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Wonderful Smith, 1911 - 2008

Edgy comedian helped break racial molds

September 15, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Wonderful Smith, whose boundary-pushing comedy routine in Duke Ellington's satirical revue "Jump for Joy" -- staged in Los Angeles in 1941 -- helped the black cast counter against racial stereotypes in entertainment, has died. He was 97.

Smith died Aug. 28 of natural causes at an assisted-living facility in Northridge, said his niece Lois Johnson.

His “Hello, Mr. President?” monologue lampooned the New Deal and World War II preparations -- from which blacks were generally excluded -- and it invariably stopped the show at the Mayan Theatre downtown.

Pretending to talk on the telephone, he would ask an operator to get the president on the line, telling her to "just charge it to the New Deal."

"This is buck private Wonderful Smith of Arkansas. . . . No sir, I'm not related to Governor Al Smith," he would say, referring to the former governor of New York. "There's quite a difference in us. As much difference as night and day."

Tame by today's standards, Smith's comedy was audacious for its time. The routine was controversial partly because it imagined a phone conversation between the president, then Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a black man, "an unthinkable scenario for the day," The Times reported in 1999.

"He was courageous for getting out there and doing what he did. His comedy was groundbreaking," said Jill Watts, a professor of African American history at Cal State San Marcos who had interviewed Smith.

In staging the show, Ellington said he wanted to "take Uncle Tom out of the theater and say things that would make the audience think." Later, he called the musical one of his most significant achievements.

Smith became a part of the 60-member cast that included tap dancers, former minstrel comics and singers after seeing an announcement for an "all-colored revue." A newcomer, actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge, performed, and Duke Ellington's orchestra played in the pit every night.

When Charlie Chaplin saw Smith rehearsing, he suggested the comedian refine his material in private, said Patricia Willard, a writer who interviewed Smith for a 1988 Smithsonian audio recording that documented parts of "Jump for Joy."

Chaplin said, "If he rehearses out in the open, Bob Hope's and Jack Benny's legmen will steal his material, and his routine will be stale," according to Willard.

At the end of his audition, Smith was asked where he was appearing and replied, "Grace Hayes Lodge's parking lot."

He had shown up at the San Fernando Valley nightclub to try out as a comedian but was told the only job available to him was parking cars. He took it, and polished his material on celebrities who frequented the Ventura Boulevard hangout.

The Times described the monologue that emerged in 1941 as "hilarious."

No known recording of his entire "Jump for Joy" routine exists, but Smith performed a version of it in the 1941 slapstick comedy film "Top Sergeant Mulligan."

When the movie was screened for Smith decades later at his longtime home on Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles, he realized his commentary had been edited. He immediately recited a missing sequence that always drew a big laugh at the Mayan:

"You see, I'm a draftee, you know, one of the fellows that you've sent someplace else to help somebody else to stop somebody else from doing something else, who didn't want nobody else to do nothin' else to them, no how. You remember?"

The missing parts probably "were considered too bold to tolerate from a black man," Smith told Willard in 1980.

Near the end of the Ellington revue's run, Smith was cast as a cook on Red Skelton's radio show, leading him to be called radio's "Negro comedy find of the year" in 1941, Gerald Nachman wrote in "Raised on Radio" (1998). Skelton had not seen Smith's telephone skit when he asked him to warm up an audience with it. Afterward, an icy Skelton said, "The communists will love you."

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Smith was one of the few African Americans who worked as a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

Accustomed to being required to speak in a "blackface dialect," he was surprised by the latitude he had to produce his radio show while stationed in Calcutta, according to William Barlow's "Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio" (1998).

Back home, Smith was fired by the producers of "The Red Skelton Radio Show" in 1947 because -- in Smith's words -- he "had difficulty sounding as Negroid as they expected."

As an actor, he played the occasional bit part on TV and in the movies. His scene as a janitor in the 1984 film “This Is Spinal Tap” caught the fancy of a Chicago rock group that adopted the name Wonderful Smith, Willard said.

The comedian with the unlikely given name was born June 21, 1911, in Arkadelphia, Ark., to Sam Smith Sr., a farmer, and his wife, Mattie.

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