Among the constellation of worthy subjects demanding to be illuminated, Phil Silvers is not one of them. Not that he’s unworthy. But Phil Silvers. Really? He’s a fossilized relic leftover from the Vaudevillian Era – a prehistoric time when tummlers, crooners and acrobats performed on poorly lit, unmicrophoned stages. As you may recall from your high school Celebrity Geology classes, the Vaudevillian Era was sandwiched between the Shakespearian Period – a period marked by proto-thespians in unmolted drag crawling out from under the curtain and soliloquizing anyone at the Globe who would listen, and the Television Epoch when shadowy 2-dimensional images ruled the airwaves and were at the apex of the entertainment food chain.
Phil Silvers barely registers with me and probably doesn’t move the needle with most of you either. Although justly beloved by many, he was the kind of entertainer I despised as a child (me being the child here, not Phil) for one reason – utterly predictable humor. Mr. Silvers strutted around ‘neath the proscenium arch like the well-trained pro that he was: hitting his marks and delivering his punchlines. He larded his performances with super-sized gestures and lusty dollops of feigned disbelief. His predictable repertoire of hammy attributes only served to harden my bias against the so-called other white meat. He was like a very uncool uncle who you hoped would just leave the pink box of goodies from Lyncourt Bakery on the kitchen table, then get back in his 9 mpg, 1973 Plymouth Gran Fury and drive his insincere persona back to Weedsport where his “scenery eating” talents weren’t much appreciated either. And to think that Phil Silvers is responsible for today’s microwave oven technology, just boggles the mind. He isn’t responsible for it. But to think he is – oy vey.
We know him best as Sgt. Bilko of the appropriately named Phil Silvers Show; appropriate enough because his real name was Philip Silver. Born in 1911 to Russian Jews in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, his family’s 500 sq. ft. fourth floor, cold water tenement is now worth $2.1 million. It’s true. In comedy as in real estate, timing is everything. In the hardscrabble life of early 20th century New York City, the Silver’s struggled to feed themselves. Instead of Top Ramen they could only afford Bottom Ramen. A vitamin K deficiency caused young Philip to mispronounce the phrase, “molasses on the table” to great hilarity. The youngest of 3 children, Phil grew quickly and by the age of 5 he was the oldest. By 13 he was working as a singer in Vaudeville and by 17 he was once again the youngest in his family. His talent on stage led to film roles in Hollywood and eventually to syphilis.
A Way Too Convoluted Hollywood Anecdote (the elongated version)
Phil Silvers wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra’s “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)“. Although the multi-talented actor was not a songwriter, he wrote the lyrics while visiting his friend, the composer Jimmy Van Heusen. Van Heusen was a fascinating character. Somehow he managed to be the same age as everyone in his family – a feat most recently accomplished by Bart Simpson (the Simpson’s characters were all created about the same time so technically they’re the same age). Phil and Jimmy composed the tune as a birthday song for the wife of Van Heusen’s usual writing partner Johnny Burke. I’m sorry. I know. If I introduce one more character into this anecdote you’ll no longer be able to follow it without a diagram. Therefore I’ll eliminate Johnny Burke and his scolding wife too (I made her a scold so we wouldn’t feel too sympathetic towards her and would more easily get over her loss. Now you are more able to focus on this delightful anecdote, which was last seen scurrying down a rabbit hole. After it! We must retrieve, resurrect and reinvigorate this tale.).
OK. Let’s just say Phil and Jimmy wrote this birthday song for someone. Now Phil isn’t a songwriter, but the little Jew has talent (let’s just forget I said “little Jew”). So they bring the song to Sinatra, whose little daughter Nancy is having a birthday party (let’s just forget I said “these boots are made for walking.”). The duo (it was a trio but remember we whacked Johnny Burke in the last paragraph) perform the song for Frank and substitute the name Nancy for Bessie (Bessie is Johnny Burke’s wife whom the song was originally written for, but for simplicity’s sake we also eliminated her in the previous paragraph without divulging her name until now which actually complicates things, so let’s just forget I said Johnny Burke even had a wife.) Frank is impressed and records the song which becomes a popular hit in 1944 and was a staple in his live performances for many years. When it’s through being a staple it was converted into a paperclip.
The Dregs of Performing
I was born in 1961 – at least so far. Who knows? In this day of Orange being the new Black and 60 being the new 50, maybe someday 1961 will be the new 1971 and I’ll be reborn after the moon landing. In any event, by the time people of my generation witnessed the hackneyed genius of one Philip Silver he was relegated, nay consigned, to the trash heap of TV’s vast wasteland, i.e., a guest shot on Gilligan’s Island (I bet that paid handsomely – in coconuts) or perhaps a vignette on Love American Style opposite Mama Cass Elliot who by this time had already been in the grave for 2 years. Love American Style’s producers were shameless. If they could get a celebrity at no cost, they’d do it – even if the star’s last credit was Forest Lawn. They would pay their agent 10% and maybe send some flowers to the deceased celebrity’s grave, which the producers called a “dressing room.” Phil had a lot of personal problems (depression and gambling) and you could see it in his cufflinks. If he took them off he was fine, but if he put them on, he became a mass of symptoms. You see, he wore his neuroses on his sleeve.
Like most men of his generation Mr. Silvers never thought he’d be googled. Fondled maybe, but never googled. Similarly, Nancy Sinatra, in the mid-60’s (the calendar years and not her age), never thought she’d be googled either. Ogled maybe, but never googled. Phil was very comfortable on stage. Give him an audience or a camera and the chutzpah would start to fly. And what chutzpah he demonstrated. He was known as the King of Chutzpah, a crown many thought he didn’t deserve, but he took it anyway – what chutzpah! He elbowed his way past Milton Berle and Sid Cesar to claim this crown. What chutzpah! Maybe that’s why he’s the king of it. Better that than meekly accepting a crown of Non-confrontational Pliability last worn by the feckless Neville Chamberlain.
Way Too Much Self-Praise (the insincere version)
Great reference that Neville Chamberlain bit. Even I’m impressed and I wrote it. I can only imagine your amazement. Man, o man, I really like writing. And yes, I do call this writing. Great writing. I’m the King of Wordzpah. I wonder if Bessie Burke is upset that 4 year old Nancy Sinatra stole the only song that was ever written for her. I’m sure she understood though. I mean c’mon, Bessie (With the Laughing Face) – no way.
In Conclusion: As Much Truth as I’m Able to Muster (the “I’m only human” version)
I ran across a rather poignant story concerning the aged and venerable Mr. Silvers. A story my puerile poison pen and non sequitir sarcasm cannot strip of its humanity. That is; in August 1972, during a Broadway run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Silvers suffered a stroke and was left with slurred speech and a stiff gait. A few years later, Dick Cavett, upon seeing the now afflicted but still game Mr. Silvers performing in another play on London’s West End, noticed that his performance was a bit unsteady. When Mr. Cavett went back stage to converse with the stout performer, Mr. Silvers confided he’d had a stroke a few years prior, but told no one for fear of losing his bookings and manner of earning a living (5 daughters and 2 divorces). So Mr. Silvers soldiered on in stealthy silence despite his infirmities because, as the old adage goes, the show must go on. Now that’s chutzpah!
Sgt. Bilko I salute you with full-throated commendation on a flawed life fearlessly executed. We all would’ve been wise to invest in Silver. As you can see, it’s done very well.