The Countess and I are forever pointing to the screen and shouting “That guy!” when we see someone whose face we recognize from a million places but whose name we don’t know. Well, Charles Winninger (born today in 1884) is a “That Guy” — and how.
In fact, we just saw him, playing the implausible “Pop” Gallagher in 1941’s Ziegfeld Girl alongside Judy Garland. He plays her washed up old vaudeville dad who somehow ISN’T Ed Gallagher but somehow stars with the real Al Shean as Gallagher and Shean in the Ziegfeld Follies. You can also see him playing Cap’n Andy (the role he created on Broadway) in the 1936 version of Edna Ferber’s Showboat, in 1930’s Soup to Nuts with Ted Healy and the Three Stooges, in Every Day’s a Holiday with Mae West (1937), Destry Rides Again (1939), and State Fair (1945). He played many down at the heels showmen and vaudevillians in countless other movies, and even reprised the role in a much-beloved episode of I Love Lucy, where he played Fred’s (William Frawley) old vaudeville partner.
These show biz roles came naturally to him. He grew up singing, dancing, joking and tumbling in the family vaudeville act the Winninger Family Novelty Company. When the parents dropped out, he continued on with his brothers for several years after that. In the early years they played showboats, vaudeville theatres, medicine shows, and even the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. At 26, he began working with Lew Fields company where he specialized in Dutch comedy roles. Several revues followed in the Jazz Age: the Cohan Revues of 1916 and 1981, the Shubert Passing Show of 1919, Ziegfeld’s Follies and Frolics both in 1920. In the twenties, he moved on to book musicals like No, No, Nanette (1925) and Showboat (1927). His last four decades were spent in Hollywood. He passed away in 1969.
To learn more about performers like Charles Winninger and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.