Kenny Baker, the radio songster who was a daffy and muddled foil for Jack Benny on the comedian’s old network show but who also established a separate film and stage presence in a series of musical comedies, has died in Solvang.
Baker’s death on Aug. 10 of an apparent heart attack had gone unreported until the Loper Funeral Chapel confirmed it Friday.
He was 72 and had retired in the 1950s, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1954 that personal appearances across the country had made him “almost a stranger with my children.”
Since then, Baker, a Christian Scientist, had made several religious recordings and did briefly return to radio over the Mutual network.
He was a young music student at Long Beach City College when his pristine tenor voice won him a radio contest. His initial reward was an engagement at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, where he was brought to Benny’s attention in the mid-1930s.
On the Benny show he succeeded Frank Parker as a slightly askew youth whose bemusing logic baffled Benny and listeners alike but whose music provided a pleasant interlude to the program’s zaniness. It was a role that Dennis Day was to later perfect.
Baker left Benny for his own radio program and later sang on the air for Fred Allen. Just before World War II he toured with Frances Langford in theaters across the country.
He made his first film, “King of Burlesque,” in 1936 and made 14 others before “The Calendar Girl” in 1947, his final picture.
‘A Wandering Minstrel’
Between those were “The King and the Chorus Girl,” “Goldwyn Follies,” “The Marx Brothers at the Circus,” “Hit Parade of 1941,” “Stage Door Canteen” and “The Harvey Girls.” He had also brought “The Mikado” to the screen in 1939. “A Wandering Minstrel,” from that Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, was to become his signature song.
He also was the off-screen singing voice for many actors in various Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney productions.
In 1943 he starred on Broadway with Mary Martin in “One Touch of Venus.” His other stage performances included “Up in Central Park” and “Song of Norway.”
Baker was also seen in Los Angeles in concert at the Hollywood Bowl and in musicals at the Greek Theater.
He had married his sweetheart at Poly High School in Long Beach, Geraldyne. She survives him, as do two sons, Kenneth and John, and a daughter, Susan B. Richardson.