Today is the birthday of Cliff Arquette (1905-1974). Arquette’s popular character Charley Weaver was very much a presence on tv when I was a kid, most prominently on Hollywood Squares, but you’d see him on other shows too. I didn’t realize it at the time (how would I? I was nine when he died) but in retrospect it occurs to me that Charley Weaver was an amazing holdover from vaudeville, even though Arquette had cooked him up long after vaudeville had died.
As it happens, his father, Charles Augustus Arquette was in vaudeville. Cliff was born in Toledo, and started out as a piano player in night clubs; he joined the Henry Halstead Orchestra, a major outfit that played ballrooms, films and radio, in 1923. From here he evolved into a successful, working radio actor and comedian, which led by the 1950s to television. By then, one of his characters was Charley Weaver, a sort of lovable hick type straight from the vaudeville “rube” school, with suspenders, a too-small tie, wire-framed spectacles and a mashed-down hat. This sort of thing was considered old fashioned even in the 50s. Discouraged at not having cracked the upper echelons of show biz and well into middle age, Arquette retired in 1956.
Then, something amazing happened. Arquette was watching the Tonight Show with Jack Paar one night in 1959 and heard Paar bemoan Arquette’s absence from the airwaves. He got in touch with Paar for a booking and thus began the final, much more lucrative phase of his career, now billed exclusively as Charley Weaver. If Arquette’s material had been corny in the 50s, by now it started to acquire a quality closer to what we now call “camp”. By the 60s, Arquette was an oddity, a holdover, one of very few people doing this kind of schtick any more. This guaranteed him a niche in show business and he worked a lot to the end of his days.
Arquette left a legacy beyond his own performances, by the way. His son Lewis was also a successful character actor, and Lewis’s children are the generation of Arquettes YOU surely know: Rosanna, Patricia, David, Alexis and Richmond. I’ve always found this massively hilarious, because I associate this generation of Arquettes with adjectives like “cool”, “hip”, “glamorous”, “good looking” and “stars” — words one would never associate with their grandfather. Funnier still is the irony of having a grandfather who’s famous, but whose fame can’t help you in your acting career in any way. If you wanted to be cool you’d have to deny Charley Weaver was your grandfather, that is, if any contemporary casting person remembered who he was. Don’t misconstrue my meaning. I think Cliff Arquette was awesome and I bet his grandchildren are proud of him — he just was never cool, hip or glamorous.
I tried to find a clip of Charley Weaver as I knew him on Hollywood Squares, and there are some on Youtube, but the problem is his bits there are so short. So I attach the clip below of him bantering with Dale Evans on The Roy Rogers Show in 1962. Arquette was also a songwriter, by the way.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc