Monday, November 4, 2013


A character is an understatement when you are talking about comedian Bert Gordon. He was more than a character actor, he was a whole entertainment experience. I am a fan of old time radio, and although I am a huge fan of Eddie Cantor, when Bert Gordon appeared on Cantor's show, it was comedic gold. Born Barney Gorodetsky on April 8, 1895, he debuted on the vaudeville stage in 1914 carving a niche for himself as a dialect comic, and adopting the stage name Bert Gordon.

He made the transition to radio in the 1930s, and was heard in episodes of "The Jack Benny Show," "Texaco Town," "The Camel Caravan," and "The Eddie Cantor Show" where his signature character, The Mad Russian, was established and polished. His character, despite its name, did not possess a credible Russian accent. Instead The Mad Russian spoke in a weird, airy sounding voice. He didn't speak his words so much as pant them - an exasperated manner of speech. His catch phrases are meaningless out of context. "How do you do?" and "Do you really min it?" were mimicked for easy referential gags on other radio shows and comedy acts throughout the thirties and forties. Allusions to Gordon's familiar annotations appear in several old Warner Brothers cartoons, alienating children for over fifty years. Could anybody have predicted that the phrase "How do you do?" would catch the country by storm? It was, like most verbal comedy performance, all in the delivery.

It was in the mid-thirties that Gordon, after being a transient character in radio, finally found a home. Eddie Cantor knew Gordon from their days on Broadway. Cantor invited Gordon to join him on his weekly show Texaco Town. Cantor eventually made sure to bring The Mad Russian with him whenever he was scheduled for a guest shot on another show like The Camel Caravan - Gordon was a sure-fire crowd pleaser. When The Eddie Cantor Show was exported for American soldiers overseas during World War II, Bert Gordon's character was edited out so as not to escalate any hostility with the enemies turned allies in Russia. He also appeared in several low-budget comedies over the course of his career, including New Faces of 1937,Sing For Your Supper (1941), Laugh Your Blues Away (1942) and Let's Have Fun (1943). He appeared on Broadway for "Hold on to Your Hats", a satirical musical that spoofed radio. His star faded rapidly after the Second World War.

He appeared sporadically on the radio show "Duffy's Tavern," but his career was effectively over by 1950. After a long absence from the public spotlight, Bert Gordon, like so many other old nightclub comics, guest starred on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. The episode titled "The Return of Edwin Carp" was Carl Reiner's salute to many of his favorite (and faded) radio stars. The plot has Rob Petrie trying to coax an old radio star (played by Richard Haydn) out of retirement for a guest spot on a radio special. Bert Gordon appears as The Mad Russian alongside Arlene Harris (once famous for the radio program The Chatterbox) in this, his final on-screen appearance. He succumbed to cancer at home in California at age 79 on November 30, 1974. Bert Gordon was not the classic character actor in the Hollywood sense, but no one can deny what a character he was...

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