Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What's the Past Tense of ARNOLD STANG? Top Cat was 91

It was an indifferent world that, in the midst of Christmas shopping and Brittany Murphy's sudden death, ignored an old comic breathing his last in a hospital in Newton, Massachusetts. But in the world of illfolks, Arnold Stang became the holy ghost, following this year's planet-swooping of Soupy Sales and Lou Jacobi.

While I enjoyed hanging out with Soupy, and have some anecdotes about Lou, I only met Arnold Stang once. It was during a rehearsal break for a forgotten show called "Norman's Corner." I spoke to him for a while and took some photos. (And thanks, Mr. Stang, for autographing the vintage photo seen accompanying this entry.)

He was "himself," not "on," just a polite and pleasant working actor who knew his craft and enjoyed what he was doing. As he put it, "I've worked with practically every star in the business, and I've had all the excitement without any of the crushing responsibilities. The applause that comes at the end of his show means only one thing to the star ... that it's time to start worrying about next week's show. But I just take a bow, walk off, wash up, and go home."

Arnold Stang (September 28, 1918 – December 20, 2009) was ancestor to Ratso "I'm Walkin' Here" Rizzo, and a Jewish cousin to Barney Fife. The character he usually played was small, weak but comically pugnacious and streetwise. With his glasses as a symbol of frailty and bookishness, Stang couldn't stray into the Leo Gorcey territory of being small, pugnacious but a potentially good fighter.

His sense of humor saved him from a steady diet of sorrowful support roles, like "Sparrow" in the Frank Sinatra heroin drama "Man with the Golden Arm." He moved from radio child actor ("Let's Pretend) to sidekick for Henry Morgan and Milton Berle on radio to sketch comedy during the golden age of television. His likability won him enduring fame as the spokesman for Chunky, nasally bragging the catch-phrase, "Watta chunk-a chaw-klet!"

Arnold appealed to kids because he wasn't much taller than they were, and he was so much fun to look at and hear. The albums he made were either purely for the kiddie market, or (in the case of "Waggish Tales") leaning in that direction.

That scrappy New Yawk accent coming out of that meek turtle-face, brought Arnold Stang a lot of voice-work, from "Herman the Mouse" in movie cartoons to "Aristotle the Turtle," (a Bil Baird puppet) and "Nurtle the Turtle" (the film "Pinocchio in Outer Space") to the enduring "Top Cat," the alley-cat version of "Sgt. Bilko." With the charming countenance of a cat, and channeling a bit more of Phil Silvers' brash style than usual for him, Arnold's impudent vocalizing became almost heroic.

Arnold appeared often on Broadway, and while he never got the push to film stardom that Don Knotts did, he starred in "Hercules in New York" (1970). The odd-couple pairing was tiny Arnold Stang with giant and muscular Arnold Strong (who would later go back to his real last name...Schwarzenegger.) Comedy film fans would know Stang best from his pairing with Marvin Kaplan (who played a mild-mannered member of the "Top Cat" gang) as gas station attendants in "Mad World," running afoul of a berserk Jonathan Winters.

For a sample of Arnold Stang singing, here's "Schloimy the Subway Train," from that era when affluent Jews and/or New Yorkers were buying enough records to make hits out of "Hello Muddah Hello Faddah"-type novelty tunes, and turn Mickey Katz and Lou Jacobi into best-selling artists.

Back then, acts were named after local New York streets (Dion's "Belmonts" and "The Rivingtons" among others), all the hit songwriters were in the Brill Building, almost all the major labels were in New York, and even such minor and local events as a city subway strike could end up the subject of a novelty album. Saul Steinberg's memorable New Yorker magazine cover seemed like the truth; a map showing New York...and everything else part of a dull horizon. Nobody was worried that "Schloimy" was too Jewish or not enough people would find recognition humor in a tune about the subway.

Since "Shting Shtang" from Nick Lowe wasn't a tribute to Arnold, this'll have to do...

SCHLOIMY THE SUBWAY TRAIN Instant download or listen on line. No pop-ups, porn ads or wait time.

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