George Givot: Faux Greek Ukrainian with a Faux French Name


George Givot (Yuri Givistinsky, 1903-1984) was a performer who qualified as a star, or close to it, in his own time, but whose name has gotten swallowed up by time. Born in Ekaterinoslav (now known as Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth largest city), he moved to Omaha at age three. It is unknown why his parents adopted a French style for their altered surname. One wonders if it were at least a partial inspiration for the name of Jackie Gleason’s mute French character Gigot. At any rate, by the time Givot was a teenager, he was living in Chicago, where he broke into local radio and vaudeville with the support and encouragement of bandleader Paul Ash.

While a teen, Givot had worked at a Greek candy store, and an impression of the accent of his employers formed the core of his act throughout his career. Billing himself as “the Greek Ambassador of Goodwill”, he did comic monologues in Greek dialect and sang songs in vaudeville and nightclubs. It is frequently given out that one of his first gigs was with the Ziegfeld Follies. IBDB does not show him among the Broadway casts, but it is more than probable that he performed with the show during its Chicago runs. However by 1929, Ash had made it to New York, appearing in Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book. This was followed by a historically important show, though one with a short Broadway run: Mae West’s The Constant Sinner (1931). Then came the revue Americana (1932) with Albert Carroll and Peggy Cartwright, and the short-lived Gershwin show Pardon My English (1933).

At this stage, Givot broke into films with a series of Big V (Vitaphone) comedy shorts: Nothing Ever Happens (1933), Gobs of Fun (1933), How’d Ya Like That? (1934) and Salted Peanuts (1934). He had a supporting role in Ed Wynn’s The Chief (1933), his first feature. In 1934, MGM attempted to create its own competing version of the Three Stooges, starring Givot, Bob Callahan, and, amusingly, Curly Howard (Shemp was back with the original Stooges during this phase.) To add to the confusion, Givot’s name in the film is “Parkyurkarkus”, which was also the professional name of fellow comedian Harry Einstein. The film was called Roast Beef and Movies; it clearly didn’t set the world on fire as this was the only film made starring this fabricated comedy team. Also in 1934, Givot appeared with Block and Sully and others in Ed Sullivan’s Headliners, a vaudeville bill style movie short that anticipates Sullivan’s famous TV show by 14 years. Later comedy shorts included The White Hope (Christie, 1936) with Joe Cook; The Saplings (Columbia, 1943) with Cliff Nazarro; and Lost in a Turkish Bath (RKO, 1953) with Gil Lamb. 

From the mid 1930s through the mid ’50s, Givot played mostly supporting roles in a wide variety of comedies, musicals, and dramas. He wasn’t always a Greek in these. He could do a wide variety of comic dialects, so he was often also cast as Russians, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen and even Englishmen. Some of these included Step Lively Jeeves (1937), Conquest (1937 — one of Garbo’s last films), Flying with Music (1942 — Givot’s one starring feature), Road to Morocco (1942), and DuBarry was a Lady (1943). At this stage, he returned to Broadway to co-star in Mexican Hayride (1944-45) with Bobby Clark. 

Meanwhile he was semi-regular on Jimmy Durante’s radio show (1943-1950), was a regular on Stop me If You’ve Heard This One (1947-49), and briefly hosted his own TV variety show called Versatile Varieties (1949) sponsored by Bonnie Maid Linoleum!

Later films included April in Paris (1952), Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955), The Benny Goodman Story (1956) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). In 1960, he returned to Broadway one last time in Do-Re-Mi with Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker; the show ran until 1962. His last credit was a 1963 episode of the TV show Death Valley Days. 

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,