Coca, Imogene: 1908-2001: Actress
Imogene Coca: 1908-2001: Actress
Imogene Coca was best remembered as the elfin come-dienne with the incredibly flexible face who starred with Sid Caesar on television's Your Show of Shows. Her career spanned from the waning days of vaudeville through the comedy resorts of the Catskills and on through the beginnings of television, extending to a fondly remembered role as elderly Aunt Edna, strapped to the roof of a station wagon in National Lampoon's Vacation. Coca's greatest talent was subtle exaggeration; she could take a normal situation and just barely skew it, nudging it over the edge into hilarity.
A Born Trouper
Coca was born in Philadelphia on November 18, 1908. The daughter of Josée (Joe) Fernandez de Coca, a prominent band leader and violinist, and Sadie Brady Coca, a dancer who "disappeared" each night in a magician's act, Coca was truly a 'born trouper'. She grew up accompanying her parents on the road, spending much of her time in the theaters where they performed. Her parents wanted her to be a serious performer. Coca began piano lessons at the age of 5, singing classes at 6, and at age 8 started learning classical dance and ballet. Until 5th grade, Coca attended Philadelphia schools. When her family moved, she went to schools in Atlantic City and New York and completed school through the 8th grade.
Coca's career was ignited by her family. Her mother helped 11-year-old Coca land her first gig in a benefit performance. Coca did impressions, or as she put it "made faces", and sang a comic song. At the age of 13, Coca made her vaudeville debut, singing "O, by Gee, by Gosh, by Golly, I'm in Love" at the Dixie Theater in Manyunk, Pennsylvania. Josée Coca, whose father had immigrated to America from Coca, Spain, helped obtain bookings for Coca at the vaudeville houses where he was the orchestra leader. Four of Coca's aunts and uncles were also performers. In 1923, an aunt snuck underage 15-year-old Coca into a chorus line audition, where she won her first 'adult' role, performing in Jimmy Durante's Silver Slipper Club in New York. She debuted on Broadway at age 17 in the chorus line of When You Smile in 1925. "I was out to sing and dance like nobody's business," said Coca.
Coca spent the next several years appearing in a variety of musical revues, including a turn in the chorus of Bubbling Over with another as-yet-unknown performer—Jeannette McDonald. In Flying Colors, another production Coca was part of, she was the understudy for Patsy Kelly; when Patsy couldn't appear, Coca found herself on stage in her first speaking role. She hadn't bothered to learn the lines, assuming that Patsy would never get sick. Fortunately, the first act was set at a hotel desk and she could read her part from a script lying on the desk. During the early 1930s, Coca starred in her own acts in clubs such as New York City's famous Rainbow Room. She also began to appear in musical comedies. Nonetheless, she had to struggle to find roles and was relatively unknown.
At a Glance . . .
Born November 18, 1908 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died June 2, 2001 in Westport, Connecticut; married Robert Burton, 1935 (died, 1955); married King Donovan, 1960 (died, 1981). Religion: Catholic.
Career: Vaudeville performer, 1919; actor, Dixie Theater, Manyunk, PA, 1921; debuted in New York chorus line, 1923; actress, When You Smile, 1925; New Faces of 1934, 1934; movie actress, Dime a Dance, 1937; television actress: Admiral Broadway Revue, 1949; Your Show of Shows, 1950-54; The Coca Coca Show, 1954-55; Sid Caesar Invites You, 1958; Grindl, 1963-64; It's About Time, 1967; The Carol Burnett Show; Bewitched; The Brady Bunch; Moonlighting.
Awards: Emmy Award, Best Actress, Your Show of Shows, 1951; Tony Award Nomination, On the Twentieth Century, 1978.
One day when Coca was rehearsing New Faces of 1934 at the Fulton Theater, it was so cold that she borrowed a coat from another performer in the show—Henry Fonda. To keep warm, Coca started jumping and dancing around, performing a mock strip-tease while bundled in the long wool overcoat. Producer Leonard Silliman saw her and immediately decided to put the comic dance into the show. At first, the audience was silent, unsure of how to react, but soon they burst into laughter, and a comedienne was born. Coca, however, was never quite sure how her comic success happened. She told reporter Hans Knight of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, "It was pure accident. The first time I got laughs I was just scared, terrified. I don't try for effect consciously. I just try to be a good actress."
Coca established her reputation as a comedienne in her next roles, playing in minor plays such as Who's Who and 1935's flop, Fools Rush In. In the latter show, Coca met actor Robert Burton. They were married on the last day of the show's run. Burton often arranged the music for Coca's appearances and later became a record company executive. In 1939, Coca scored a big hit in Straw Hat Review. She received many glowing reviews, lauding her "sly sense of comedy" and her uncanny imitations of stars such as "Funny Girl" Fannie Brice and Carmen Miranda.
Despite her success in the Straw Hat Review, Broadway roles were not easy to find. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, Coca worked the comedy clubs of the Catskills and Poconos. At Taminent, a Poconos resort created by Max Liebman, she perfected her comic routines with such performers as Danny Kaye and Carol Channing.
Coca made her film debut in 1937's comedy Dime a Dance. Her next film was The Bashful Ballerina, in which she played herself. She participated in the very beginnings of televison, starring in experimental television broadcasts performing favorite routines from New Faces.
Your Show of Shows
Producer Max Liebman was inspired to team Coca with another Taminent alumnus, Sid Caesar. They appeared together for the first time in 1949 for the premiere broadcast of NBC's Admiral Broadway Revue. The show did not last long, but the two were paired again in that autumn's new television hit, Your Show of Shows. The 90-minute show was performed live and included comedy sketches, song and dance, and celebrity guests. Its writers included Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Larry Gelbart. Liebman often recycled material honed at Taminent. Skits typically satirized the commonplace, such as the much-loved Hickenloopers, an irreparably mismatched couple who bickered constantly. Another staple was movie parodies, such as "From Here to Obscurity" and "A Trolley Car Named Desire."
Coca put her dancing and singing training to good use in comic ballets and song parodies of French torch singers and Marlene Dietrich, among others. Both songs and dances were subtly exaggerated, yet expertly performed. In one famous sketch, she portrayed a nightclub singer who has four ardent suitors, each of whom threatens to kill her and then commit suicide if she doesn't run away with him. She trills "I'm yours, exclusively yours"—to each of the four. Coca's opera parodies started out normally enough, but somehow something went wrong. Mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens once said, "You're always deathly afraid the young singer will never make the last note." "With Coca, you're always afraid she will."
Her rubber face was seen as its best on the small television screen, as Liebman said "her left nostril never knows what the right one is doing." Coca's "little somethings," as she called her comic contributions to the show, helped make Your Show of Shows one of the most popular television programs of its time, watched by more than 30 million viewers, and won her the 1951 Emmy for best actress. Her work on Your Show of Shows inspired many upcoming comediennes, including Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tracey Ullman.
Coca's lasting claim to fame is through her extraordinary comic partnership with Sid Caesar. In his autobiography, Caesar tried to explain their success: "She's a great actress and we grew so used to working together on stage that she could guess what I was going to say—and react to it—when the thought was still in my head." Nonetheless, in 1954, Coca and Caesar split to pursue individual projects. Coca next appeared in her own half-hour television show The Imogene Coca Show on NBC. Unfortunately, the show was not a success.
Coca's husband, Robert Burton, died in 1955. After his death and through the remainder of her career, Coca performed in a variety of Broadway shows, traveling plays, television shows, and movies. In 1958, she teamed up again with Caesar on Sid Caesar Invites You, but it never had the magic of Your Show of Shows.
While on the road with a 1960 summer theater tour, Coca met and married fellow actor King Donovan. The two frequently performed together in variety shows and touring theater companies. During the 1960s, Coca also appeared in movies, including Under the Yum Yum Tree with Jack Lemmon; television series, notably Grindle and It's About Time; and television movies, such as The Incredible Incident at Independence Square, filmed in her home town of Philadelphia.
Coca teamed with Sid Caesar again for the Emmy-Award winning Sid Caesar-Coca Coca-Carl Reiner-Howard Morris Show in 1967. The duo appeared together again in the 1970s, once in The Prisoner of Second Avenue on the Chicago stage, and again as headliners at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas.
In the 1970s, Coca made frequent appearances on talk shows, such as Dick Cavett's, and as a guest on The Carol Burnett Show. Liebman and Caesar created and released Ten From 'Your Show of Shows,' to movie theaters in 1978; the collection of best sketches won a new, enthusiastic audience for the performers and the show.
Won a Tony
Coca was nominated for a 1978 Tony Award for her last Broadway appearance, playing a religious fanatic in the acclaimed On the Twentieth Century, and continued with the part on a national tour. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s, she performed only sporadically in parts as diverse as Granny's "Maw" in The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies to the Cook in Alice in Wonderland, as well as Aunt Edna in National Lampoon's Vacation. The year 1991 found Coca Together Again, with Sid Caesar, touring the country in the show of that name.
When not performing, Coca lived a quiet life in Manhattan and Connecticut with her husband King Donovan until his death in 1987. Shy, gentle Coca was an animal lover, her pets included a crippled duck she had rescued, as well as a dog who was in love with the duck, and a cat, who was terrified of the duck. She founded the Imogene Coca Charitable Foundation, which donated proceeds to the Humane Society and some human and civil rights groups. Coca died quietly at her home in Westport, Connecticut on June 2, 2001, at the age of 92.
Despite her fame and critical acclaim, Coca was always very insecure. She told Rex Polter of the Philadelphia Bulletin, "Actually, I never say anything witty … I don't like entertaining at parties, either. I prefer to watch. Even small gatherings of people scare me. The only time I'm not afraid of more than 3 or 4 people is when I am on stage. Paradoxically, her shyness was part of her appeal and made audiences sympathize with her. "The trouble with most comedians who try to do satire," one critic wrote, "is that they are essentially brash, noisy, and indelicate people who have to use a sledge hammer to smash a butterfly. Miss Coca, on the other hand, is the timid woman who, when aroused, can beat a tiger to death with a feather."
Caesar, Sid, and Bill Davidson, Where Have I Been?, Crown, 1982.
Kalter, J, Actors on Acting: Peforming in Theater and Film Today, Sterling, 1979
Detroit News, June 3, 2001.
Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia), January 20, 1979.
Houston Chronicle, June 2, 2001.
New York Times, June 3, 2001
Parade, June 4, 1978.
Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 2001.
Sunday Bulletin Magazine (Philadelphia), October 3, 1965.
TV Digest, April 12, 1952
Variety, June 11, 2001.
CNN.com, June 2, 2001, http://www.cnn.com/2001/SHOWBIZ/News/06/02/obit.coca.02/
Internet Movie Data Base, http://us.imdb.com/Name?Coca,+Coca
The Sid Caesar Collection, http://www.sidvid.com/golden.html
Streetswing Dancer Histories, http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2icoca1.htm
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the William Morris Agency: Coca Coca. Press Release, Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia Theater Collection and from Mark Wilson, Coca Coca. Press release, Shubert Organization, Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia Theater Collection.
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