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Banjo Eyes Rap

"A star more than an actress, a personality more than a star." Such was the manner in which the critic Robert Gottlieb described Tallulah Bankhead, in a 2005 New Yorker piece. His valedictory (upon publication of her seventh biography), was that she "substituted personality for technique and eccentricity for effort" in one of the twentieth century’s saddest talent squanderings, one that reduced the actress to spending her last twelve years longing to die. "And since she was intelligent," Gottlieb added, "she must have been aware of the waste. No wonder she despaired."

Tallulah probably left her pure talent on stage in The Little Foxes and on film in Lifeboat (you would be very hard pressed to find anyone comfortable referring to her by her surname even now), but she did find one outlet, neither stage nor screen, where substituting personality for technique and eccentricity for effort actually did her a huge favour. Even, you dare say, to the extent of making her likeable in human terms because in no small part it shaped hers into a kind of comic image, and because she was smart enough not to think it beneath her to succumb.

The Big Show (the title notwithstanding, calling it an extravaganza may have been an understatement) began on NBC radio in 1950 as an instant hit with critics and listeners, even if its most effective valedictory referred with cruel wit to the primary target it couldn't arrest.

It was, wrote the New York Times critic Jack Gould, "good enough to make one wish he had seen it," but when television wasn't keeping people from caring much about this Sunday night spectacular of the mind's eye ("you could almost hear the sequins," the critic Gerald Nachman has written), Jack Benny (and other former NBC stars who had followed him jumping to CBS a year or so earlier) was. The show was probably lucky to live two years.

Throwback and forward pass at once, The Big Show revived the earliest successful radio style of the music-and-mirth variety. Not for nothing, perhaps, did such far earlier radio stars as Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn turn up. It introduced a kind of pilot fish for Ed Sullivan's weekly television variety spectaculars, even if The Big Show wasn’t going to go far enough in absurdism to follow an operatic aria with an animal act.

Here was a star at least sensible enough to know it was best to make her own fun of her diva-eccentric image, with a writing team (led by the redoubtable Goodman Ace) that knew how to make the inversion fit, for herself and in her badinage with very diverse performers. (A partial roll: Fred Allen, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Barrymore, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Jose Ferrer, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Rex Harrison, Groucho Marx, Ethel Merman, Robert Merrill, Lauritz Melchior, Sir Laurence Olivier, Claude Rains, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, and even a New York Giant or Yankee. She actually had Leo Durocher and "Old Reliable" outfielder Tommy Henrich as guests on one or another installment.)

So who knew Tallulah's Big Show would prove an unintentional laboratory for Eddie Cantor's unintentional possible co-invention of rap?

Cantor has been remembered in terms far less flattering than the ignobility of an actual or imaginary rap curlicue. The song-dance-and-joke man was anything but a consciously forward-looking performer when first he slipped from stage and screen through America's living room furniture. It is reasonable to ask how many among the millions who adored his in-character niceness each week couldn't admit they had no idea, oftentimes, what was so funny about Ol' Banjo Eyes.

"On none of his various shows . . . did Cantor exhibit an especially funny delivery or voice," Nachman has written of him, in Raised on Radio, "but he made up for it by projecting himself with a mechanical freneticism. Despite the liberal use of guests and wacky burlesque relief like the characters of the Mad Russian and Parkyakarkus, or a comic violin virtuoso named Rubinoff, Cantor was caught in a comic time warp, yet he lasted until he moved over to TV in 1949."

Nor did he exhibit an allergy to pilferage, if you take the word of his one-time supporting cast member Arnold Stang, who told Nachman that Cantor had the habit of rehearsing his radio shows before live audiences, stealing the other performers' best laugh lines, and rewriting the script to give those lines to himself, whether or not the lines had actually been written to Cantor's on-air persona. Said Stang, when leaving the Cantor show, "I'm not going to keep breaking in your material for you."

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