Kenny Delmar (Kenneth Frederick Fay Howard, 1910-1984) was born on this day. A household word in the late 1940s, today he is known only to show biz buffs, usually as a footnote in the history of an animated chicken: his radio character Senator Claghorn was so popular that Mel Blanc sent it up when he created his characterization of Foghorn Leghorn. Today Delmar is almost exclusively known in this context, despite having had an extended and successful career in just about every entertainment medium of his time.
Amusingly for someone so closely associated with a Southern character, Delmar was from Boston. His mother and aunt had a vaudeville act called the Delmar Sisters; Kenny joined them onstage when he was only a boy. At age 11 he had a small role in D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, his last film role for a quarter century. In his young adulthood he ran a dance school, but by the mid 1930s he was working regularly in radio on such shows as The March of Time, Your Hit Parade, The Shadow (in the role of Commissioner Weston) The Mercury Theatre on the Air (including their famous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, in which he played the Secretary of the Interior as FDR at Orson Welles’ request), The Jack Benny Program, and The Alan Young Show.
Delmar had already done versions and variations of characters similar to Claghorn on radio many times when he was hired to be the announcer on The Fred Allen Show in 1945. Delmar stepped up to create a character to replace Senator Bloat (who’d been played by Jack Smart) in the regular “Allen’s Alley” segments. Senator Claghorn was a julip-drinking Southern plantation windbag who hated everything north of the Mason-Dixon. The character became an immediate sensation, and his catchphrases (“Ah say, ah say”, “That’s a joke, son!” and “Pay attention, boy!” were imitated all over the country. This only increased when Warner Brothers animation division launched it’s ROOSTER version of Claghorn, Foghorn Leghorn, voiced by Mel Blanc, in 1946. Audiences of the late 40s and early 50s would have appreciated Foghorn Leghorn primarily as a goof on Claghorn, an aspect that is entirely lost on all audiences that came afterward.
Then, in 1947 the Claghornian climax: a feature film, It’s a Joke, Son! It was produced by Bryan Foy as the first American film of British-based independent Eagle-Lion Films. Though technically a B movie, it has a fairly stellar comedy cast: Una Merkel as his wife, June Lockhart as his daughter, Jimmy Conlin as a rival senator, Douglass Dumbrille as a crooked political boss, George Chandler as the town grocer, etc, with a script by Paul Gerard Smith. I’ve seen that the film did okay at the box office; I’ve also seen from other sources that it was a flop. If it was the latter, I can see why. The film is off in many ways. It deviates substantially from our expectations of the Claghorn character based on the momentary glimpses the audience got in the “Allen’s Alley” segments. In the movie, there is an attempt to humanize what is otherwise a cartoonish regional stereotype, turning him into a hen-pecked husband, short of cash (we always envisioned him as wealthy), and oddly big hearted regarding his daughter. It’s kind of a “prequel”, the story of how he became a senator. Weirdly, he paints his character as indignantly “clean”, when the stereotype (and what is the Claghorn character but a stereotype?) is that he would be corrupt (Huey Long, anyone?) And naturally, there’s not a black character to be found in the entire movie. (This is similar to the strategy The Andy Griffith Show would use years later. Presumably this was done to avoid controversy. The film has neither racist depictions nor racist characters, but is supposed to take place in the American South. It’s more like The Twilight Zone). Lastly, Delmar is only 37 years old and it shows. We envision Claghorn to be 20 or 30 years older than that; with his old world manner he’d have to be. As with Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve, who’d moved from radio to pictures in 1942, Delmar looks different from how Claghorn sounds, or what we may have envisioned. Most damningly, through no fault of his own, he doesn’t look like Foghorn Leghorn, which we may subconsciously punish him for. It’s a Joke, Son was fated to be Delmar’s sole starring feature vehicle, not unlike Jack Pearl’s Meet the Baron (1933) or Fred Allen’s own It’s in the Bag (1945).
Delmar continued to play Claghorn on Allen’s radio show until it went off the air in 1949. NBC considered giving the Senator his own show, but the fad cooled with every passing day. Later that year he made his Broadway debut as one Hominy Smith in the musical Texas, Li’l Darlin’. The show ran for nearly ten months, 293 performances.
Throughout the 1950s, Delmar did lots of on-camera acting work on such television shows as The U.S. Steel Hour, General Electric Theater, Kraft Theatre, Goodyear Playhouse, and Playhouse 90. He also continued to act on radio, on shows like My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi.
In the 60s, he mostly did voice-overs for animated cartoons. His most famous cartoon characters are Commander McBragg and Yakety Yak on Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales (1963-1966); he also provided voices on King Leonardo and His Short Subjects (1960-1964), Underdog (1966-1967), and Go Go Gophers (1966-1968).
Now, here’s something strange to contemplate: Delmar’s Claghorn character was satirical; in fact many Southern journalists and politicians actually complained about the character during the 1940s. And yet it wasn’t satirical enough. As we said, it poked fun of Southern jingoism and provincialism but didn’t go NEAR racism, which would be the elephant in the room. Otherwise, he might have been a GREAT character to have revived towards the end of his career in the 1960s. Can’t you see Senator Claghorn on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In? I certainly can. With some tweaking it would have been great topical humor. “They say we have a race problem in the South. Ah say, ah say, I categorically deny that sech a thing exists. (pause) Scipio, bring me a julep!” But that was probably still ahead of its time in the sixties, and Delmar was winding down his career at that stage. Delmar retired to Stamford, Connecticut and never really strayed too far from the North. As Claghorn would have said, he had never been anything but a Yankee.