Have we really gone too far down the road? In an age where snark passes for wit and unthinking skeptical posturing has supplanted genuine critical thought, an entertainer as skilled, as driven, and as basic as Pinky Lee would be a breath of fresh air.. to me, anyway.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo! I love Pinky Lee. There, I said it. I never got to enjoy him at his peak, but when home video was new I rented, "Ann Corio's This Was Burlesque". And guess who stole the show, lock, stock, and barrel. Yep...Pinky played the xylophone, tap danced, and used his wonderful comic persona and timing to get some solid laughs. I must have rewound the tape and watched his act 5 or 6 times. It was kind of a revelation. I also enjoyed Pinky's work in the film, "Lady of Burlesque", where he got to incorporate his persona into a murder mystery, and show off his wonderful comic dancing.
Berle's joke at the Waldorf was cruel and snobbish, especially coming from someone who had all the subtely of a battering ram. Sometimes Berle made Pinky look downright understated in his corn.
Great article, Aaron.

Nick Santa Maria

7:50 AM  
Anonymous tommy moore said...

I had the pleasure of working with the wonderful, kind, and thoroughly professional Pinky Lee, so here are a few facts of interest:
His wife of 50+ years saw every one of his performances.
He always carried (in a hat box) the original hat he wore.
He did review Burlesque revivals at Dinner Theaters well into the 1980's.
He was a dynamo to the end. Limping backstage due to a leg ailment - but tap dancing onstage as though nothing was wrong.
He was dyed-in-the-wool showbusiness.
Tommy Moore

4:40 AM  

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