Obituary: Pinky Lee (CORRECTED)
Tuesday 13 April 1993
Pincus Leff (Pinky Lee), actor and comedian: born St Paul, Minnesota 1916; died 3 April 1993.
PINKY LEE was one of the last laughter links with the Golden Age of American burlesque, that slightly off-colour area of twice-nightly vaudeville. His comedic career embraced almost every form of entertainment, from kiddies' shows, variety, nightclubs and movies to early black-and- white television, but he was ever a 'second banana', never quite the star.
Pinky Lee was born Pincus Leff in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1916 but early ambitions to become an attorney were squashed by schoolmate mockery at his natural lisp. It was this handicap that took him into comedy when, exaggerating the impediment into a funny splutter, he passed an audition at the age of 13 for a role in Gus Edwards' famous touring revue School Days. In this show the class of slaphappy schoolboys took turns to show off their specialties, and Lee was quick to demonstrate his prowess as singer, dancer and xylophone-basher.
Growing too old for the schoolboy suits, Lee went out as a solo comic on the still large but beginning-to-wilt vaudeville circuits, but it was not long before he found a more suitable home in burlesque. These shows played in the scruffier theatres, to mostly male audiences, mixing broad, often blue humour with 'bump-and-grind' chorines, fan dancers and striptease specialties who removed everything but their G-strings. One such queen was Gypsy Rose Lee, a sophisticated woman who had been a movie star under her real name of Louise Hovick. She wrote a mystery novel based on her backstage life entitled The G-String Murders, and when it was filmed in 1943 as Lady of Burlesque (British title, Striptease Lady), the supporting cast was filled with burlesque veterans. It was Pinky Lee's first film, virtually playing himself in support of Barbara Stanwyck's stripper star.
The Forties were good years for Lee. Apart from his laughable lisp, now insured with Lloyd's of London - it was said - for a million dollars, he had a catchphrase - 'Oh, you make me tho mad]' - and comedy clothes, an unchanging uniform of checkered pork-pie hat, jacket to match, and outsize, flowing tie. These trademarks, along with the limp- wristed gestures affected by the so-called 'lavender comics', remained with him for life.
Earl Carroll, the famous impresario who had taken over from the late Florenz Ziegfeld with his long-running Vanities, an upper-class version of burlesque mixing low comics with statuesque nudes, now opened his Theater Restaurant in Hollywood. Pinky Lee, a Carroll favourite, was installed as resident funnyman, and when Republic Pictures built an extravagant (for them) movie musical around the show, Lee was leading comedian. Earl Carroll Vanities (1945) starred Dennis O'Keefe with the languorous Constance Moore as Princess Drinia of Turania who becomes the dancing star of Carroll's new show.
Lee was then taken up by Universal and cast as comedy relief in Blonde Ransom (1945), in which he sang 'Hinky Dinky Pinky' and 'You Too Can Be the Life of the Party', formerly the hit song of the late Joe Penner, another burlesque comic with a lisp. Lee's remaining movies were for Republic, beginning with That's My Gal (1946). Although the plot of this picture was virtually identical with Mel Brooks' The Producers, it was an old one even then: conmen get eager bankers to invest in a dud show which is so bad it becomes a success.
Pinky Lee was lured to daytime television by NBC in 1950, where as star of the cheap but cheerful Pinky Lee Show he sang, danced and cracked gags as a stumblebum stagehand called on to fill in for absent entertainers. More successful was a long run as a children's entertainer in a revamped format. This series revived songs and sketches from burlesque and co-starred performers with names like Mel Knootz and the Charlie Couch Trio. Another television success was Those Two (1951), a three-year run in which Lee played a night-club pianist madly in love with the delicious vocalist Vivian Blaine. Pinky's popularity prompted Marvel Comics to bring out a monthly comic book built around his spry escapades. Scripted by none other than Stan Lee (later the Spider-Man scenarist) and drawn by Morris Weiss, the Adventures of Pinky Lee began in July 1955.
Lee's television career was cut short by a serious sinus condition and he was forced to retire to the dry air of Arizona. Eventually cured, he found it difficult to find work, and to an interviewer he said sadly, 'My heart aches to perform again.' Perform again he eventually did, and 1967 saw him touring in a nostalgic show entitled This was Burlesque. His last show was Las Vegas Laugh-In, which toured the night-club circuit in 1974. However, British theatregoers will remember him from his appearance at the London Palladium in the late Fifties, when the spry little comic danced on to the stage singing his signature tune: 'Hello - it's me - my name is Pinky Lee]'
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