Eddie Cantor Biography

Edward Israel Iskowitz, 31 January 1892, New York City, New York, USA, d. 10 October 1964, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California, USA. An extremely popular comedian, singer and dancer who was prominent in several areas of showbusiness from the 20s through to the 50s. Cantor’s performances were highly animated, seeing him jumping up and down, with hands gesticulating and his eyes popping and swivelling, giving rise to his nickname ‘Banjo Eyes’. The son of Russian immigrants, Cantor was orphaned at an early age and reared by his grandmother. He sang on street corners before joining composer Gus Edwards’ group of youngsters, and appearing in blackface for Kid Cabaret in 1912. George Jessel, another big star of the future, was in the same troupe. Cantor became a top performer in vaudeville before breaking into Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics (1916), leading to starring roles in the Ziegfeld Follies 1917-19. In the latter show, completely in character, he sang Irving Berlin’s saucy number, ‘You’d Be Surprised’, and it featured on what is considered to be the earliest ‘original cast’ album, on Smithsonian Records. After Broadway Brevities (1920) and Make It Snappy (1922), Cantor appeared in his two most successful Broadway shows. The first, Kid Boots, in 1923, ran for 479 performances, introduced two of his most popular songs, ‘Alabamy Bound’ and ‘If You Knew Susie’, and was filmed as a silent movie three years later. The second, Whoopee!, in 1928, teamed Cantor with a young Ruth Etting and was his biggest Broadway hit. The 1930 movie version only retained one song, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, from the original score, but it established Cantor as a Hollywood star, and was notable for the debut of dance director Busby Berkeley and the use of two-colour Technicolor.

During the 30s and 40s, after reputedly losing heavily in the 1929 Wall Street Crash, he concentrated his efforts on films and radio. The extremely successful movies invariably featured him as the poor, timid little man, winning against all the odds after wandering around some of Hollywood’s most lavish settings, occasionally in blackface. They included Glorifying The American Girl (1929), Palmy Days (1931), The Kid From Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933), Kid Millions (1934), Strike Me Pink (1936), Ali Baba Goes To Town (1937), Forty Little Mothers (1940), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), Show Business and Hollywood Canteen (both 1944). In the 30s he was reputed to be radio’s highest-paid star via his Chase & Sanborn show with its famous theme, Richard Whiting’s ‘One Hour With You’. It is said that during this period Cantor had been responsible for helping Deanna Durbin, and later, Dinah Shore and Eddie Fisher early in their careers. In 1941 Cantor made his last Broadway appearance in Banjo Eyes, which ran for 126 performances and is remembered mainly for his version of ‘We’re Having A Baby’. After World War II he was on radio with his Time To Smile show and on early television in 1950 with the Colgate Comedy Hour.

A heart attack in 1952 impaired his activities, eventually forcing him to retire, although he did appear in the occasional ‘special’. He also dubbed the songs to the soundtrack of his biopic, The Eddie Cantor Story, in 1953, with Keefe Brasselle in the title role. The film contained some of the songs for which he was famous, such as ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’, ‘How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm’, ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’, ‘Margie’, ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me’ and ‘You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby’. There were many others including ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, ‘Everybody’s Doing It’, ‘No, No Nora’, ‘Now’s The Time To Fall In Love’, ‘Dinah’, ‘Keep Young And Beautiful’ and ‘Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider’, which he always dedicated to his wife. He also wrote lyrics to some songs including ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ and ‘There’s Nothing Too Good For My Baby’, and several books, including Caught Short, an account of his 1929 financial losses, and two volumes of his autobiography.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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