Eddie Cantor was born on the Lower East Slde of New York City in 1892 (exact date in question) and lost his parents by the age of three. Upon receiving the news that her grandson was now an orphan, his grandmother, Esther, took care of him. They eked out a meager existence in the basement of a tenement on Henry Street; Esther sold candles and ran an employment agency for girls who hoped to get work as servants. As Eddie got older, his close proximity to the opposite sex was not in the least bit annoying to him. He began to show signs of being an entertainer by singing in the streets, juggling and just plain making a spectacle of himself. He also took jobs at local businesses like Issac Gellis on Market Street. Phyllis Rosenteur, who helped him write one of his last books The Way I See It, recalls him sending her Issac Gellis hot dogs, staying loyal to that product some fifty years later!
The streets of the Lower East Side were not unlike that of our tough urban neighborhoods today. You basically had a choice-make something of yourself or end up in trouble with the law. Eddie credited Grandma Esther and the Henry Street Settlement with keeping him on the right track. The Settlement still exists in the same spot today.
As he reached his teens, he began to win local talent contests at theaters like Miner's Bowery; he also won the attention of one Ida Tobias who lived up the street from him at 123 Henry. It was the tenement with the nude statues out front. (They're still there). Ida was extremely supportive and encouraged his entertaining endeavors. They married in 1914. Their honeymoon was spent in London, where he appeared in one of Charlot's musicals.
He teamed up with Al Lee and was booked in Los Angeles, where songwriter Earl Carroll recommended him to theatrical producer Oliver Morosco. Morosco featured him in Carroll's show, Canary Cottage. It was from this show that the great Florenz Ziegfeld scooped him up for his "Midnight Frolic" at the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street in New York. His energy was enormous; with a performance at 1:15 a.m. he felt he could also ask Max Hart to book him into vaudeville. Ziegfeld wouldn't hear of it. After 27 weeks, Frolic closed and Ziegfeld put him into the "Ziegfeld Follies of 1917".
The Follies were good to Cantor. Not only was he becoming a major star, but so were his good friends, like W.C . Fields, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers . He performed in the Follies of 1917, 1918, and 1919. It was at this point that he became active in Actor's Equity Association and closed down Broadway theaters in a strike to give rights to actors. Ziegfeld was furious and now refused to have him star in a leading role. However, that didn't stop the Shuberts, who cast him in the touring revue, "Midnight Rounders" . The tailor scene from this show is preserved on film in a segment of a 1930 movie called "Glorifying the American Girl".
After starring in yet another show for the Shuberts, "Make It Snappy" at the Winter Garden in 1922, Ziegfeld got him back for the Follies in June of 1923 and his own vehicle "Kid Boots" at the end of that year. This show ran for 479 performances and became his first silent feature for Paramount in 1926. Finally, Ziegfeld starred him in his Follies of 1927.
Ziegfeld's "Whoopee" made Eddie Cantor a millionaire. It was also during this time that he lost it all because of the Crash. But being the prolific and resilient man that he was, he came up with a book entitled "Caught Short", which became an enormous hit and helped revive his fortune. (It also didn't hurt being one of the most popular stars in show business by then.)
In 1931 he started in radio and became one of the biggest stars of that medium for the next two decades . He was also signed by Samuel Goldwyn, where he had major successes in films like "Whoopee", "Palmy Days", "The Kid From Spain", "Roman Scandals", "Kid Millions" and "Strike Me Pink." In 1937, he signed with 20th Century Fox to do "Ali Baba Goes To Town". By the 40s he was featured in "Forty Little Mothers" for MGM and "Show Business" and "If You Knew Susie" for RKO. He also helped write a song for "Palmy Days" entitled "There's Nothing Too Good For My Baby". Strangely, he recorded the song in an unbilled guest appearance with Gus Arnheim and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra in Hollywood. This was one of quite a few writing contributions. Henry Tobias recalls, "Eddie was never a cut-in; Jolson put his name on songs, but not Eddie. He always made a real contribution." And so he did. A little known fact is that the Merry Melodies-Warner Brothers cartoon theme was actually written by Murray Mencher, Charles Tobias and Eddie Cantor !
When World War II broke out, Cantor supported and entertained our troops tirelessly. He travelled to Europe and actually helped get men, women and children on boats to safety. He got together with President Roosevelt and created The March of Dimes to help cure infantile paralysis. He served as the second national president of the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) from 1933 to 1935, as well as the first national president of the American Federation of Radio Artists (later AFTRA) and the Jewish Theatrical Guild. The New York Times reported that his "loans" to down-on-their-luck actors were uncountable.
Cantor went on to star in television on a show for NBC called the Colgate Comedy Hour. The show alternated guest hosts and when Eddie Cantor hosted, it was the only time NBC ever beat Ed Sullivan! In 1952 he suffered his flrst heart attack. A second one a while later forced him into semi-retirement. He did, however, continue to write books, articles and do occasional guest appearances on radio and television.
The death of his daughter, Margie, in 1959 devastated both him and Ida. Her death in 1962 weakened him even more. He died on October 10, 1964.
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