Pinky Lee, the baggy-pants vaudeville comic who secured his niche in entertainment history on children’s television, has died. He was 85.
Lee, whose real name was Pincus Leff, died Saturday at his home in Mission Viejo, Orange County Coroner’s Deputy Bruce Lyoe said Monday. Lee had a long history of heart problems, and Lyoe said the cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
Lee’s most successful show, “The Pinky Lee Show,” was aimed at children and ran on NBC from 1954 through 1956 right before the children’s classic “Howdy Doody.” On his half-hour show, Lee, in his signature checkered coat and rolled-brim hat, sang, danced and told stories, introducing himself with the singsong, “Hello, it’s me. My name is Pinky Lee.”
Born in St. Paul, Minn., the diminutive Lee harbored an ambition to become an attorney--but gave it up when his classmates laughed at his lisp, an affliction he claimed affected every other generation in his family.
“Right then I decided if I could make them laugh with my lisp, I’d probably do the same thing to a judge and jury in a courtroom,” he told The Times in 1955. “So I turned what might have been considered a liability into an asset and made straight for the entertainment world.”
By 1947, the lisp had become so much a part of his comic persona that Lee asked Lloyd’s of London to insure it for $50,000.
Lee established himself as a comedian in vaudeville and burlesque, often leaning toward blue or vulgar jokes, which made many wonder at his decision to tackle children’s television.
“I guess quite a few parents may have been apprehensive when I first decided that entertaining kids was for me,” he told The Times. “I’ll admit I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, but you can say for me that I’ve never had a warmer audience to work to in my career.”
He had some practice with his own children. He and his wife, Bebe, had a son, Morgan, and a daughter, Patricia.
Lee started “The Pinky Lee Show” in 1950 as a variety show telecast from Los Angeles’ KNBH, and went on as co-host of “Those Two” with Vivian Blaine and Martha Stewart from New York and later Los Angeles. In “Those Two” from 1951 to 1953, he began to focus on children as insurance for comedian longevity.
“I’m beaming the show toward the kids,” he told The Times in 1952. “They are the loyal audience and I want them to be waiting to see me whenever I appear on TV. If I can grow up with them, I have a chance to survive longer than the other men who depend on being funny for a livelihood.”
He loved his 102-hour workweeks, he told Times television writer Walter Ames of his successful network show in the mid-'50s, but said he had never worked harder in his life.
“I’ve been in every branch of show business you can think of--musical comedy, vaudeville, burlesque, radio, movies,” he said. “Name them all and put them all together. They don’t come anywhere near equaling the problems of appearing in and staging a different production on TV every day, week in and week out.
“Doing six shows a day in vaudeville or burlesque was child’s play,” he said. “Once you rehearsed a new show for the week that was it. All you had to do was to appear for a total of 60 to 90 minutes a day. Then one had time to eat, even to rest.”
Lee was sometimes amazed at his following. When a Cleveland department store announced his appearance in its toy department on Thanksgiving in 1955, the store was swamped with requests for tickets. The store moved the appearance to a theater and 35,000 children showed up.
“It not only scared me to death, but it was one of the biggest moments of my life,” Lee said.
After his network career ended, Lee was host of local children’s shows in Los Angeles in 1964 and 1966. He later appeared around the country in stage revues of vaudeville, including the musical “Sugar Babies.”