Frank Parker: Benny’s First Singer

Tenor and broadcast personality Frank Parker (Frank Ciccio, ca. 1903-1999) was possibly born on this day (some sources give July 1).

Born in New York, Parker studied at the Milan Conservatory of Music. Though Italian-American, he became associated with Irish songs. He started out in vaudeville and on Broadway, appearing in the shows What’s in a Name? (1920), No Other Girl (1924), and a revival of No, No, Nanette (1925-26). In 1926, he began singing with Harry Horlick’s Orchestra, an association which led to two Vitaphone shorts with the band in 1929 and 1935.

Circa 1930 Parker began singing on local New York radio, which led to a stint in the early ’30s as the featured singer on The Jack Benny Program (the slot that would later be filled by Kenny Baker and Dennis Day). This raised his profile tremendously. In 1934, he sang in the all-star film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round and was the m.c. in Romance in the Rain. In 1935 he got his own bona fide starring role in a movie, an independent musical produced in Astoria, Queens called Sweet Surrender.  That same year, Parker briefly had his own radio show, The Atlantic Family on Tour. In 1937 he appeared in the Broadway show Howdy Stranger, and began singing on Andre Kostelanetz’s radio program, an association that would last into the 1940s. From 1944 through 1946 he co-starred in the long-running musical Follow the Boys (1944-46) with Jackie Gleason, Gertrude Niesen, and Buster West.

Starting in 1949, the advent of television gave his career a new shot in the arm. He began appearing on the variety shows, giving performances on the shows of Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey, Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Mike Douglas through the early 60s.

Parker (right) with cohost Robert Paige on “Bride and Groom”

He was also a co-host on the game show Bride and Groom in the 1950s, and appeared in the film Paris Follies of 1956.

Why he never broke into greater fame like some of his contemporaries may possibly be explained by this review I found in a May 1946 issue of Billboard, regarding a performance of his at Loew’s State: “Frank Parker, the headliner, looks good and sings beautifully but as a showman he never got started…Technically all [his songs] were good. But as a sight attraction, Parker was dull, giving no life to his work.”

But fortunately that showmanship part doesn’t matter on records so much, and he left behind a legacy in that department. If you want to check out some of his performances on disk, check out this catalog of them. 

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous