Billy House: Big Man in Burlesque

The legend of Billy House (William Comstock, 1889-1961) was largely amplified by admirer Orson Welles, who cast him in the prominent supporting role of Edward G. Robinson’s checkers partner in The Stranger (1946), as well as in his 1958 telefilm The Fountain of Youth, and in a small walk-on on Touch of Evil (1959).

Originally from Mankato, Minnesota, House broke into show business as a trumpet player circa 1910, and spent years in circuses, vaudeville and burlesque. Much of his comedy sketch material had to do with his large size, a persona reinforced by his stage name, which suggested that he was as big as a house. His first Broadway shows were Luckee Girl (1928) and Tryokya (1930). In 1930 and 1931 he wrote and starred in 8 two-reel comedy shorts for Paramount, one of which was directed by Norman Taurog. He also had some supporting roles in features, such as God’s Gift to Women (1931) with Frank Fay, and Expensive Women (1931) with Dolores Costello. He then returned to the stage, appearing in the Broadway version of Earl Carroll’s Murder at the Vanities (1933-34), although interestingly he didn’t make it into the 1934 movie. He had a walk-on in the 1935 film of The Tale of Two Cities, then returned to Broadway for White Horse Inn  (1936-37) starring William Gaxton, Kitty Carlisle, and Rags Ragland.

In 1937 House achieved immortality yet again by being used as a life drawing model for the character of Doc in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. His next film was Merry-Go-Round of 1938, with fellow vaudeville and burlesque vets Bert Lahr and Jimmy Savo. In 1939 he appeared on the radio show Al Pearce and His Gang a.k.a. The Happy Go Lucky Hour. There is a gap in his stage and screen credits throughout the war years, which he seems to have filled with radio and live dates. In 1943 House headlined a traveling review called “Tons O’ Fun” which played presentation houses, and paired him with the likes of Baron Munchausen and Eddie Garr.

House returned to the big screen in the mid ’40s. In addition to the Welles work, you can also see him in Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946) with Boris Karloff; the first Ma and Pa Kettle movie The Egg and I (1947), and Joe Palooka in the Knockout (1947), et al. In 1948 he starred on Broadway as Cap’n Andy in a short-lived revival of Show Boat. In 1950 he played Friar Tuck to John Derek’s Robin Hood in Columbia’s Rogues of Sherwood Forest. He had a small role in People Will Talk (1951) with Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain. You can also see him in several westerns during these years: Santa Fe (1951), Silver City (1952), Outlaw Women (1952) and Naked Gun (1956). He is said to have also modeled for the role of Smee in Walt Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). His last role was a walk-on in the 1959 version of Imitation of Life. 

House died in 1961. His papers (including comedy sketch material) are said to reside in the archives of Milt Larsen’s Magic Castle.

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