After the demise of vaudeville, about 30 years B.C., (Before Comedy Clubs), the nightclub comic was born. Back then, any comic worth his salt was able to get behind a piano, walk among the tables, parody popular songs, create crazy characters and adlib his way out of most any situation. One of the best nightclub comics to ever deliver a punch line was Harry Jarkey.
Jarkey was born in Nashville, Tennessee on August 11, 1913. He was the son of a
merchant, but show business was in his blood. His uncle worked with the Singer
Midgets (of Wizard of Oz fame) and his first cousin was singer Dinah
Shore. As a youngster Harry formed a dance act with his sister Estelle, performing at
various functions in and around Nashville. In high school Harry acted in three
plays a year and worked with the prestigious Ralph Bellamy Players.
the Great Depression the dance marathon craze hit the country in a big way.
Often called walkathons, the marathons were human endurance contests in which
couples danced non-stop for hundreds of hours, competing for prize money. The
festivities always featured a live band and a comic master of ceremonies. Fresh
out of high school and looking for a show biz gig, Harry signed with Leo A.
Seltzer’s Walkathon circuit as a midnight emcee. On more than one occasion
Harry crossed paths with another struggling young walkathon emcee named Red
the early days Harry worked for free, just to get established in the business.
After three years, dozens of props, hundreds of routines and thousands of jokes,
Harry made an effortless transition to nightclubs. The young comic toured throughout the Midwest and along the east
coast. Harry took root in Detroit, where he played at such popular local nightspots as The Bowery, the Hi-Lo Club, Club
509 and the Corktown Tavern. While in Detroit Harry met Amos Jacobs,
who at the time was earning $10.00 a performance as a singer/comedian on Chuck
Stanley’s Happy Hour radio program. Amos
later changed his name to Danny
Thomas, and the rest, they say, is history. The
two remained lifelong friends.
1935 Harry began a thirty-year association with the Wenona Beach Casino in Bay
City, MI., where he headlined for twelve weeks every summer. It was at Wenona
Beach where the young comic came into his own.
In a 1977 interview Harry describes the experience. “It used to be like
a house party at the Casino. The same people kept coming out. Some of them sat
in the same chairs, the same tables. I packed them in close. In three weeks the
guy next to you was an old buddy, and you didn’t even know him.”
first exposure to television was Educator Cracks, an early audience
participation show on WWJ-TV. In 1957 WXYZ-TV’s general manager John Pival
thought Harry would be the perfect host for a new morning talk show. Our
Friend Harry was a two-hour variety program with music, news, interviews,
human-interest stories and films. In a 1957 interview Harry described the
program as “ a local show with a homey atmosphere to please all ages. We try
to have something for children and husbands as well as wives.” Harry’s
friends on the show included Jean Loach, newsman Dick Femmel, pianist Marion
Rivers and Marv “Wixie’s Wonderland” Welch.
Celebrity guests such as Van Heflin, Chuck Conners, Jeff Chandler, Betty White
and King of Sweden Gustav VI Adolf also appeared on the show. Our Friend Harry ended
its run in 1959.
House, a Saturday morning game show for kids, debuted on August 1,
1959. It featured cartoons, races, games and stunts. Harry was ably assisted on the show by Ricky the Clown,
Detroit Polka legend Stan
Wisniach and Jimmie Stevenson.
frantic pace would have worn down a lesser man. He worked the clubs during the
week, drove one hundred miles to Wenona Beach for Friday night, drove back to
Detroit for Saturday morning’s Fun House show and then back again to
Wenona Beach for the Saturday night show.
House closed its doors for the last time in 1961, but Harry continued
performing throughout the 1960s and 70s at places like The Roostertail in
Detroit, Windsor’s Elmwood Casino and Chicago’s Playboy Club.
retired from show business at the age of 75. He moved to southern California to
be near his best friend, Danny Thomas. Harry’s last appearances were on behalf
of Danny’s charity, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
The veteran comedian still keeps in touch with a few of his friends from the old Wenona Beach days. “I’ve been all over the world and there isn’t any place I’ve been where I haven’t run across someone from Bay City, Midland or Saginaw who remembered me and my act. They’ve always greeted me like a long-lost buddy. It’s nice… I’m grateful.” Thank you, Harry, for a lifetime of entertainment.
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