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GOBEL, DEFT DEADPAN, TO OPEN SERIES

When you mention the Golden Age of television comedy, people think of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, Red Skelton and perhaps Ernie Kovacs--comedians who were prominent in the ‘50s.

Less apparent is the figure of George Gobel. Perhaps his low voltage, deadpan manner doesn’t carry in memory with the same glow as some of his more frenetic peers, but “The George Gobel Show” was at or near the top of the ratings from 1953 to 1961, and Gobel remained a popular guest performer until he tapered off in the ‘70s.

He didn’t have sex appeal. He didn’t make funny faces or do impersonations. And he wasn’t--or isn’t--very slick. At least on the surface. But Gobel is a first-rate storyteller with a shrewd eye for what suits him and an impeccable sense of timing. He’s one of the very few comedians of the past couple of decades who has carried the American heartland into big time media success without being a flag-waver or an unconscionable pitchman.

On Saturday at 8 p.m., Gobel will open the Celebrity Series at Wilshire Auditorium in Fullerton, and you’ll get to see for yourself how well he’s worn.

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“I’ll talk about my opening night at the Palmer Hotel in Chicago,” Gobel said in an interview. “I’ll tell how I was nervous. I started getting ready two hours before the show. I came out of the shower with no clothes on, which is what I always do, shower with no clothes on. It’s much cleaner that way. The room was steamed up. I went to open the window and fell down 14 floors. The fall didn’t bother me. The walk through the lobby did. . . .”

He trailed off. He had told as much as he intended to in order to demonstrate the subtle peculiarity of his style, in which a somewhat hapless fellow tells stories where endings keep collapsing into other endings, and he turns commonplace phrases on their ear. (For example: “My father said, ‘Son, sit down. I want to talk to you.’ I didn’t think much of it. I’d talked to him before.”)

Gobel is a crafty caretaker of the form--deceptively so. Although he had done some summer replacement work on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Saturday Night Revue,” his real TV debut came on the 1952 special “Lights Diamond Jubilee,” a program celebrating the 75th anniversary of the electric light bulb and Thomas Edison’s birthday. He played a lecturer who was going to explain an electronic brain to the common man. He was devastatingly funny.

His style then, as later, was to convey the genteel stuffy earnestness of a small town druggist trying authoritatively to explain, in a prairie flat voice, esoteric matters that weren’t very clear to him in the first place.

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“It was this intricate . . . thing,” Gobel recalls. “As the common man I had to be as common as you can get and still be sober. I’d look at it and try to explain one part or another and then say, ‘Well it’s a knob, is what it is. . . .’ ”

That face as plain as dough turned to us with an expression of such inscrutable perplexity that we couldn’t resist. He was modern man hiding his sense of abandonment in the wake of his own proliferating gadgetry. The routine was a sensation, and he was so good at it that he even had the show’s executives convinced that he was a boob trying to ad-lib his way through (“They were thinking, ‘Oh, the poor bastard,’ ” Gobel recalls).

Gobel was never a cutup, or a big laugher. At 66, he still isn’t. Show business was not something he had wanted from the start--had everything gone his way, he would have lived his professional life as an airplane pilot. But he grew up during the Depression and took to show business the tools and growing catalogue of skills a conscientious pilot-mechanic would apply to the successful function of his flying machine.

“I was born in Chicago,” he said earlier this week at his Encino home. “My folks were in the grocery business. I sang when I was a kid. I was a boy soprano, which is not a thing for a kid. In school the music teacher, Miss Burdick, thought it was just great. In assembly she’d say: ‘Boys and girls, George Gobel is gonna sing, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” The kids’d go: ‘Oh, Jesus.’ It was a hard thing for a kid.

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“I did some acting. I was Jimmy on the ‘Tom Mix Show’ on radio when I was 15. I never liked show business. In the summer, I could make $15 at the county fair, which would help out with the grocery store. The folks had a lot of customers, but nobody could pay. Everyone was on the rim. At 16, I sang commercials for Ralston for $140 a week. That’s not spit. I wasn’t gonna squander. I bought an airplane, a 40 horsepower for $100. You could see I drove a hard bargain.”

Gobel eventually went into the Army Air Corps, where he became a flight instructor. Previously, he had put in a considerable apprenticeship as a singer and radio personality on WLS in Chicago, which was beamed throughout the Midwest. Gobel cultivated his folksy manner because so many of the station’s listeners were farmers (“Some scientist discovered that cows’d give more milk if you played the radio while milkin’ ‘em,” he said, with barely a trace of disdain for the fool things scientists are apt to look into). “In those days, everyone had nicknames, so I became Lonesome George. We all played guitar, and everyone was willin’ to show me new ‘holts.’ ”

Gobel traveled to Chattanooga, Tenn., and St. Louis, performing in medicine shows (“We sold Peruna and Hadakol, stuff that had 19% alcohol content and made those old folks jump up and down”), learning new songs and polishing his material. He was able to do similar work in the military, since his base commanding officer wanted his unit to enjoy more of a social link with the town at which it was stationed--Altus, Okla., a guaranteed captive audience.

Once again a civilian, Gobel was hired by an agent to take himself and a ventriloquist act to Grand Rapids, Mich., largely on the strength of Gobel’s ownership of an automobile. By this time, his apprenticeship to show business was about over. “Between you and me, I blowed ‘em out of the tub,” Gobel said. Although he had kept up his interest in flying, an airplane crackup had ended his aviation career. Now that he was giving his all to show business, his reputation grew in a number of Midwestern and Southern cities, until he was picked up for the Hoagy Carmichael show. The yokel had slickered the slickers.

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Gobel has worked as much as he wants to, considering the radically shifting norms of comedy (though the “Bill Cosby Show,” which Gobel admires, signals a return to more traditional family hour comedy), and he’s devoted to the fraternity of his peers--the radio and television comedians and singers who have been around. Still, the visitor senses a certain malaise in him. Part of that may be his natural Midwesterner’s impassiveness, girded by Chicago’s hard winters and the Depression’s gritty memories. Or it may be the hidden melancholy of a man who, figuratively speaking, didn’t marry the woman he loved.

Too, he’s not well. “This appearance may be my last,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s my swan song, but I have this illness, degenerative nervous dysfunction. It means you can’t walk right, but the doctors can charge you a lot for the word. If they just say, ‘You’re dizzy,’ that’s a $40 job. I have to be careful. It makes me look like I’m drunk. For a guy who’s done as much as me, I don’t like people to think it’s the booze. I’m sensitive now. I’ll never make a grand exit though. If I get scared or it gets to be too much trouble, I’ll do commercials or voice-overs.

“Red Buttons said to me: ‘Be grateful, it hasn’t hurt your timing a bit.’ I guess I am.”


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