Frustrating, but amusing — if you Google “Dick Bernie”, you will get pictures of 94 year old Dick Van Dyke championing Bernie Sanders for President, or clips of Bernie Mac saying “Give her da dick”, but you will not get hits on the burlesque comedian and bit player whose real name was Murray Bernstein (1907-1971). Today we give him his due.
According to the book Burlesque in a Nutshell: Girls, Gimmicks and Gags by Dusty Sage, Bernie was a teenager who had studied accountacy, worked nights as a burlesque stagehand, and was drafted into the show when one of the comedians got too drunk to perform. He sang, danced, performed in sketches, and did a routine with a violin. It was several years before he told his parents what he did for a living. One imgaines that he could hardly keep it a secret once he made it to Broadway — he appeared in comedy skits in the 1930 edition of Earl Carroll’s Vanities. In 1942 he was in the patriotic show This is the Army, which was then adapted for the screen the following year, and that was his first movie credit. For a time he was in a two act with bodybuilder and future movie star Steve Reeves. Bernie returned to the Broadway stage for Heaven on Earth (1948), Along Fifth Avenue (1949), Pal Joey (1952), Wish You Were Here (1953), and Whistler’s Grandmother (1952).
On TV, Bernie got to recreate a lot of the sort of thing he did in burlesque with some of old cohorts. On the variety show Cavalcade of Stars in 1950, he got to clown around with Herbie Faye, on a bill with Jack Pearl, and Cliff Hall. Jackie Gleason had him on his variety show and also several episodes of The Honeymooners. He also did The Red Buttons Show and The Ben Blue Show, and in appeared in the 1961 Jerry Lewis movie The Ladies Man. More often he was cast in bit parts on cop shows and westerns. His last movie was Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke (1961), in which he played a salesman. In 1965, he returned to Broadway to be top banana in Ann Corio’s This Was Burlesque. He was still touring with that show when he died onstage six years later.
For more on variety entertainment, 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
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