Wonderful Smith, 97; comic with Ellington nudged boundaries of race

By Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times / September 16, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Wonderful Smith - whose boundary-pushing comedy routine in Duke Ellington's satirical revue "Jump for Joy," staged in Los Angeles in 1941, helped the black cast rebel against racial stereotypes in entertainment - died Aug. 28 of natural causes at an assisted-living facility in Northridge. He was 97.

His "Hello, Mr. President?" monologue lampooned the New Deal and World War II preparations, from which blacks were excluded, and it invariably stopped the show at the Mayan Theatre downtown.

Pretending to talk on the telephone, Mr. Smith would ask an operator to get the president on the line, telling her to "just charge it to the New Deal."

"This is buck private Wonderful Smith of Arkansas. . . . No sir, I'm not related to Governor Al Smith," he would say, referring to the former New York governor. "There's quite a difference in us. As much difference as night and day."

Tame by today's standards, Mr. Smith's comedy was audacious for its time. The routine was controversial partly because it imagined a phone conversation between the president, then Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a black man, "an unthinkable scenario for the day," the Los Angeles Times reported in 1999.

"He was courageous for getting out there and doing what he did; his comedy was groundbreaking," said Jill Watts, a professor of African-American history at California State University, San Marcos, who had interviewed Mr. Smith.

In staging the show, Ellington said he wanted to "take Uncle Tom out of the theater and say things that would make the audience think." Later, he called the musical one of his most significant achievements.

Mr. Smith became a part of the 60-member cast that included tap dancers, ex-minstrel comics, and singers after seeing an announcement for an "all-colored revue."

When Charlie Chaplin saw Mr. Smith rehearsing, he suggested the comedian work on his material in private, said Patricia Willard, who interviewed Mr. Smith for a 1988 Smithsonian audio recording that documented parts of "Jump for Joy."

According to Willard, Chaplin said, "If he rehearses out in the open, Bob Hope's and Jack Benny's legmen will steal his material, and his routine will be stale."

At the end of his audition, Mr. Smith was asked where he was appearing and replied, "Grace Hayes Lodge's parking lot."

He had shown up at the San Fernando Valley nightclub to try out as a comedian, but was told the only job available to him was parking cars. He took it and polished his material on celebrities who frequented the hangout.

The Times described the monologue that emerged in 1941 as hilarious.

Near the end of the Ellington revue's run, Mr. Smith was cast as a cook on Red Skelton's radio show, leading him to be called radio's "Negro comedy find of the year" in 1941, Gerald Nachman wrote in "Raised on Radio" (1998).

Drafted into the Army in 1942, Mr. Smith was one of the few blacks who worked as a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Service. He served until 1945.

Back home, Mr. Smith was fired by the producers of "The Red Skelton Radio Show" in 1947 because, in Mr. Smith's words, he "had difficulty sounding as Negroid as they expected."

As an actor, he played the occasional bit part on television and in the movies. His scene as a janitor in the 1984 film "This Is Spinal Tap" caught the fancy of a Chicago rock group that adopted the name Wonderful Smith, Willard said.

The comedian with the unlikely given name was born June 21, 1911, in Arkadelphia, Ark., to Sam Smith Sr., a farmer, and his wife, Mattie.

Wonderful did not realize his name was unusual until classmates stared at him during his first school roll call. He repeatedly told people his parents chose it because they were so thrilled over his birth. His siblings had more conventional names.

At 16, Mr. Smith came to Los Angeles. He married three times but had no children and leaves no immediate survivors.

In 1935, he was surprised to find himself riding a streetcar with actress Hattie McDaniel. She told him that she was planning to buy a car but confided that she didn't know how to drive, Watts wrote in "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood" (2005).

By the time the streetcar ride ended, McDaniel had hired Mr. Smith as her part-time chauffeur. He became one of her closest friends and escorted the actress he called "Miss Mac" to the Academy Awards in 1940 when she became the first black to win an Oscar for her supporting role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind." Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove dramatizes the moment in the 2005 poem "Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove":

Her gloves white, her smile chastened, purse giddy with stars and rhinestones clipped to her brilliantined hair, on her free arm that fine Negro, Mr. Wonderful Smith.

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