Obituary: Benny Baker

Denis Gifford
Sunday 09 October 1994 23:02
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Benny Baker, actor: born St Joseph, Missouri 5 May 1907; married (one daughter); died Los Angeles 20 September 1994.

THE CHUBBY comedian Benny Baker appeared but never starred in literally a hundred Hollywood movies from the Thirties to the Fifties.

Baker was born in St Joseph, Missouri, in 1907, and went to the Kellom Grade School, in Omaha, graduating from the Lincoln High School, Nebraska. His first job was in the advertising department of the Lincoln Journal. Later he drove a grocery truck, but all the time had the urge to entertain. He made his stage debut in Andy Gump Runs for Congress, a play-cum-revue inspired rather than adapted from the then highly popular comic strip The Gumps, cartooned by Sidney Smith. Then he went into a stock drama company in Rochester, New York, which was run by the future film director George Cukor. Comedy called, however, and soon the rotund Baker found fun and profit working as stooge to a man considered to be one of the funniest fellows ever to appear in American vaudeville.

Lou Holtz's classic act consisted of funny stories featuring the imaginary Sam Lapidus interspersed with comedic chit-chat with his stooge, and closing with jokes bent into bad rhymes and sung to the tune of 'O Sole Mio'. Baker became Holtz's latest stooge, under the name of 'Showowski'. Both men were Jewish and the act echoed, or perhaps exaggerated, their background, as was popular in this period.

After appearing in the musical comedy You Said It, the double-act was signed for the cinema, but only for short subjects. Their first film was Speaking of Relations, made by MGM. Baker fancied films as a career and, making his way to Hollywood, got a small role in Columbia's drama The Hell Cat (1934).

Paramount apparently liked his performance and signed him to a long-term contract. In 1935 he was featured in six pictures, including Love in Bloom with Bing Crosby, The Big Broadcast with a huge all- star cast of radio favourites, and Wanderer of the Wasteland, in which he was comic relief in a Zane Grey western.

Nine films followed in 1936, from Rose of the Rancho to Panic on the Air. Next year there were five more including Hotel Haywire, an early script by Preston Sturges, and Blonde Trouble. Later high spots were Tip-off Girls (1938) starring Lloyd Nolan, She Married a Cop (1939), and The Farmer's Daughter (1940). Of them all, perhaps Benny Baker is best remembered for his cameo role as one of Danny Kaye's army buddies in Samuel Goldwyn's Technicolor musical comedy Up In Arms (1944).

(Photograph omitted)

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