Today is the birthday of comedian Frank Fontaine (1920-1978).
Fontaine was a favorite comedian of my brother’s, and I first developed an appreciation for this artist in the same way I cultivated one for many other comedians and musicians: my older two brothers left behind their record collection when they moved out of the house. And one of the records was this:
I must have listened to this exceedingly strange comedy record dozens and dozens of times trying to work out its mysteries. It was full of pops and scratches…my brother had clearly worn the album out himself.
As you can tell from the photos, Fontaine was not exactly a font of subtlety. He specialized in one particular character, a sort of brain-damaged, mentally challenged screwball. Originally from the Boston area, he began performing the character in amateur shows in the 1930s. Despite the strong visual impression you see on evidence in the pictures, he first gained show biz traction in radio. He won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and not long after that was booked for some small roles on The Jack Benny Program in 1950, returning several times through 1952. Then came television. His best known platform was The Jackie Gleason Show, where he played Crazy Guggenheim in the Joe the Bartender segments. To my eyes, his character looks like a sort of pre-cursor to many of Benny Hill’s,, with the addition of just a hint of pathos. Because, well, the guy’s not normal.
The early fifties were sort of the height of his fame. He got some bit parts in movies, and he continued to work through the rest of his life appearing on tv variety shows, making live appearances and popular comedy records. He died at the age of 58 of a massive heart attack, altogether not such a surprising death for someone who put that much into his comedy.
For more on classic comedy see my 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