Newspaper Enterprise Association, syndicated
28 August 1940

Toughest Job For Comedian Silvers Is Gaining Entrance To Film Studio

By Paul Harrison
NEA Service Staff Correspondant

Hollywood—In a restaurant near Republic the other noon, a little girl edged between the tables, put an autograph book on top of Patsy Kelly’s omelet and demanded a signature. Miss Kelly obliged, then said, “Hey, wait—you’d better get this fellow’s autograph, too. Maybe you don’t know Phil Silvers, but he’ll be a big name in pictures one of these days.”

The brat stared at the pink-faced, goggle-eyed young man at the table and picked up her book. “I’ll wait!” she snapped.

Yokel Boy, 1939 illustration. Elmer Whipple (Buddy Ebsen), Punko Parks (Phil) and Mary Hawkins (Lois January).
Punko entices Mary to come to Hollywood, where stardom awaits. Louis B. Mayer would make the same pitch to Phil.

ENLARGE

Hit Parade of 1941. Frances Langford (left) and Patsy Kelly.

Mr. Silvers isn’t insulted because Hollywood fails to recognize him. He’s better known in the midlands and the east as a vaudeville comic, and smirking patrons of the strip-and-grind houses knew him for three years. Broadway saw him for a few brief weeks last winter in one of the top roles in “Yokel Boy,” a musical which didn’t quite make good.

It was that show, though, which brought him a contract in Hollywood. Incidentally, it also led to the rediscovery of Judy Canova, who once languished for a year at Paramount. She and Silvers are together again in Republic’s “Hit Parade of 1941,” he having been loaned for it by Metro.

Trombone Player Tipped Him Off

It was a big night for the comedian when Louis B. Mayer attended “Yokel Boy” and sat in the front row. “I knew before he came backstage I was hired,” chuckled Silvers. “The trombone player in the pit heard Mr. Mayer talking about me and came back and tipped me off.”

While he went on the set to play a short scene with Patsy Kelly and Frances Langford, I learned Silvers is a radio announcer in the picture. Sings, too, and has a dance number. He seems to have about all the vaudevillistic talents except maybe knife throwing and bird calls. Even plays a clarinet. Mostly he’s a fast-talking funnyman. Used to do a single and write his own acts.

It seems he was always being discovered by somebody and promised breaks in big musicals or pictures. But nothing happened, somehow, and Silvers began to lose confidence in himself. “Comedians are morose guys, you know,” he said. “And I’m worse than most.”

With vaudeville in such an unhappy state, he decided to go into burlesque, the training school for many a star. He stayed there three years, mostly for the Minskys, and developed new assurance and his sense of timing. It was from the Gaiety stage he finally was signed for his first Broadway show, and after four days of tryouts in Boston he was given the biggest role although Buddy Ebsen was starred.

Shaw Does Good Turn

With Artie Shaw, published May 1940.

“After Boston,” Silvers recalled, “the company laid off three days before going into New York, and right away I began to get the jitters about my big chance. On the day we were to open I felt like I just had to face an audience—a familiar audience—before I faced the boiled shirt crowd. So I went over to Minsky’s Gaiety and played the 6:30 show, and from there I had to rush to the Majestic for ‘Yokel Boy’s’ first night.”

His six months at Metro haven’t been very eventful. Most of the time he has had trouble getting in the gate. Last April he telephoned his old friend, Artie Shaw, and said, “I’m supposed to be working at Metro but can’t get on the lot. What do you suggest?”

“I’II take you on,” said the cocky Shaw, who hadn’t worked for the studio for a year. And he did. While they were strolling around, they visited the “Two Girls on Broadway” set and Shaw saw Lana Turner for the first time since they had disliked each other in “Dancing Co-ed.” They were married that night in Las Vegas.