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Stubby Kaye

Stubby Kaye

Rotund comic actor and singer Stubby Kaye (b. New York City, 11 November 1918; d. Rancho Mirage, CA, 14 December 1997) had the memorable distinction of introducing three of the greatest Broadway show-stopping musical numbers of the 1950s: “Fugue for Tinhorns” (“I’ve got the horse right here”) and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” as Nicely-Nicely in Guys and Dolls (1950), and, as Marryin’ Sam in Li’l Abner (1956), “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

Born on Armistice Day, the last day of the First World War, Bernard Kotzin was a second-generation Jewish American of Russian and Austrian descent. Born in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, he grew up in Far Rockaway and The Bronx, and kept his real name a secret for his entire career. In 1939 he won a contest on Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour radio program, and spent the next decade touring on the vaudeville circuit as a singing comedian. During World War II he also appeared often with the USO.

He finally got a big role on Broadway in 1950 when he created the lovable Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Frank Loesser’s smash hit Guys and Dolls. The show ran for three years (1200 performances) although Stubby Kaye left some months before it closed, replaced by Jack Prince (the same actor who would replace him as Marryin’ Sam five years later). Close on the heels of that success came Li’l Abner, in which the roly-poly Kaye incongruously led the high-steppin’ Dogpatch chorus in “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

Kaye was already guest-starring on television in the mid-fifties (The Martha Raye Show, The Gisele MacKenzie Show. The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom), even appearing in two made-for-TV movies in between the filmings of Guys and Dolls (1955) and Li’l Abner (1959). Red Skelton capitalized on Li’l Abner’s popularity in 1960, presenting a sketch with much of the movie (and Broadway) cast, including Kaye and Peter Palmer, called “Clem Kadiddlehopper in Dogpatch.” Kaye would appear on three more episodes of The Red Skelton Hour before 1966.

After the Li’l Abner film, Stubby Kaye’s television career burgeoned, and he returned only four times to Broadway (in Everybody Loves Opal 1961, in Good News 1974, as Jack Weston‘s replacement in The Ritz 1975, and in Grind 1985) but these shows were mostly flops. He embarked in 1959 on eighteen episodes of the television series Love and Marriage, and also appeared on The Millionaire and Startime.

Another extended series, My Sister Eileen (1960–61), found Stubby Kaye as Marty Scott, agent of the aspiring actress who is Ruth Sherwood’s sister. Over the following decade, Kaye appeared as a guest on Ensign O’Toole, Alfred Hitchcock, Burke’s Law, The Smothers Brothers, and The Monkees, and hosted his own very popular children’s game show series on Saturday mornings, Shenanigans (1964–65). He also made about a dozen movies, among them notably Sex and the Single Girl (1964), Cat Ballou with Jane Fonda (in which he got to sing duets with Nat King Cole), and Sweet Charity (1969) with Shirley MacLaine.

Nightclubs and touring musicals were always part of Kaye’s performing experience. He toured as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and lived for some time in England, where he met and married Angela Bracewell, a former dancer, later hostess of “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” (Kaye’s previous marriage had lasted only a year.) He worked in television in the UK, returning in 1971 for appearances on Love, American Style and Adam-12.

Kaye had small parts in a few unremarkable films in the seventies, and did a little work in television in the eighties (Laverne & Shirley, Harper Valley, Ellis Island), but his last movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), in which he acts in scenes with cartoon characters, is most remarkable. At about the same time, he appeared as a guest in the British science fiction series, Doctor Who.

Stubby Kaye spent the last ten years of his life in bad health, finally dying of lung cancer. His wife survived him.

– Lucy E. Cross