Sunday, May 8, 2011
Article: Danny Thomas Puts His Life and Work on Paper
When I started this blog, one of the first inspirations I drew upon was the story of Danny Thomas, who perhaps is considered the most recognized American devotee of St. Jude (mainly during the last half of the 20th century). This week, I would to follow-up two previous posts on Danny Thomas (here, and here) with another article on the entertainer and devotee (source link here).
Since its inception, this blog has drawn visitors and readers from 140 countries. My hope is to find and draw attention to the inspiration of and work by devotees of St. Jude from around the world, such as The School of St. Jude founded by Gemma Sisia (here).
"Blessed is he who knows why he was born."
Danny Thomas, 77 years and 1 day old, is sitting on a sofa at his midtown hotel comparing the comedians of today with the ones of his generation. "Most of the new comics have about six or seven great minutes," Mr. Thomas says. "After that, they have to garbage it up to be out there for maybe 20 minutes. In our day, you did an hour."
He raises his left hand to his mouth, and gray smoke from the long cigar that is clenched between his fingers drifts over his not-quite-as-gray hair. He reaches up to adjust the black-rimmed eyeglasses that somewhat disguise his trademark large hook nose, a nose that three movie producers -- Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn -- could not persuade him to change.
"The new comics' subject matter is not deep enough," Mr. Thomas continues. "They don't get to the core of the people. There's really no substance, no universality to what they're doing. There's no artistry there." He takes another puff. "They have one big problem. They have to start on top. They go on the talk shows or to the big comedy clubs and the first time out they must be scared to death. They have no place to stink. We did. Oh, did we stink!" An Autobiography
The tale of the days in which he stank, as well as the years in which he soared, is told in in Mr. Thomas's autobiography, "Make Room for Danny," which he wrote with Bill Davidson and which is being published by G. P. Putnam's Sons.
It is the story of Muzyad Yakhoob (his name was later changed to Amos Jacobs, and his friends still call him Jake), the son of Lebanese immigrants who was born in Deerfield, Mich., on Jan. 6, 1914, and grew up with his eight brothers and one sister largely in Toledo, Ohio. It is the story of a high-school dropout who went into show business with the dream of becoming a character actor. (It is a dream he still pursues; his daughter Marlo Thomas is working on a movie for the two of them to do together.) He was a character actor on radio, although one of his first radio jobs was making the sound of horses' hooves on a "Lone Ranger" show by beating his chest with two toilet plungers.
But he had a yen for comedy and after rough beginnings became a night-club star, with the encouragement and assistance of Abe Lastfogel, then the head of the William Morris Agency. He took the name Danny Thomas, combining the first names of two of his brothers, at the 5100 Club in Chicago in 1940.
Then came movies, followed by major success on television in the situation comedy "Make Room for Daddy," later known as "The Danny Thomas Show," which ran from 1953 to 1964 and is still seen in reruns. And he became a successful television producer, first with Sheldon Leonard and then with Aaron Spelling, creating such shows as "The Real McCoys," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mod Squad." No One-Liners
But through it all, he remained a comedian -- a special kind of comedian. Danny Thomas does not deliver one-liners. "My people are inherently storytellers," he explains. "When I was a kid, the entertainment was somebody from the old country or a big city who came and visited and told tales of where they came from. And my mother was very good at it. She could not read or write in any language, yet she would see silent movies and make up her own scenarios."
Of his comic tales, the one that is his signature is known as the Jack Story:
There's this traveling salesman who gets stuck one night on a lonely country road with a flat tire and no jack. So he starts walking toward a service station about a mile away, and as he walks, he talks to himself. "How much can he charge me for renting a jack?" he thinks. "One dollar, maybe two. But it's the middle of the night, so maybe there's an after-hours fee. Probably another five dollars. If he's anything like my brother-in-law, he'll figure I got no place else to go for the jack, so he's cornered the market and has me at his mercy. Ten dollars more."
He goes on walking and thinking, and the price and the anger keep rising. Finally, he gets to the service station and is greeted cheerfully by the owner: "What can I do for you, sir?" But the salesman will have none of it. "You got the nerve to talk to me, you robber," he says. "You can take your stinkin' jack and..."
Mr. Thomas laughs. "The story has the fundamentals of real comedy," he says. "Show me a man or a woman in trouble, and I'll show you a funny man or woman. People can relate to it. They have all been in situations where they suffered anticipation and slow burn, and those are two great commodities in comedy." A Vow Fulfilled
Through the years Mr. Thomas has been known for his deep religious faith. (Bob Hope's one-liner on the subject is that his friend Danny is so religious the highway patrol stops him for having stained-glass windows in his car.) The classic tale about Mr. Thomas is that early in his career, when things were not going well and after his wife, the former Rose Marie Cassaniti, had urged him to leave show business, he prayed to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of the hopeless, impossible and difficult cases, asking the saint to set him on the right path. He vowed that if the saint did so he would build him a shrine. To this day, Mr. Thomas says, he believes in the saint, and still has conversations with him.
"After that, everything happened to me so quickly that it had to be more than a coincidence," he says. "I never prayed for fame and fortune. I wasn't trying to do anything but make a living. I was hoping that the radio producers would have more faith in my ability to play character roles. All I wanted was to get a house in the country, buy a station wagon, raise my kids."
The shrine he built, with the help of many other people, turned out to be the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. And, he says, there is no doubt in his mind that the hospital is his most important accomplishment.
"There's no question of it," he says proudly. "That's my epitaph. It's right on the cornerstone: Danny Thomas, founder."
He still spends much of his time raising money for the hospital. "We raised $92 million last year," he says, "and spent only 22 cents on the dollar to raise it."
It is, he is convinced, the reason he was born. A while back, he had a family coat of arms designed, with a family motto. "The motto is 'Blessed is he who knows why he was born,'" he says. "And I am blessed."
"I never prayed for fame and fortune," said Danny Thomas during an interview. "I wasn't trying to do anything but make a living."