Imogene Coca (b. Philadelphia, November 18, 1908; d. Westport, CT, June 2, 2001) was an award-winning American singer, dancer, and comic actress best known for her roles on Sid Caesar’s television sketch-comedy series, Your Show of Shows (1950–54).
The parents of Imogene Fernandez de Coca were both entertainers: her father, José Fernandez de Coca, was a well-known Philadelphia violinist and orchestra leader, and her mother, Sadie Brady, was a dancer and a magician’s assistant. As a child Imogene studied piano, dancing, and singing. Hoping for a career as a dancer, she moved to New York City when only fifteen, and got her first job on Broadway in the chorus of When You Smile (1925). In the early ’30s she became a headliner in New York nightclubs like the Rainbow Room, the Silver Slipper, and Café Society Uptown, and appeared in Broadway revues, singing the likes of “Lets Go Out In the Open Air” and “It Was Never Like This.”
The comic element entered her act quite by chance in New Faces of 1934: during a rehearsal, the theatre was freezing cold, so the choreographer lent her his overcoat. She and three male dancers began to clown around, improvising silly dance steps in an effort to keep warm; the choreographer saw the comic effect and convinced them to repeat their routine in the show, complete with overcoat. It had the audience in stitches, and Imogene Coca’s career in comedy was born. She spent the next four summers working in the Poconos with comedians like Danny Kaye and Carol Channing, and played comic parts in three films, but back on Broadway she continued to sing and dance in revues until 1945. Robert Burton, whom she married in 1934, did most of her musical arrangements.
It was not until 1949 that she landed a spot opposite another comedian on television, Sid Caesar in NBC’s Admiral Broadway Revue. The sparks flew, and in the fall of 1950, NBC launched Your Show of Shows, which would win an Emmy® for Coca in 1952. In search of greener pastures, both Coca and Caesar left the show in 1954, but neither ever achieved singly the popularity they had enjoyed together. The Imogene Coca Show lasted only one season, and other attempts at reunion (Sid Caesar Invites You, 1958) were less than successful. Coca made several guest appearances on television series episodes, and made Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) with Jack Lemmon, before creating another character all her own, Aunt Grindl, in the television series Grindl (1963–64). After another series It’s About Time (as a cave woman) in 1966–67, Coca returned to guesting on such shows as Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Love, American Style, and Trapper John.
The original cast from Your Show of Shows reunited in a Special on CBS in 1967; this time the magic returned, for it won an Emmy® for Outstanding Variety Special. In the 1970s and 80s Coca made sporadic guest appearances on television and in the movies, notably with Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). In 1994 she narrated fourteen episodes of Garfield and Friends. Coca’s last Broadway appearance was in 1978, as religious zealot Letitia Primrose – a role adapted specifically for her – in the Coleman/Comden and Green musical On the Twentieth Century. It earned her a nomination for a Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.
Imogene Coca’s first husband Bob Burton died in 1955; she married actor King Donovan in 1960 and lived with him in Manhattan and Westport, CT, until his death in 1987. She died of natural causes at ninety-two, having suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for some time.