This one goes out to my good friend and former musical collaborator Sarah Engelke, who introduced me to the joys of dialect comedian and novelty song performer Yogi Yorgesson (1908-1956). Sarah’s from the midwest, where naturally there’d be a much bigger market for Scandinavian humor than the northeast where I’m from.
Yorgesson was Norwegian-American. His real name was Harry Skarbo, although he was later adopted by a family named Stewart, and he took on their surname in private life. Born and raised in Tacoma, Washington Stewart began his professional career on local radio at age 19, as an announcer, news and weather reader, and entertainer (he played the banjo). From 1932 to 1937 he was a regular on the Al Pearce show, and this is where he developed the character of Yogi Yorgesson, which soon became popular in nightclubs as well. The original gag of the act is indicated by the character’s first name. In the routine he was a mystical fortune teller with a turban and a crystal ball, but he did the whole thing with a “Yumpin’ Yiminy” Norwegian accent. The combination is funny, but sort of a one joke idea. Fortunately the character was comical enough to stand on its own and he eventually dropped the swami material.
In 1939, Stewart moved to Chicago, a much bigger radio market with much swankier nightclubs. By the end of the decade he had begun making comedy records, and this amplified his fame through the end of his life. It became, in fact, how most people came to know him. His biggest selling his was the single “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” backed with “Yingle Bells,” released in 1949. Yogi remained his most popular character but he also began expanding into other dialect characters as well. By the ’50s he was beginning to get some TV exposure, and appeared more than once on The Jack Benny Program.
Sadly it all ended in 1956 when he was killed in a crash crash while returning home from a gig in Nevada. He was only 47. But families like my friend Sarah’s still play his records, especially at Christmastime.
To learn more about the history of show business, including comedy dialect acts like that of Yogi Yorgesson, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,