The life and career of Kalla Pasha (Joseph T. Rickard, 1879-1933) make for a ripping yarn, one both comical and dramatic — just like a wrestling match!
Originally a professional wrestler, Pasha performed in circuses, carnivals, and vaudeville for over a quarter of a century, beginning his career in the Chicago area. (I’ve seen New York, Detroit, and France all variously given as his place of birth). Despite being substantially shorter than six feet (estimates range from 5’3″ to 5’7″), he weighed around 300 pounds, a stout, compact, mean-faced bugger. He is known to have engaged in exhibition boxing with the likes of Jim Jeffries, Jim Corbett, and Jack Dempsey. He went by the name “The Crazy Turk”, a tag which must have haunted him during his final months.
Then in 1919 he found his ultimate niche as a heavy in silent comedies for Mack Sennett. One of his early films, out of nearly 100, was A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919) in which he played a German guard. You can also see him in A Small Town Idol (1921) with Ben Turpin, The Cat’s Meow (1924) with Harry Langdon, and as the title character in Yukon Jake (1924), again with Turpin. Pasha also worked with other comedy studios, such as Christie and Roach. A late silent comedy he appears in is the 1928 remake of Tillie’s Punctured Romance with W.C. Fields and Chester Conklin.
Straight features Pasha appeared include the original version of Ruggles of Red Gap (1923) directed James Cruze, The Dove (1927) with Norma Talmadge, the Todd Browning feature West of Zanzibar (1928), Show People (1928) with Marion Davies, and Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) with Thelma Todd, which was also released in a talkie version the same year). In the sound era he was in Show of Shows (1929), Wheeler and Woolsey’s The Cuckoos (1931), Sit Tight (1931) with Joe E. Brown and Winnie Lightner, and two Mack Sennett shorts starring Bing Crosby, I Surrender Dear and One More Chance, both in 1931.
And then: fate intervened. According to the lore, Pasha got into a fight with a street car conductor over a matter of five cents, and broke an ink bottle bottle over the man’s head. Sound like the plot to a Larry Semon comedy? Well, the finish sounds like the climax of Semon’s real life. Pasha was institutionalized, sent to a sanitarium, where he perished a year later.
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To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.