Obituary: Sid Kuller
'EVERY comedian can become exasperating or frustrating, not just the Marx Brothers. The creation of comedy is a painful experience,' Sid Kuller said to Joe Adamson, author of the book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. During his long life, Kuller not only wrote for the brothers Marx, but for the brothers Ritz, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Bert Lahr, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Eddie Cantor and Abbott and Costello. And that's just the comedians. Kuller's song lyrics were sung by Rosemary Clooney, the Andrews Sisters, Sammy Davis Jnr, Peggy Lee and Tony Martin.
Remember the last in the Marx Brothers' The Big Store, singing: 'The Cohns and the Kellys, / The Campbells and Vermicellis, / They form a part of my Tenement Symphony]'? Kuller, who wrote that lyric, was born in New York, the city his song celebrated. He attended Columbia University, then drifted into writing jokes and songs for vaudeville. For a while he was a ghost writer for Al Boasberg, vaudeville's top gagsmith.
Hired to work on the Broadway show Earl Carroll's Vanities, Kuller found himself writing for the Ritz Brothers. They liked his material, and took him with them when Hollywood beckoned. He and his composer Ray Golden supplied material for such Ritz pictures as Life Begins in College (1937), The Goldwyn Follies (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939) and Argentine Nights (1940).
In 1941 Kuller, Golden and Hal Fimberg were signed to write the screenplay for The Big Store. Groucho recognised Kuller's quick wit, and demanded his presence on the set throughout the shooting to provide extra lines, one of which was 'You mean that a woman of your culture and money and beauty and money would marry this impostor?'
Early in the summer of 1941 Kuller conceived the idea for a revue that was decades ahead of its time. Jump For Joy set out to eradicate the African-American's stereotyped image. Presented at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, it featured Dorothy Dandridge, Ivy Anderson, Herb Jeffries, Duke Ellington and his band, and many other gifted black performers. Kuller co-directed the sketches, many of which he wrote. He also contributed lyrics, including the title song. Written with Ellington and Paul Francis Webster, it emphasised the show's point of view: 'Fare thee well, land of cotton / Cotton lisle is out of style, honey chile / Jump for joy]'
Ellington wrote in his autobiography: 'The show was a smash during its three-month run in LA but along came World War II to scoop up most of our young show-stoppers.' It also scooped up Kuller, who went into the US Air Force and scripted training films. On his return, he wrote and staged night- club acts and surprised the town by writing a Western, Slaughter Trail (1951). He next became one of the regiment of writers churning out television material for Bob Hope in The Colgate Comedy Hour (1952-53).
In 1956 Kuller wrote, directed and produced Miltown Revisited, a topical night-club revue starring Abbott and Costello. It was scheduled to open at the Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, followed by a long tour. The first show at the Sahara was a triumph, but Bud Abbott came on stage drunk for the second and Costello never forgave him. The tour was cancelled, and at the end of the Las Vegas engagement Bud and Lou went their separate ways, never again to work together or even meet. Recalling that opening, Kuller called it 'the most terrible night of my life in show business'.
Another disappointment was a musical version of The Prisoner of Zenda, tersely titled Zenda, which the San Francisco Light Opera Company presented in 1963, with Kuller, Martin Charnin and Lenny Adelson providing the lyrics and Vernon Duke the music. The impressive cast included Alfred Drake, Anne Rogers and Chita Rivera, but Zenda never made it to Broadway, despite much rewriting and re-rewriting.
Although Kuller never stopped working on night-club acts, his last film credit was Stop] Look] and Laugh] (1960), a melange of old Three Stooges sequences plus new material. The New York Times wrote: 'The picture has one genuinely bright sequence - a devastatingly funny and clever takeoff on the Cinderella fable, as portrayed by a group of chimpanzees. The chimps have it all over the Stooges.' This sequence was written and produced by Sid Kuller, who must have found the chimps a lot less painful to work with than people.
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