Crothers, Scatman 1910–1986
Scatman Crothers 1910–1986
To anybody who watched much television in the 1970s and early 1980s, very few faces or voices were more familiar than those of Scatman Crothers. Crothers is best remembered for his portrayal of Louie the Garbage Man on the NBC series Chico and the Man, but through his constant appearances on television talk shows, dramas and sitcoms, and in such movies as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining, Crothers became one of the period’s most visible cultural icons. He achieved this fame after toiling in near-anonymity for more than 50 years. During that time, he performed as a drummer, guitar-banjo-ukeleleist, singer, songwriter, and actor in entertainment settings ranging from prohibition-era speakeasies to high-tech 1980s movie studios.
Scatman was born Benjamin Sherman Crothers on May 23, 1910, in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father was a cobbler and the proprietor of a second-hand clothing store. At the age of 14, Crothers began teaching himself to play both drums and guitar, and to sing in the scat style later made popular by Louis Armstrong and others. Still in his teens, Crothers landed a job entertaining customers at one of the local speakeasies, a place frequented by Chicago mobsters trying to lie low. He received no salary at the roadhouse, but the lavish tips made him “the richest kid in high school,” Crothers recalled in a 1981 Jet article.
When Crothers was 19, he and his brother Louis set out for Indianapolis, where Scatman hoped to find work as an entertainer. Unable to find employment as a ukulele-plucking minstrel, Crothers ended up taking a job cleaning and blocking hats. He became close friends with the owner of the business, a Greek immigrant, and the owner’s son. He even learned to speak some Greek. Crothers never gave up his musical aspirations, however, and he eventually landed a job with a traveling band called Montague’s Kentucky Serenaders. With the Serenades, Crothers toured the South, and experienced for the first time the harsh racism of the region.
Crothers left the Serenaders in 1931, and the following year he moved to Dayton, Ohio, where friends had suggested work could be found. It was in Dayton that he acquired his distinctive nickname. Upon arriving in town, Crothers immediately went to local radio station
At a Glance…
Born Benjamin Sherman Crothers on May 23, 1910, in Terre Haute, IN; died November 22, 1986, in Los Angeles, CA; father was a cobbler and used clothing store proprietor; married Helen Sullivan, 1937; children: Donna. Religion: Christian.
Career: Performed at local speakeasies in Terre Haute, 1924; traveled across US as leader of own band, 1930s; made television debut in Dixie Showboat, 1948; made film debut in Meet Me at the Fair, 1952; frequent appearances in character roles and guest spots on film and television, 1950-86; cast member of NBC series Chico and the Man, 1974-78; film roles include Hello Dolly, 1969; Lady Sings the Blues, 1972; One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975; Bronco Billy, 1980; The Shining, 1980; and Twilight Zone, the Move, 1983.
KSMK to audition for a spot on the air. The program director was impressed with Crothers’s talent, but felt that his name was too bland. Off the top of his head, Crothers immediately came up with the moniker “Scat-man.” It quickly became his de facto first name.
Crothers spent the next few years performing primarily as a solo act, with a few exceptions that included a stint in 1933 and 1934 with Eddie Brown and His Tennesseans. In the mid-1930s he formed his own band, with which he traveled throughout the Midwest. In many of the venues the group played, they were the first black entertainers ever to perform. The audiences were almost always entirely white. While performing in Canton, Ohio in 1936, Crothers met Helen Sullivan, a white woman from nearby Steubenville. He married her the following year. Their marriage remained intact for the rest of Crothers’ life.
By the early 1940s, Crothers was a regular at the popular jazz clubs in Chicago, both in the Loop and on the South Side. Crothers was playing drums and singing at this point. His band, which included Oliver Michaux on piano, Jimmy Harris on alto sax, and Leroy Nabors on trumpet, was dabbling in bebop, the new jazz style being pioneered by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, by this time. In about 1945, Crothers decided to ditch his Midwestern band and head westward. Settling with Helen in Hollywood, he found scattered bookings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, sometimes as a solo act, other times as leader of his own small combo. He also worked occasionally as a sideman in other people’s bands. During a very slow period in 1946, Crothers signed on as drummer with the Slim Gaillard Trio. Working with Gaillard, best known for writing the novelty hits “Flat Foot Floosie” and “Cement Mixer,” Crothers was able to earn a stable income and establish connections in the West Coast music scene.
Within a year, Crothers had left the Gaillard group and was back on his own. In 1948 Crothers was introduced to Phil Harris, a radio star and regular on Jack Benny’s program. He and Harris—like Crothers a native of Indiana—immediately hit it off. Together Crothers and Harris recorded a song called “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy,” which they introduced on Harris’s NBC radio show The Phil Harris—Alice Faye Show. Crothers recorded two more hits later that year: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Dead Man’s Blues.” He became a regular guest on Harris’s show, and the pair continued to collaborate on records and in films for years to come.
Crothers was in the right place at the right time as the television age began to dawn. His new show-biz connections led to a spot on the TV show Dixie Showboat, making him the first African American on television in Los Angeles. Crothers spent four years on that show, then moved on to the Colgate Comedy with Donald O’Connor. Meanwhile, he continued to perform live in area clubs, in particular a steady gig at an L. A. nightspot called The Oasis. Crothers’s television work led naturally to a career in film. While working at The Oasis, Crothers met actor Dan Dailey, who offered him a part in a movie he was making. The resulting film, Meet Me at the Fair (1952), became a semi-classic. Crothers received sixth billing in the credits, and the movie effectively launched his Hollywood motion picture career.
Over the next two decades, Crothers appeared in a huge assortment of character roles and guest spots on television and film. In the early 1950s, he was a regular on the “Beulah” comedy series. He guested on The Jack Benny Show and The Steve Allen Show. Crothers’ television and movie exposure led to bigger and better club bookings as well, and when he was not acting he was performing his musical comedy act at various live venues in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, and elsewhere. He also continued to make records, including the 1950s hit “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” In addition, Crothers began his cartoon voice career during this period in Beany and Cecil.
In spite of these accomplishments, however, genuine stardom continued to elude Crothers. As the 1950s continued, quality work became scarce. He landed bit parts in a couple of 20th Century Fox movies: Between Heaven and Hell, starring Robert Wagner, in 1956, and The Gift of Love in 1958. He performed with a trio at military installations as part of the USO. He continued to work at nightclubs throughout the decade, and remained in demand for television variety shows. As the 1960s began, film roles remained few and far between. He had a small part in the 1960 Warner Brothers feature The Sins of Rachel Cade, and another in the Olivia de Havilland vehicle Lady in a Cage in 1964. The same year, he was cast as a shoeshine boy in The Patsy, which starred Jerry Lewis. While working on that picture, Crothers and Lewis became close friends, leading to parts for Crothers in two other mid-1960s Lewis films, The Family Jewels and Three on a Couch.
It was in the 1970s that Crothers finally broke through as a fixture in the big leagues of the entertainment industry. In 1970 Crothers played the voice of Scat Cat in the animated Walt Disney feature The Aristocats. That work led to further cartoon voice work, beginning with a job as the voice of Meadowlark Lemon on the television cartoon series The Harlem Globetrotters. He appeared in the flesh in two more 1970 films, The Great White Hope and Bloody Mama. Several more bit parts followed in quick succession, prompting Crothers to finally hire a Hollywood agent. A veritable flood of character roles on both film and television followed in the early 1970s, including spots in the movies Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross, and The King of Marvin Gardens. In 1972 he appeared in such television mainstays as Adam 12, Love American Style, Kojack, and Ironside.
As the 1970s continued, Scatman’s television résumé was bursting with entries. He appeared on, among other series, Sanford and Son, Mannix, McMillan and Wife, and The Odd Couple. Returning to cartoons, he provided the voice of Saturday morning canine superhero Hong Kong Phooey. Crothers’s “big break” finally came in 1974, when he was cast as Louie, the lovable garbage man in the NBC sitcom Chico and the Man. Crothers played Louie until 1978, when star Freddie Prinze’s suicide brought the show to an abrupt end. By that time, however, Crothers had made a permanent mark in the television industry. He was also finally making a more than comfortable living after half a century in showbiz.
His success on the small screen helped breathe some life into his previously lackluster big screen career. Jack Nicholson, with whom Crothers had worked in The King of Marvin Gardens, got him a role in his hit 1975 movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the novel by Ken Kesey. Crothers teamed up with Nicholson again five years later in The Shining, in which both actors gave perhaps the most memorable performances of their very different careers.
From the mid-1970s on, Crothers was a constant presence on television, making scores of appearances on talk shows, sitcoms, and dramas. He had starring roles in three shortlived 1980s television series: One of the Boys (1982), Casablanca (1983), and Morningstar/Eveningstar (1986). His film credits included roles in Bronco Billy (1980), Zapped (1982), and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). In 1985 Crothers developed a malignant tumor behind his left lung. He continued to work through his illness, but in 1986 the inoperable tumor spread to his esophagus. He died on November 22, 1986.
Throughout his career, Crothers’s most conspicuous characteristic—in addition, of course, to his unmistakable talent as an entertainer—was his omnipresent smile. He was by all accounts a genuinely happy individual. In Hollywood, notorious for backbiting and superficiality, Scatman stood out for his authentic charm and nearly universal popularity. It was simply impossible not to like him, so positive and unaffected was the energy and love that he projected. As Jim Haskins wrote in Scatman, his biography of Crothers, “There was no dark side to Scatman Crothers.… No one endured more happily, or had a better time living.”
Haskins, Jim, Scatman: An Authorized Biography of Scatman Crothers, William Morrow, 1991.
Ebony, July 1978, p. 62.
Jet, June 11, 1981, p. 28; December 15, 1986, p. 62.
New York Times, November 23, 1986, p. 45.
TV Guide, March 13, 1976, p. 21.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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