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Versatile Entertainer, 76, Began Long Career in Speak-Easy at 14 : Singer-Actor Scatman Crothers Dies of Cancer

November 23, 1986|JERRY COHEN | Times Staff Writer

Benjamin Sherman (Scatman) Crothers, who began a long and versatile career as an entertainer singing and playing the drums and guitar in an Indiana speak-easy when he was 14, died Saturday in his Van Nuys home at the age of 76.

His death ended a long battle with cancer which began when doctors discovered an inoperable tumor behind his left lung more than a year ago. The disease later spread to the esophagus and throat. He endured months of chemotherapy treatment without losing his sense of good humor, said his publicist, Jerry Zelenka.

He probably is best remembered for his roles in such movies as "The Shootist," "Silver Streak," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Bronco Billy," "The Shining" and "Twilight Zone: The Movie" and for his characterization of the garbage man in the popular "Chico and the Man" television series.

But to the very end, he always considered himself "The Scatman"--an irrepressible singer whose words were interspersed with meaningless but melodic syllables.

He first began performing while still in high school when he taught himself to sing, drum and plunk a guitar in a speak-easy in his native Terre Haute.

Start in 'Terrible Hut'

"Oh, yeah," he recalled in a Times interview a decade ago, "Terre Haute. They used to call it 'Terrible Hut' because it was so wide open. Gambling, red light district, speak-easies.

"I entertained for all the gangsters. Can't name a gangster that didn't come into the place where I worked. Got no salary. But the lady I was working with who played the piano, we had a box with a picture of a cat on it and a sign that read: 'Feed the kitty.' "

After he left Terre Haute, he troubadoured throughout the Midwest, sometimes taking jobs as a bellhop and porter--"anything to make an honest living"--when "the music business got bad."

In 1932, he wound up in Dayton, Ohio, auditioning for a 15-minute, five-days-a-week radio show. He got the job, and came by the name "Scatman." His new employer decided neither the name Benjamin nor Sherman was catchy enough for the star of the program and said, "We need something snappier."

Crothers recalled saying, "Call me Scatman. Because I do quite a bit of scattin'."

The Dayton station billed him as "Scatman, the man with a thousand tunes." The name stuck throughout his career.

During that time, he wrote the lyrics to and composed countless songs. None became a standard but each bore the unmistakable Scatman imprint.

He later formed his own combo and traveled with it not only across the Midwest but throughout the South during the late '30s and early '40s. But it was not until he arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-'40s that his career took off.

First Movie Appearance

He attracted attention while entertaining in nightspots such as Billy Byrd's, Cybill's and the Club Alabam. In 1950 the movies beckoned and he took third billing behind Dan Dailey and Diana Lynn in a hit picture, "Meet Me at the Fair."

In another medium, he was the first black on a regular Los Angeles television program in a show called "Dixie Showboat" and appeared in such network productions as the "Colgate Comedy Hour" with Donald O'Connor.

When President Reagan learned of his illness a year ago, Crothers got a "get-well" letter from the President. Reagan, who himself had had a malignancy removed, told him he should recover as quickly as the President had because "we both have bookings to keep."

Despite his renown, he remained a man of simple tastes. He once said, "(I) don't go in for all that flashy business. I tell other people you don't go by what somebody drives or wears. You can be dressed the best and have a wicked heart."

His wife of 49 years, Helen, survives him, as does a daughter, Donna Daniels.

Funeral services will be held at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills.

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