Obituary: Pinky Lee (CORRECTED)


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]'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution