Today we pay tribute to Kenny Baker (1912-1985) and by that we mean neither the little person who played R2-D2 in Star Wars (as most of our friends probably would) nor the fiddler who played with Bill Monroe.
No, ours is naturally the Irish tenor from radio and films in the ’30s and ’40s. Baker was from Monrovia, California and studied music at Long Beach City College. While there, he won a singing contest on a local radio station, which led to an engagement at the Cocoanut Grove night club. Early work in film included a part as a “singing narrator” in the shorts The Night Before Christmas (1933) and The Goddess of Spring (1934), a bit part as a cheerleader in College Rhythm (1934), and a solo singing spot in George White’s Scandals (1935).
In 1935, Baker was hired to replace Frank Parker as the singer on Jack Benny’s radio program, a slot he held on to for four years. At the same time, he was getting better parts in movies, like King of Burlesque (1936), Mr. Dodd Takes the Air (1937), Turn Off the Moon (1937), and The Goldwyn Follies (1938).
In 1939, he left the Benny show, only to be replaced by Dennis Day, who played an almost identical part through the show’s most successful years and became better known at it. Baker presumably thought he was about to become a proper movie star at this juncture, for he got two plum gigs that year. First, he took over the Allan Jones spot as singing male ingenue for the Marx Brothers in At the Circus (a thankless task which he only did once). And he played Nanki-Poo in a movie version of The Mikado. “A Wandering Minstrel, I” would ever after be his theme song.
But Baker was not to achieve movie star level success. In 1940, he went back to radio, joining Benny’s competition by being the singer on Fred Allen’s Texaco Star Theater, a post he held for two years. Other radio shows followed. He also appeared in the wartime musicals Hit Parade of 1941, Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Doughboys in Ireland (1943).
In 1943, yet a new phase in his career. He co-starred in the original Broadway production of One Touch of Venus (S.J. Perelman/ Kurt Weill/ Ogden Nash). It ran for two years. This led to his roles in the Hollywood musicals The Harvey Girls (1946) and Calendar Girl (1947).
In the early 1950s, Baker converted to Christian Science; the balance of his life’s work was channeled into that faith, as a hymn singer and a motivational speaker.
To find out more about the history of show business, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,