Greek-American Blackface: Stereotypical Characters in the 1930s-1940s
Stereotypical Characters in the 1930s-1940s
Published in The National Herald, October 8-14, 2016 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer
We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
The recognizable stereotypic trait that marked one as a Greek in North America was fractured speech. Malapropisms were at the root of all Greek-dialect comedians. But mangling the English language was not limited to Greeks in the world of American ethnic humor. Settings were equally important so Greeks in these comedy performances are presented as fruit peddlers, restaurant owners, barbers, and other such trades in which the average American would most often have seen a Greek in the early 1900s. Even in movie roles where Greeks were not the subject of humor such as Smart Money, when Greeks speak with Greeks it is always in a broken form of what can only be called “wop-English.”
There were more Greek dialect comedians than anyone in Greek America now remembers. Among their number were such comedians as George Givot, known as the Ambassador of Peace, Nick Parkyakarkus, and various others who performed as stereotypic Greek characters in vaudeville acts. While Givot went so far as to attempt, from time to time, to “pass” as a Greek, the others were careful to maintain a respectable distance between their performances and their own persons.
What is important for us today is not that our grandparents and great-grandparents were the blunt subjects of broad comedy. Rather, even in these demeaning depictions much can be learned about how the average Greek was perceived by the average American. Certainly all of these non-Greek comedians and actors were attempting to entertain their audiences and not offer a sociologically correct persona. Yet within any of their efforts to entertain as a Greek persona specific traits not simply of speech but actions had to be maintained to make the jokes and their settings work.
As a classic case in point of this singular form of Greek American blackface, we need only review something of the career of ever affable Nick Parkyakarkus
On May 6, 1904, Harry Einstein was born in Boston, MA to Jewish immigrant parents Charles Einstein, a pawnbroker originally from Austria, and Sarah, who had emigrated from Russia. In his nearly thirty years as a performer, Harry Einstein proved to be highly successful comedic writer, radio, and film actor. Over the course of his career, Einstein performed under a number of different names, such as Harry Einstein, Harold Einstein, Harry “Parkyarkarkus” Einstein, Harry Parke all before becoming simply Parkyakarkus. The evolution of Harry Einstein from business man to comedian was anything but a straight line.
By the time Einstein graduated high school, his father had a successful importing business. It was while spending time at his father’s new establishment that young Harry heard all the various dialects of a wide array of ethnic immigrants that would arrive to conduct business on a daily basis. As he recalled, years later, Greek was Einstein’s favorite dialect to try and imitate. While Charles wanted his son to join him in the importing business, Einstein instead first became a newspaper reporter and then went into the advertising business and with time became one of the most successful agencies in New England. There are passing references, here and there, in Einstein’s various biographies that during this same period “he entertained at club functions” but other than these vague fragments nothing else is readily available on his public performances during this early period.
The odd circumstances surrounding Einstein’s 1932 debut on radio was once described in a press release. After describing Einstein’s early life and success at running an advertising agency in Boston, the release went on to detail the following events. I should add parenthetically first that by the late 1940s the average American knew Einstein not only as Parkyakarkus but by the affectionate diminutive of Parky as well: “Parky had sold one of his clients the idea of a radio comedy show. He auditioned some 20 comedians but none of them pleased the client. As time grew short, and still no funny man, the client suggested that Parky try it. He did and the show not only pleased the client but also the listening audience. Thus Parky was launched on his professional comedy career.”
Whatever can be said Einstein’s first radio program in Boston was unquestionably an instant sensation. In 1934, famed American comedian Eddie Cantor heard Einstein’s show and immediately hired him for his own radio program. For those unfamiliar with the history of American radio entertainment it is well recognized that “The Eddie Cantor Show” was the biggest blockbuster of the early years of radio. So, Einstein’s regular appearance on this show, as the Parkyakarkus character, meant that the largest American audience of any listening to radio in the 1930s heard this comedian’s characterization of a Greek. Aside from his regular murder and mayhem of the English language, Parkyakarkus was portrayed on this show as a “food-stand owner.”
An unintended consequence of the lasting popularity of “The Eddie Cantor Show” is that for those interested in hearing Parkyakarkus they can readily find re-issued compact disk recordings of hours and hours of this program (originaloldradio.com).
It is said in most historic accounts on Harry Einstein’s radio career that he did his best comedic work as Parkyakarkus on Cantor’s show. Einstein spent four years as a regular cast member as well as accompanying Cantor in his film Strike Me Pink in 1936. “In one of the film’s highlights Parkyakarkus shows his strength by tearing a phone book in half. “Wait a minute!” shouts Cantor, “you’re tearing one page at a time!” Parkyakarkus: “I ain’t in a hurry (comedystars.com).”
But Einstein as Parkyakarkus did not stay on the Cantor show but moved on in 1938 to “The Al Jolson Lifebuoy Show,” staying until he briefly dropped out of radio in 1941. Without going into any detail, Einstein also appeared as Parkyakarkus occasionally on “The Jimmy Durante Show” during this period as well. It does seem a bit odd that after four years of weekly broadcasts on the Eddie Cantor Show and then another four years on the “The Al Jolson Lifebuoy Show,” always appearing as Parkyakarkus, to say nothing of his own latter radio show Harry Einstein’s comedic career has escaped the attention of every single Modern Greek scholar.
This omission is even more striking given the fact that Parkyakarkus was to get his own Greek-American diner, albeit on the radio.
MEET ME AT PARKY’S
“Meet Me at Parky’s,” was a radio situation comedy featuring Harry Einstein as Nick Parkyakarkus, the Greek immigrant owner of a small neighborhood restaurant. Written largely by Einstein, with regular input by Hal Fimberg, the show featured Parkyakarkus as the chief cook and bottle washer of this all-too typical small shortorder Greek diner. The program first aired on June 17, 1945. Joan Barton played the cashier, Ruth Perrott, played the reoccurring customer Prudence Rockbottom, Sheldon Leonard appeared regularly in his usual con-artist type of persona as Orville Sharp. Also heard as regular cast members were Frank Nelson and Leo Carey. The singing talents of Betty Jane Rhodes, David Street, Peggy Lee and Patty Bolton were regularly heard along with the music of Opie Cates and his Orchestra. Art Gilmore was the announcer. The show was sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes. The show caught on and for four years the Greek dialectician became one of America’s favorite comedians.
Einstein’s son, actor, director and screenwriter Albert Brooks (nee Albert Lawrence Einstein) during his interview in Playboy recalled from memory one of the comedy routine’s from “Meet Me at Parky’s.”
“One bit I always remember from that show: My dad was slowly typing up the menu for his restaurant and misspelling everything. Roast: R-U-S-T. Beef: B-I-F. His assistant at the restaurant came in and said, “All right Parky, I’m in a hurry just give me the menu and give it to me quickly! I have a lot to do.” He said “Okay you want it quickly? We’re going to have sirloin steak and tenderloin steak, good piece lamb chop, great big pork chop, nice fried onions, fresh peeled scallions, frenchfried potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes; string beans, baked beans, hup beans, too; cookeral, hookeral, chicken stew; mackerel, pickerel, haddock, tripe; lobster, oyster, shrimp or pike; hot pies, cold pies, soft pie, mud pie, ickleberry, bermberry, stroomberry, too; stiff cream, whipped cream, plain cream, no cream; squashed-up apple, coconut, custard; mustard, ketchup, chili, salt and pepper and a pick-alilly. Twenty-five cents!”
One description of Einstein’s scripting of “Meet Me at Parky’s notes: “He often combines comedy with pleas for humanitarian causes. Last year he championed the cause of higher wages for school teachers; for greater public appreciation of the work of postal carriers and employees; emphasized the activities of America’s policemen to preserve life, law and order; and made an inspiring plea for greater church attendance. Parky feels that the occasional mixing of a serious message now and then with comedy is a very effective means of conveying important thoughts to the people (Nostalgia Digest April/May 2002).”
One of the Parky’s programs I heard has a doctor that Parky supported through medical school come back to see his Greek mentor, not just to thank or acknowledge him but to speak about why the March of Dimes is so important and needs the support of more Americans.
How much of all that sounds like the war bond drives and other civic programs small Greek businessmen were famous for supporting throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s?
FILMS AND LATER YEARS
Between 1936 and 1945 Einstein appeared in eleven feature length films and three short feature films as Parkyakarkus. The feature length films include: Strike Me Pink (1936), New Faces of 1937, The Life of the Party (1937), She’s Got Everything (1937) Night Spot (1938), Glamour Boy (1940), A Yank in Libya (1942), The Yanks Are Coming (1942), Sweethearts of the USA (1944), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1945), and Out of This World (1945). Einstein is credited as writer on the three movie shorts: See Your Doctor (1939), Movie Pests (1944) and Badminton (1945). Before you go an order any of these films, just to see Harry Einstein perform as Parkyakarkus, go to www.Youtube.com and see one of his tangle-tongued skits from A Yank in Libya. What I found interesting in this film is that Parkyakarkus plays none other than ‘Parkyakarkus’ which is completely acceptable to all.
Einstein married actress and singer Thelma Leeds and the couple had three sons: Clifford Jay Einstein born in 1939, who became a writer and actor, Stewart Robert Einstein born in 1942 best known for his comedic character Super Dave Osborne and Albert Lawrence Einstein born on July 22, 1947 who later made a career for himself as Albert Brooks. By his first marriage to Lillian Anshen, he was the father of Charles Einstein, a writer.
Harry Einstein died on November 24, 1958 and is most often described in published accounts as simply “a radio dialect comedian.” On the Hollywood Walk of Fame there is a Star with only the name Parkyakarkus. Seems to me more could have been said about a comedian who used a Greek-American mask to spread not just humor but also a universal humanitarian message as well.