Tuesday, March 19, 2013

JOE E. ROSS "Are you Loathesome Tonight?"

If he was still alive, on March 15th Joe E. Ross would have turned 99. Some still fondly remember his sitcom days when he was basically Shemp Howard doing a bad impression of Joe Besser. What's not to like? The TV age needed new comic losers and slobs. Shemp was gone, along with Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Rags Ragland and Eugene Pallette. For the late 50's a comic sitcom gorilla needed to be a lot more cartoonish, incompetent and simple minded than the current Runyonesques of the day such as Robert Strauss.

Ross had the kind of blunt features that no make-up man could've created out of mud and silly putty, and his lack of acting skills only added to the humor. An idiot savant who drifted into show business after Army service, he memorized old jokes, and moved slowly from announcing girlie shows and doing bits in burlesque. He and his clone Dave Starr provided comic relief in the 1955 burlesque movie"Teaserama" which headlined some mild dances from Bettie Page among others. The former Joe Roszawikz (March 15, 1914 – August 13, 1982) finally got a break when sitcom writer Nat Hiken saw him bumbling around with a solo nightclub act and brought him into the platoon of misfits run by Phil Silvers as"Sgt. Bilko."

An authentic slovenly illiterate, good-natured Joe was a realistic member of Bilko's hapless collection of foils and fools, and like Henny Youngman, it was hard to tell if he was in on the joke, or just grateful that what parroted got him a pay check. In private life, Ross amused, from a distance, the other actors. They chuckled at his embarrassing lack of hygiene, his messy eating, his dirty jokes, his lack of dressing room modesty and his inability to relate to a woman who didn't expect to get paid for the evening. Not quick with memorizing a line, he'd blurt "Ooh! Oooh!" and it turned into a lucky catch-phrase. He was also lucky when, after the top contenders fell out, Ross ended up cast as bulky Gunther Toody on "Car 54 Where Are You," the series Nat Hiken developed after Bilko left the air.

Joe's musical career centered on his "Ooh Ooh" single, and the album that tried to trade in on his "Car 54" fame, "Love Songs from a Cop," from which we hear his Elvis take, "Are You Lonesome Tonight." On "Ooh Ooh," Joe unveils a second catch-phrase, a bellowy but Besser-esque whine of "Do ya mind?" Steve Martin fans will recognize the tone of voice as quite similar to "Excuuuuse me." Which only goes to show that "stupid" never goes out of fashion, it just changes faces. Joe's well-worn face wasn't wearing so well as a "star" comic, especially since he had limited acting skills. "Car 54" didn't last very long, and "It's About Time," in which he played a caveman opposite Imogene Coca, made it through one season. Ross ran his Runyonesque personality through bit parts in films, engagements in small clubs, and very briefly, as half of a comedy team with Steve Rossi, late of "Allen and Rossi." They lasted four months, disbanding in January of 1969.

Haggard, aging, and trading in on "Ooh Ooh," Joe managed to issue a stand-up album on Laff, the same label that had recorded the even older and more obscure comic character actor Mantan Moreland. Joe went through his familiar dirty jokes, most going back to the long-lost era when his pals Dave Starr and B.S. Pully had put out "party" records. The album was titled "Should Lesbians Be Allowed to Play Pro Football," which was a crappy throw-away joke when Billy Gray told it on a Verve album about a decade earlier. Gray owned The Band Box, a club in a Jewish neighborhood in L.A., and yes, Ross sometimes performed there. Sometimes. Ross's old jokes didn't appeal to modern audiences and dismayed fans who remembered his family-oriented sitcoms. According to legend, Joe's last gig was $100 to perform for neighbors at his housing complex.

Ross was a lovable loser…someone even other down-and-outers could look at and feel better about themselves. Most any deli-denizen of that era could tell a story or two about his bumbling boorishness, his unabashed chasing after hookers, or cheerful low-class schmoozing and boozing. He was a walking cartoon, and "ooh ooh!" it's easy to see why he got some laughs as part of a group of flatfoot cops or genuine dogfaces that included characters named Schnauzer and Doberman.



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