One of the best shows on television right now for teens and their families is MTV’s “When I Was 17.” It’s as simple as the title. Celebrities talk about what they were doing when they were 17 years old. Participants include Drake, Kevin Jonas, Katharine McPhee, Bret Michaels, Queen Latifah, and Lucacris. Whether the stories they tell are about big dreams and opportunities or big fears and failures or both, they are utterly engrossing and inspiring. And they are ideal lead-ins to important conversations about hard work, ambition, taking chances, and dealing with consequences.
Thanks to Ben Ohmart for reminding us of the unjustly neglected Judy Canova. He specializes in books about golden-age era performers, and he is the author of a new biography of the “Ozark nightingale,” Judy Canova: Singin’ in the Corn!. It covers the career of an actress and singer who was one of the most popular performers of the 1930’s-40’s, with not one but two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring her performances on radio and in film. She starred in her own top-ten radio show for twelve years and appeared in the Zeigfield Follies.
Perhaps it is because the character she created seems old-fashioned that she is not as well known as other stars of her era. Canova played what in those days was called a “country bumpkin” or “hillbilly” or a “hick,” a forthright, uneducated, woman from the country who was loud, naive, enthusiastic, and unfailingly good-hearted. Canova was a gifted comic performer and singer and I am delighted that this book, with research including interviews with friends, family, and co-workers, does justice to her talent.
The author was kind enough to answer my questions:
How did you come to specialize in writing about 1930’s and 40’s entertainers?
I began listening to radio shows after I found an interesting looking set of tapes in a Waldenbooks when I was about 9 or 10. Jack Benny, Fibber McGee, Abbott and Costello, and Duffy’s Tavern were in that set. I was hooked with the pace and cleverness immediately. That made me pay attention to the old b&w films – Abbott and Costello – that were played on WGN every Saturday afternoon which I’d watch religiously after delivering newspapers.
Transfer this 15 years later when I was a would-be writer trying to carve myself into the niche of screenplays, poetry and plays – the trinity of most unnecessary writing – and getting nowhere. I found out online in 2000 that Charles Stumpf had written a book on Fibber. I wrote to him for a signed book (we were both living in PA), and from there, he showed me that it was possible to combine loves. A love of old films and a love of writing. It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago already!
How did Judy Canova develop her character as the pig-tailed country hick?
That seemed to come from her surroundings. Like me, she grew up in the south, and though of course she didn’t quite speak like the thick hick we all know and love, she did realize that the southern character, as stereotyped and sometimes true, was inherently funny, and worthy of showcasing to the world. In reality, Judy had a real sense of style that you can see in the glamor and “ordinary” photos in my book, when she wasn’t on stage playing for laughs.
Did she ever regret being so closely identified with her character that people thought she was being herself?
I asked Diana, her daughter, about this, and didn’t get the sense that she was in any way sorry. She became a superstar because of it. And, like today’s stars who need to hide just to walk across the street, taking off her square clothes and unbraiding her hair was like stripping herself of her character that would then allow her to have a very normal life. Judy’s radio series, which also contained the likes of Mel Blanc and Hans Conried, was one of the biggest series of the day, and she enjoyed her fame!
Do you see her influence in today’s entertainers?
She was the first country actor/singer superstar, so it’s impossible to believe that Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy owe her nothing, because she opened the door to the genre so that Hollywood and the entertainment business started taking it “seriously.” The trouble is, unscripted TV dominates today, and what’s not on TV is out of mainstream focus, so she’s rather a forgotten icon these days. A few channels for old films to remove 1% of the cooking and home improvement shows, and the balance of the universe might be corrected.
Were her fans mostly rural audiences?
Most probably. Though I relate it to the Harlem effect, too. Her country bumpkinness was a novelty that soon became mainstream, and like the black music of Harlem suddenly appealing to a lot of white people, the country act of Judy and her Canova Trio soon became the “in” thing to love. Her radio series was always one of the top shows and you don’t get that way just appealing to mountain folk!
What surprised you most in your research?
How beautiful Judy was! She had the strong jawline and the antics of a kid sister you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but away from the character, she was hot stuff! Also, I started to admire her singing ability a lot more than I did. She was a first class yodeler and could belt opera notes with the best of them. Her vocal range was incredible and that alone made me understand just why she was the first hick superstar.
She did it all — recording, movies, and radio — which was her favorite and why?
She probably achieved her biggest success on radio, which gave her the biggest live audiences and allowed her to belt out songs and hear the much-deserved applause, so that would be my guess. She actually didn’t make a lot of albums or singles, which also surprised me.
Which is her best movie?
Ah, she made a lot of goodies, especially in the early war years, and if you want a small dose, check out a couple of her early films where she and Anne and Zeck got to shine in short specialty numbers.
Who was her favorite co-star?
That I don’t know, but my vote for Best co-star would certainly be Jerry Colonna. That man was walking around funny, and complimented our Judy perfectly!
Was her control over her own career unusual for the era?
Less unusual than you might think, though women were and are still outnumbered in “having it all” careers like men have. I also wrote a book on Joan Davis and there are many similarities between the gals. They both kind of ran their radio shows and produced their own visual products (for Joan, TV, for Judy, films) in the ’50s. It’s unfortunate that the industry started to change in the ’60s, and Judy suddenly found herself out of the loop. But through the ’50s during her film career, and at her height on radio, she knew just what she wanted, and she got ‘er dun!
I have one copy to give away to the first person who sends me an email at email@example.com with Canova in the subject line. Enjoy!
Gary Coleman died today from head injuries. He was 42.
At one time one of television’s most popular performers, Coleman struggled to find a place for himself after “Diff’rent Strokes” left the air. The show was about a wealthy single white father of a young girl who became the guardian for two black children. Coleman, who looked much younger than his real age due to kidney disease and its treatment, captivated audiences with his smart aleck-y bravado. The show was controversial for its patronizing portrayal of race and class differences but was a mainstream success and was selected by then-first lady Nancy Reagan for an appearance on behalf of her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, one of several “very special” episodes.
After the show ended, all three of the young stars had difficulties. Todd Bridges and Dana Plato both developed drug problems. Plato died of a drug overdose and her son recently committed suicide. Coleman sued his parents for taking the money he had earned. He had difficulty finding work. He filed for bankruptcy and was charged with assault.
May he find peace at last, and may his memory be a blessing.