Jerry Colonna: Because Why the Hell Not?

Jerry Colonna (Gerardo Luigi Colonna, 1904-1986) is a product of what I think of as “comedy’s most obnoxious era”, the 1940s, when the public seemed to have an endless appetite for grotesques who tested their patience by being unprecedentedly loud and grating, a development I attribute to the popularity of radio. On the one hand, the medium was kind to the witty and verbal (Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen, W.C. Fields). But it was also conducive to pure noisemakers. Colonna was one of these. Yet he also made a huge visual impression in films, with his bug-eyes and and enormous Italianate mustachio.

Interestingly, I can find no specific reference to Colonna in vaudeville, although he would have fit right in there. Originally from Boston, he came up through dance bands that played ballrooms, nightclubs, and eventually radio. Starting out in 1917, he was initially a drummer. Later he became a trombonist, and a good one, but he was also a ham, and he would frequently cut up and cause havoc during the bits between numbers. (This, remember, was also the age of comedy/music acts, as represented by the likes of Spike Jones, Olsen and Johnson, and Bob Burns and his Bazooka). Colonna’s on recordings from the 1920s playing with Joe Herlihy and His Orchestra. In the ’30s he played with the CBS orchestra, which led to him getting comedy bits on Fred Allen’s Show.

In 1938 he became a regular on Bob Hope’s NBC radio program and his long association with Hope is what he is principally known for today. He was a foil on his radio show for years, he appeared in many of his movies, and on television and he was a warm act for him during his U.S.O. tours. Colonna performed with Hope until well into the Vietnam era. He was also a regular (in a more musical capacity) on Kraft Music Hall during the 1940s when Bing Crosby was host. He appears in three of Hope and Crosby’s Road pictures.

What did he do? Well he sang opera and other songs in a screechy voice, often drawing out syllables to preposterous lengths. When he did it on film as in College Swing (1936), you could also see his eyes bug out and watch his uvula pendulate at the back of his throat. Later, when color became a factor, you could watch his shiny face get red. He was also known for certain quips and catchphrases, but the backbone of his comedy career really seems to be yelling these songs. He often did it in a comical Italian accent and was nicknamed “the Professor”.  He’s also quite funny in the usual radio repartee with Hope and others. He was a perfectly excellent radio comedian, with great timing. But those musical numbers!

He’s in dozens of films. A couple of notable ones beyond the Road pictures include Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag (1945); and Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1950), in which he voiced the March Hare to Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter.

He seems to have retired shortly after this 1970 Bob Hope tv special. If you look at the sketch at this link I think you’ll notice he doesn’t really seem too sharp, hale or hearty (and, whew boy, the script is not helping him be funny). He reportedly had health problems late in life. His last 15 years or so were spent in retirement.

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