Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Bill Dana

He became a household name, but only after trying a couple of others out first. Born William Szathmary, Bill Dana adopted a shorter, marquee-friendly moniker when he went into show business. The real recognition would come with the introduction of another name.

“My name … Jose Jimenez,” Dana would say, appearing so many times on so many television programs that eventually just saying “my name” drew laughs from the audiences.

Jose, wide-eyed and innocent, lived the life of Walter Mitty during the 1960s. He passed himself off in his various appearances as a submarine commander, a piano tuner, and, most famously, as an astronaut.

“If you’re in your 40s or 50s today, you got exposed to Jose Jimenez,” Dana says.

Before Dana retired the character in 1970 amid mounting pressure from Hispanic activists, Jose appeared on a string of record albums and television shows and a starring role on his own TV program. Eventually — and briefly — an entire television network was built around Dana’s talents.

His portrayal of a reluctant astronaut — a routine he repeated during President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural gala — earned him the respect and friendship of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, who dubbed Dana the eighth astronaut.

But without Jose, Bill Dana might just have spent his career behind the cameras. In fact, he says he might have been better off without Jose.

Dana was born in 1924 in Quincy, Massachusetts, an event later to be celebrated by his inclusion in its Quincy Hall of Fame. The youngest of six children born to Joseph and Dena Szathmary, Dana benefited from the expertise of an older brother, Arthur, who was fluent in several languages and gave his sibling his second entry into foreign languages. The first was growing up in a polyglot neighborhood where Spanish and Italian were among the languages spoken and having a Hungarian immigrant for a father.

“My brother, Arthur, he taught me the correct pronunciation,” Dana says. “As long as it doesn’t get too grammatical, I can speak French, German, Spanish, Italian certainly without an American accent. If you learn it early enough, it stays with you. I’m in no way a linguist, but I wouldn’t get lost in any of those countries because I know enough. For example, when Jose was big if somebody came up to me and talked to me in Spanish, I had no problem in getting into a conversation with them.”

His linguistic skills came in handy during World War II, where he served as an unofficial interpreter for his infantry company. Dana’s official role in Company A of the 263rd Division was manning the 60-millimeter mortar and the .30-caliber machine gun as well. He was destined for the bloody Battle of the Bulge, where nearly 90,000 Americans died, when fate intervened.

“We were heading right to relieve the troops in the Bulge,” Dana says. “I don’t see how the hell we would have come out alive. The people we were to relieve got destroyed. I went south. There was activity down there. Guys were getting killed, but it was a cakewalk compared to the Bulge.”

Dana was aboard the British transport ship Cheshire on Christmas Eve 1944 when the Belgian troopship Leopoldville was torpedoed and started to sink. The Cheshire came to the rescue, although 802 still died.

After the war, Dana returned home with a Bronze Star and studied speech and dramatic writing on the GI Bill at Emerson College in Boston. He graduated in 1950, and then headed to California. He worked a series of jobs, including driving an ice cream truck, when hometown pal Gene Wood wrote to suggest they form a comedy team. Another Emerson grad, Wood went to New York after college and landed a job as an NBC page and an appearance on the TV show "Jerry Lester’s Broadway Open House." Dana made his way to New York, where he also found a job as an NBC page and formed a partnership with Wood. He was still Bill Szathmary then, so he tweaked his mother’s first name — Dena — to create a new name for himself.

The unproven Dana and Wood took an unusual path. Instead of polishing their act in nightclubs, the comic duo appeared on television first, including NBC’s "The Kate Smith Show" and "The Milton Berle Show." Unlike other popular comedy teams, neither functioned as a straight man.

“We were not like Martin and Lewis,” Dana says. “We tried to be like two Sid Caesars.”

A half-century later, Dana still remembers some of the bits he performed with Wood.

“We did premise stuff: ‘What would have happened if?’ ‘It must have been said.’ We would say that like with an echo: ‘It must have been said. Sometime during their life together, Mrs. Albert Einstein must have said to Albert Einstein, what do you know?’ ‘Sometime during their life together, Mrs. Thomas Edison must have said to Thomas Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, I don’t care what it is, Tom, turn it off and come to bed.’

“Our act was — and is — very funny,” Dana says. “And it was timeless.”

Dana says the act was “moderately successful,” but it wasn’t without its problems. Chief among them was the audience’s perception that Wood was the straight man of the act. “We were supposed to be two funny actors, but I had the funny face and Gene had the good-looking face, so people made him the straight man. The audience wasn’t used to two people performing equally, and I looked I should be the funny guy and he looked like he should be the straight man.”

Wood didn’t like being taken seriously, so the chums went their separate ways, with Wood initially going on to write for "Captain Kangaroo" and Dana lending his comic talents to "The Imogene Coca Show" and "The Martha Raye Show." But after he aggravated an old back injury, Dana decided to find more sedentary work as a writer.

“Dana and Wood broke up and I wanted to be a writer,” Dana says. “I’d been writing for the comedy team, our comedy team, with Gene. We wrote all of our own stuff. Everybody stole everybody else’s material. There would be fights between two comedians saying, ‘You stole my Phil Foster routine’ within 10 feet of Phil Foster. It was a crazy time. But we did everything original and I had experience writing stuff.”

But who to write for? His agent sent a young comedian named Don Adams to Dana, who at the time was apartment sitting for Imogene Coca on Central Park West. Adams must have thought Dana was an eccentric type, this fellow wearing a smoking jacket with a lavishly decorated apartment complete with Picassos and a color TV, who would write jokes for $15 a week. But Dana’s poise dissolved when he reached into his pocket and out fell his unemployment check.

Adams and Dana became fast friends and, briefly. Dana wrote the classic line “Would you believe?” for Adams. During an appearance in late 1954 that Adams was making on "The Steve Allen Show," Dana tagged along to watch his material being performed. The other writers on the show — Herb Sargent and Stan Burns — liked the routine and asked Dana to join the writing staff.

Dana created such lasting features as the Answer Man, in which Allen would provide a humorous answer before hearing the question. (Johnny Carson would later reprise the bit as Carnac the Magnificent during his time as host of "The Tonight Show".) Dana also proved adept at recruiting talented people for the show. He’d worked with Don Knotts on Martha Raye's show, but Knotts’ career had hit a dry spell and the West Virginian was about to give up on show business and head home when Dana brought him over to meet Allen. Knotts became a regular on the show.

But Dana’s greatest contribution, to both the show and his own career, was to come in late 1959. Dana and fellow writer Don Hinkley used to write a recurring feature called the Nutley Hinkley Butley Winkley Report, a takeoff of news anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and their Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC.

“Pre-Christmas USA was the theme of that report and I thought if we had a school for Santa Clauses and one of the instructors was Latino, if he were to write out ho ho ho it would be spelled jo jo jo,” Dana says. “I chose the name Jose Jimenez to put on the top of this blackboard so that the audience would be reminded a J sounds like an H in Spanish.”

The roots of Jose Jimenez date to 1947, when Dana visited Puerto Rico and met a man who professed to be the “Dutch representative” for the island. Dana eventually figured out the fellow was talking about Dodge, and filed the accent away in his mind. Dana sometimes slipped into various dialects to entertain his fellow writers.

“This is a character Billy had been fooling around with,” says veteran comedian and actor Pat Harrington Jr. “He didn’t just invent it one week and he went out and did it the following week.”

Allen put Dana in front of the camera to portray the Latino instructor of Santa Clauses. Harrington played the straight man, newscaster Dave Hinkley.

HINKLEY: This is Dave Hinkley at Santa Claus school in Los Angeles. Many people do not realize that every year courses are given to prospective Santa Clauses to teach them how Santa Claus is supposed to act and speak. What is your name, sir, and what course do you teach?
JOSE: My name Jose Jimenez. I teach to ... to Santy Claus, I teach to Santy Claus, I teach Santy Claus to espeak.

The audience loved it, especially when Dana pulled a covering from the blackboard that showed exactly what Jose taught Santa to say: “Jo Jo Jo.”

“There was a tremendous reaction from the audience just from identifying myself,” Dana says. “They didn’t expect to hear that sound coming out this little innocent face, I guess.”

Jose originally was to be a one-shot character, but there was little chance of retiring him after such a reception.

“I remember Billy Harbach, the producer, was watching the rehearsal during the week,” Harrington says, “and he was just beside himself. Everybody was of one opinion that this was just a hysterical thing.”

Dana got plenty of laughs out of Jose switching his Js for Hs, like the time he fawned over singer “Hulie London,” and capitalized on the popularity of the character by releasing his first album, “My name Jose Jimenez,” which contained a collection of bits from "The Steve Allen Show." The album was released on Signature Records, which Allen had founded.

“My first album was on Signature and to this very day I have no idea how many it sold. It was a huge best-seller and I never got paid,” says Dana, who blames the label’s management and not Allen.

A TV Guide article from 1960 says the album sold 90,000 copies in less than two months.

Dana, who started his career earning $33.50 a week as an NBC page, saw his popularity and fortune rise. He made $35,000 in 1959, according to TV Guide, and was expecting to double that in 1960.

An appearance on "The Garry Moore Show" in December 1960 propelled Jose Jimenez into the stratosphere. The writers wanted to find a different occupation for Jose. Neil Simon, the future playwright and a staff writer on the show, suggested Jose play the part of an astronaut. Dana and Hinkley retreated to write the bit, which would become a classic.

Steve Allen wrote in his memoir "Hi-Ho, Steverino!" that “it never particularly mattered what his [Jose’s] alleged job was, but when he finally claimed to be an astronaut, the timing could not have been better. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the nation was fascinated by the space program and Bill apparently became the only comedian dealing chiefly with that subject matter.”

His appearance as a reluctant astronaut was included in the movie version of "The Right Stuff" (1983), in which Jose banters with Ed Sullivan.

ED SULLIVAN: Now what do you consider the most important thing in rocket travel?
JOSE: To me, the most important thing about rocket travel is the blastoff.
ED: The blast off?
JOSE: I always take a blast before I take off.

A month later, Dana was in Washington, playing the reluctant astronaut before President John F. Kennedy during the inaugural gala. Milton Berle played straight man to Jose. Dana had come a long way from his day as an NBC page outside Studio 6B, where Berle had filmed his "Texaco Star Theater."

“Jose the astronaut had become a phenomenon,” Dana says.

Mickey Kapp of Kapp Records was quick to recognize that phenomenon. He produced a 45 release of the astronaut routine, which quickly became a top-selling single in 1961, and an album called “Jose Jimenez at the Hungry i.” The cover features Dana against the brick wall of the Hungry i, with the album title painted across the wall in yellow. The H in Hungry has been crossed out and replaced with a J.

Kapp re-released the album with a cover image of a rocket blasting off and retitled it “Jose Jimenez the Astronaut.” During the summer and fall of 1961, the album fought for top position on the charts against albums by Jonathan Winters, Frank Sinatra and Bob Newhart. By September, “The Astronaut” was the top-selling album in America.

Wisely, Kapp shipped copies of the astronaut album to the astronauts themselves. He sent eight albums to Langley Air Force Base in California, where the original Mercury 7 astronauts were undergoing training. (The eighth album was for the publicist for the space program.)

But Kapp says he never knew if the astronauts received the album, until he read a Life magazine article from May 1961 in which astronaut Alan Shepard quoted two lines from the album.

Shepard was a big fan of the character. He took to quoting lines from the album and speaking in an accent like Jose’s.

“Smilin’ Al used to crack up over this routine,” Tom Wolfe wrote in his book about the early space program, The Right Stuff, on which the movie was based. “He liked do the Jose Jimenez part; and if he could get someone to feed him the straight lines, he was in Seventh Heaven, Smilin’ Al version.”

As Shepard waited for the lift-off on Mercury 7 on May 5, 1961, he had Jose’s astronaut routine piped through the intercom to ease the tension.

Dana befriended the Mercury 7, showing up at launches and letting them hang out at his California home. Some astronauts even played straight man to Jose during various appearances. And the astronauts quoted Jose’s routines during their trips into space.

“We were just good pals,” Dana says. “And I became kind of like the conduit. If somebody wanted to get to the astronauts, they would pick up the phone and call Bill Dana.”

Dana considers his acceptance by the astronauts among the greatest honors of his life. He remains a big booster of the space program. Dana sits on the advisory board of the Astronaut Scholarship Fund. He was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida, as the official eighth Mercury astronaut.

Dana keeps in contact with the early astronauts. He’s particularly close to Wally Schirra and Scott Carpenter.

“I love him like a brother,” Carpenter says of Dana. “He was good for the early space program. His humor helped us through some rough spots.”

Carpenter says in the early days of the Mercury program, a California jeweler designed and made tie tacks for the astronauts. The design is the Greek symbol for Mercury with a 7 in the center. “It’s a very precious thing for us,” he says.

Carpenter says the astronauts later had one made for Dana, “but we put an 8 in the center instead of a 7 and enameled it yellow to signify cowardice.”

Other comedians did jokes about going into space as well, though none ever caught on the way Dana’s Jose character did. Charlie Manna started doing a routine in 1961 about an astronaut that won’t go into orbit until he has his box of crayons.

Author Ronald L. Smith, who has an encyclopedic mind about standup comedy, and who has actually written encyclopedias on the subject, says Dana’s success “was bigger and more enduring because he actually was the astronaut.” He says Manna and most other stand-up comics can’t convince they are somebody else when they portray a character.

“With Bill, he really was Jose the astronaut,” Smith says. “He had a straight man setting him up, so all he delivered were the vivid punchlines.”

Through the 1960s, Jose was everywhere. Dana followed up the success of the astronaut album with “Jose Jimenez in Orbit.” For the summer replacement program "The Spike Jones Show" in 1961, Dana served as producer and regularly appeared as Jose. In one routine, Jose showed up to tune the piano during the show.

SPIKE JONES: Look, you don’t tune a piano now. You tune it before the show, not while it’s in progress.
JOSE: I don’t understan’.
SPIKE: Well, look, you wouldn’t change a tire on your car while you were driving it, would you?
JOSE: Not anymore.
SPIKE: That’s ridiculous!
JOSE: And also painful.

The Jose Jimenez character was straight out of vaudeville, Dana says, with a format of setup and joke, setup and joke. Jose became more three-dimensional beginning with his debut in October 1961 on "The Danny Thomas Show." Jose took a job as an elevator operator in the apartment building on the show.

Starting in September 1963, Jose was spun off into his own program, "The Bill Dana Show," in which the character played a hotel bellman. (In a similar fashion, "The Andy Griffith Show" was a 1960 spinoff from "The Danny Thomas Show.")

NBC gave an order for 39 episodes. The Sunday night show also featured Dana’s old friend, Don Adams, as the hotel detective Byron Glick.

“I was involved with every single episode, and I only took credit on a couple of them that I had done the total first draft, but I rewrote every one of them,” Dana says. “Because a lot of really great writers they get a gig and they come in and they don’t pay attention. You’ll find that any star of any show that’s survived has to do that.”

Dana didn’t let Jose get too far from his roots. He would insert into some episodes reveries in which Jose would imagine himself an astronaut or a deep-sea diver or other heroic figure.

Previously nominated for an Emmy Award for comedy writing in 1959 for his work on "The Steve Allen Show," Dana was up again for an Emmy in the same category for his own show. But again he didn’t win, and after a total of 42 episodes The Bill Dana Show was cancelled.

Dana recites a litany of reasons why: “The Westerns. Almost everything became a Western. My ratings. They gave me a bad time slot. You pick out any copout and it was appropriate.”

At the time the show was preparing to debut, Dana told a reporter he was gambling "The Bill Dana Show" would be a success. He would lose money by doing the show — the guest appearances and personal appearances paid him better than the TV show — but said he stood to make millions if his show was a hit.

“It’s funny,” Dana says. “Perception and truth don’t necessarily go hand in hand. The perception is that Jose Jimenez made me a very wealthy man. The truth is it cost me God knows how much money because it took me off the vector where the big bucks is.”

Dana says he would have done better financially had he stayed behind the scenes and created television programs. But he says he wouldn’t change anything “especially because of my relationship with the space program.”

After the cancellation of his show, neither Dana nor Jose faded from view. Dana appeared on a string of episodes of "Hollywood Palace" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," both as himself and as Jose. He did a cameo on "Batman" and showed his dramatic skill on an episode of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

Then, on May 1, 1967, Dana went on the air with a new show. "The Las Vegas Show" was a two-hour program that aired live five nights a week on The United Network, a fledgling effort to become the fourth national television network. With Dana as host broadcasting from the Hotel Hacienda in Las Vegas, the debut show featured such talents as Sarah Vaughan, Chad & Jeremy, Allen & Rossi and Dana’s old pal, Don Adams. The show was carried on 106 independent stations.

“It was going to be a marvelous cash cow,” Dana says. “All of us were going to get tremendously wealthy. That did not happen. The opposite happened. I cashed a check for a couple of thousand dollars and just sat there handing out 10s and 20s just to give people bus fare to get home.”

The United Network filed for bankruptcy, listing $1.1 million in assets and $1.8 million in liabilities, including $25,000 owed to Dana.

The back-to-back failures of his two television efforts, coupled with a slowly growing rumbling within the Hispanic community about Jose, began to eat at Dana. A group calling itself the Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee in September 1968 called Jose’s ads for the “jellow pages” demeaning. Another group, this one called Mexican Americans in Gainful Employment, also opposed Jose.

Tom Wolfe got one thing wrong in "The Right Stuff." He wrote that Dana portrayed Jose as “a stupid Mexican immigrant.” Dana never portrayed Jose as anything but a positive, though na├»ve, figure.

“This was just a beautiful little guy, a child-adult, a good American,” Dana says. “He never did anything for himself – always for somebody else.”

But in the spring of 1970, Dana decided to retire the character.

“I wasn’t out to hurt anybody,” Dana says, “So I said let’s shelve the character. My manager and other people were really upset with me. It cost me. looking back, I’d love to have the money that I lost.”
Before a crowd of about 11,000 people — mostly Mexican-Americans — at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, he announced he was done with Jose. The audience cheered. The news made national headlines.

“I wasn’t out to hurt anybody,” Dana says, “So I said let’s shelve the character. My manager and other people were really upset with me. It cost me. looking back, I’d love to have the money that I lost.”

Dana says his bookings began to dry up. He was known as Jose Jimenez, not as Bill Dana.

He turned his attention to writing again, and signed on as head writer for "The Don Knotts Show." But he abruptly left and moved to Hawaii, settling in the tiny town of Hana on the island of Maui. Dana was suffering from depression.

He needed money, but Dana says Hollywood’s reaction to him moving to Hawaii was the same as if he’d left the planet.

“I had this whole career as a writer and head writer of 'The Steve Allen Show' and had quite a reputation as a writer,” Dana says, “and then all of a sudden Jose came along and sort of overwhelmed everything. When I was I was in Hawaii sort of looking at my navel, I realized that I had lost my identity as a writer.”

Dana reached out to Norman Lear, who he first met when Lear was writing "The Norma Raye Show." Lear had created "All in the Family," the groundbreaking comedy that dared to tackle prejudice and ignorance.

Lear was willing to give Dana a shot, and suggested he find a way to write Sammy Davis Jr. — a big fan of the show — onto "All in the Family."

“At that time, when Sammy was at the Sands, he would delay his show a half-hour and then come out on stage and tell everybody in the audience what happened in the Bunker household,” Dana says.

Dana wrote a classic episode in which Davis leaves a briefcase in Archie Bunker’s taxi and arranges to swing by to pick it up. The episode, which aired in the second season, had such classic lines as Bunker asking: “Do you want cream and sugar in your eye?”

The episode ends with Davis and Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor) posing for a photograph together. Just as the photo is snapped, Davis turns and kisses Bunker’s cheek.

Dana says he wrote one draft of the episode, which was then polished by Lear and the other writers on the show. He won’t say specifically what he contributed, but estimates 35 percent to 45 percent of what he wrote made it to air. Lear gave Dana sole credit for writing the episode. (The episode won an Emmy Award for its director but because of a mix-up the submission wasn’t made on Dana’s behalf for writing it.)

“I wasn’t in the best mental shape in that whole period, but it was a great boost,” Dana says. “Norman Lear, I can’t say enough in praise of that man and not only as a citizen but he’s just been a really very close personal friend, especially in times when I needed a pal.”

As it happened, writing for "All in the Family" didn’t do anything for Dana’s writing career. Hollywood still wasn’t calling.

In the years since, Dana returned to the mainland, married and picked up both his acting and writing career in earnest. He and his wife Evelyn live in Nashville. Dana resurrected Jose Jimenez, and this time around no one seemed to mind.

Dana reunited with some of the old gang when he appeared on an episode of "St. Elsewhere" with Steve Allen, Tom Poston and Louie Nye in 1988. He also appeared as a guest star on other TV shows in the 1980s and 1990s as "Blossom," "Sledge Hammer," "Empty Nest," "The Golden Girls" and "Too Close for Comfort."

His profile still not as high as it was in the 1960s, Dana continues to perform, sometimes as the still-innocent Jose Jimenez. But his passion these days lies with Emerson College, specifically the American Comedy Archives he’s compiling there. Dana created the archives in 2004 and since then has criss-crossed the country interviewing legendary figures of comedy. So far, he has gathered oral histories from such luminaries as Shelley Berman, Irwin Corey, Phyllis Diller, Don Knotts, Louis Nye and Jonathan Winters.

The archives contain plenty of material about Dana’s own storied career. Scripts, photographs and his own oral history are all included.

Dana says his favorite Jose Jimenez routine was the astronaut one. And as much as Dana enjoys his role as a pioneer from the early days of television, it’s his role with the space program of which he’s proudest.

“It’s very hard to pick up a book about the American space program and not have a reference [to Jose Jimenez],” Dana says. “He was referred to on every Mercury and Gemini flight one way or the other. It’s a source of great flattery and pride.”

No comments: