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Winners of Gold Medals Make Room for Danny

April 18, 1985|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — He has been knighted by two Popes. His television show won five Emmys. He was named no less than "Personality of the Century" by the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities. But in a matter of two hours, it would all be topped. Tears would stream down his face in the White House as President Reagan would award Danny Thomas the Congressional Gold Medal, which has been bestowed on only 97 people.

The medal was given to Thomas for his "humanitarian efforts" in founding and raising funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, placing Thomas in such lofty company as fellow medal-winners George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Bob Hope.

Eleven years of "Make Room for Daddy" are clearly the crowning jewels of his professional career, but they are not his proudest accomplishment.

" 'Make Room for Daddy' made Danny Thomas, made me a national figure. There's no doubt about it," Thomas said. " 'Practice' was the best sitcom I did.

"And St. Jude's Hospital is the greatest accomplishment of my life, something that will live long after the celluloid turns yellow."

Before going to the White House on Tuesday the 73-year-old Thomas sat in a top-floor hotel suite overlooking the sunbathed White House, extolling the accomplishments of St. Jude's.

"We've had miraculous things," he said. "We cured an 8-year-old black girl of sickle-cell anemia. It's never happened in the history of man. She had a bone marrow transplant from her brother to treat her leukemia. And the blood tests done afterwards showed that she no longer had the sickle-cell."

When St. Jude's took in its first patient in 1962, the survival rate of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia was less than 5%. Today, due in large part to research done at St. Jude's, it is more than 50%.

"We are the pediatric research center of the world," Thomas said.

Flinging cigar ashes hither and yon as he gestured with his hands, Thomas now and then affected a foreign accent. Thomas was doing what he would like to think he does best. He was telling stories.

"George Burns says I'm the best storyteller," Thomas said. "I'm not going to argue with God."

His own story--the story of high school dropout Amos Jacobs--is fascinating in itself. Born the fifth of nine children of a struggling Lebanese immigrant family in Deerfield, Mich., Thomas was cared for by a childless aunt while his mother recovered from the difficult birth. The failure of his father's farm had forced the family to move to Toledo shortly after Thomas' birth, where his father worked in his grandfather's confectionary store. Thomas' aunt, who lived upstairs, doted on him.

"She dressed me up like Little Lord Fauntleroy," Thomas said.

When his aunt and uncle moved to a job in Rochester, N.Y., she said she would not go without little Amos. His parents let him go and he was raised by his aunt and uncle, a move that was not traumatic, he said, because he didn't completely realize who his real parents were.

"I didn't know my brothers were my brothers until I was 7," Thomas said.

In Love With Show Biz

He fell in love with show business when he worked as a teen-ager as a candy butcher in a burlesque theater. He dropped out of high school after completing a little more than a year of study. He saved money working jobs as a bus boy, punch-press operator's assistant and lumber yard watchman to take off to Detroit in search of a show business career.

There he met and married Rosemarie Mantell when she was still a teen-ager, and after the birth of their first child, Margaret (later Marlo), she begged him to get out of his struggling radio career. (They later had another daughter and a son.)

It was then that Danny Thomas made his famous bargain with St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.

"On my honor, I never did say, 'Make me rich and famous,' " Thomas said, refering to one popular version of the story. "I said, 'Help me find my way in life, and I will build you a shrine.' "

Thomas moved to Chicago, hoping things would go better for him there, and when he got a job at the 5100 Club--a converted automobile salesroom with linoleum floors--he was so embarrassed by the place that he changed his name so as not to damage the fine reputation he felt he'd built on radio. He chose the names of two his brothers: Danny and Thomas.

Changed His Life

His live engagement at the 5100 Club turned out to change his life. A succession of nightclub appearances followed, and in 1946 he made good on his promise to St. Jude and raised funds for the children's research hospital. After Thomas struggled through NBC's "All-Star Revue" from 1950 to 1952, calling television a workplace for "idiots," he came back strong in "Make Room for Daddy," later "The Danny Thomas Show," which ran on ABC and CBS for 11 years. It was based roughly on Thomas' own hectic life as an entertainer traveling on the road, trying to make time to be with his family. When Thomas would return home, children would have to shift bedrooms to make room for Daddy, thus the title.

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