Kirby, George 1924–1995

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George Kirby 19241995

Comedian, impressionist

From Stage to Television

The First Comeback

The Second Comeback


A gifted comedian and master impressionist, George Kirby achieved national recognition in the 1950s and opened the doors for many African American comedians who followed, including Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. Along with comics Slappy White, Nipsey Russell, and Timmie Rodgers, Kirby removed the hip, street dialect, which had previously been integral to the routines of black comedians and, for the first time, began to tell jokes that would appeal to white, mainstream America. Kirby continued to perform into the early nineties although his career was sidetracked by tough professional times as well as, not one but two, drug related arrests in two separate decades.

Born June 8, 1924 in Chicago, the young Kirby quickly found he had an ability for doing impressions. After seeing a movie he d run back to his friends and with exceeding detail, describe the film complete with character impersonations and imitated sound effects. A mimic is born, not made, Kirby was quoted as saying in The Stars of Stand-Up Comedy. Its a God-given gift, and all the teaching in the world won t do a bit of good if you aren t born with it. It was his gift of mimicry that propelled Kirby from being a club employee to a club performer. While working as a bartender/janitor at the popular Club DeLisa on Chicagos South Side, Kirbys comic impersonations so impressed the clubs owner that he was offered the chance to perform one night. That one night turned into a oneyear engagement.

After serving in the army during World War II, Kirby returned to his performing career and landed a spot on one of singer Sophie Tuckers national tours. During this time he added more impersonations to his roster of voices which enabled him to give his act more versatility. Unlike a straight comic who, as themselves, simply told jokes in the setup-misdirection-punchline format, Kirby could tell jokes as himself, or Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, or John Wayne, to name a few. Additionally, because he also impersonated singers like Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra, Kirby could add singing to his repertoire and dispense with the jokes altogether.

From Stage to Television

One of the first places a black entertainer could get on

At a Glance . . .

Born June 8, 1924 in Chicago, IL; died September 20, 1995 in Las Vegas, NV; married Rosemary, 1961.

Comedian, impressionist, actor. Began performing at the Club DeLisa in Chicago, 1940s; club and stage performer, 1940s-1990s; television debut on Toast of the Town, 1948; appeared on many television programs during the 1950s-1980s, including The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Perry Comos Kraft Music Hall, Barney Miller, Dinah, 227, Gimme a Break, and Murder, She Wrote; appeared in films, A Man Called Adam, 1966, and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, (Mamas Hung You in the Closet and I m Feelin So Sad), 1967; recorded albums, A Night at the Apollo, A Night in Hollywood, and The Real George Kirby, 1960s.

Awards: Honored by the Friars Club, 1970.

television was Ed Sullivans Toast of the Town program. Later known as The Ed Sullivan Show, Kirby made his debut in 1948 and would appear numerous times over the next twenty years. After his initial appearance Kirby became a regular guest on other variety and talk shows as well which gave him enough name recognition to play some of the best clubs and theaters in the country. It would not be uncommon at this time in Americas history for Kirby to be one of, if not the, first African American to perform in these places, thus breaking long standing racial barriers. Again, the nature of Kirbys act made the transition from black audiences to white audiences much easier than it would be for his counterparts. In the early fifties many white club owners and television executives would insist that black comedians remove all explicit language, sexual references, and blunt racial or social criticisms from their routines. Because Kirby didn t have a risque act and was more of a kind of song and dance man, he was able to make inroads while other performers were passed over. In 1952 Kirby performed as part of the Count Basie show, one of the first black acts to play Las Vegas.

By the mid-fifties Kirby was at the peak of his success, headlining in Las Vegas and elsewhere, as well as appearing on more television programs than any other African American comedian. But offstage Kirby developed a drug addiction that would effectively halt his blooming career. I tried the hard stuff, Kirby recalled in The Stars of Stand-Up Comedy. I got hold of some powder, thought it was cocaine, and sniffed it. But it was heroin. Oh, it was terrible. I vomited, throwin up my guts. But then I got this kind of feeling, and I said: Well, thats all right. In 1958 Kirby was arrested in a raid and would spend the next two years at the United States Public Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky for treatment of his drug addiction.

The First Comeback

After his release from the rehabilitation center in 1960, Kirby launched a comeback in an effort to resume the success he had acquired before his arrest. Determined to put his troubled days behind him, Kirby went back to his roots and performed for the black audiences that gave him his first success by playing such famed venues as the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Soon, Kirby was back in Las Vegas and on television performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Tonight Show, and the short-lived The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show. In 1966 he appeared in his first movie, the drama A Man Called Adam, starring Sammy Davis, Jr. and Cicely Tyson, with Davis as a guilt ridden jazz musician who accidentally killed his wife and baby. Kirby also had a small role in the 1967 film adaptation of the play, Oh Dad, Poor Dad (Mamas Hung You in the Closet and I m Feeling So Sad), a dark comedy with Rosalind Russell as a widow who travels to Jamaica on a family vacation with the coffin containing her late husband in tow. Both films, though not the fault of Kirby, were poorly received.

In 1972 Kirby was a regular on the television program, The Copycats, part of the weekly ABC Comedy Hour. In the show, Kirby would appear with other impressionists/regulars Rich Little, Charlie Callas, Marilyn Michaels, Frank Gorshin, and Fred Travalena as different famous people in skits with guest stars. When that program ended its run that same year, Kirby starred in his own syndicated variety series, Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour. Filmed in Toronto, Canada, the show lasted less than a year but was responsible for introducing many new comedians to a national audience, including a young Steve Martin.

With both series off the air, Kirby maintained a healthy regimen of club dates and television appearances until 1975 when he made another attempt at his own television show with a situation comedy for CBS, Rosenthal and Jones. It lasted only a few episodes. Soon, it became harder to get booked in clubs and television shows stopped calling. As the baby-boomers were growing older, club owners and television executives were responding to their desire for more cutting edge comedy that blended social satire with off-the-wall storytelling and sardonic jokes. New programs like Saturday Night Live and comedians like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, and Andy Kaufman, made impressionist acts like Kirbys seem almost vaudevillian by comparison.

The lack of work weighed heavy on Kirby and in an effort to make ends meet, he turned to a profession that was high profit, high risk: drug dealing. I was about to lose my home, Kirby is quoted as saying in Stars. I got involved in a deal which I had no business doingit was an opportunity to catch up on my bills. In 1977 at the age of 52, Kirby was arrested and charged with selling more than a pound of heroin for $26,000 to an undercover government agent in Las Vegas. While out on bond, Kirby continued to perform but sometimes would draw only 50 people. Less than a year later the once $38,000-a-week headliner was sentenced to ten years in a federal prison.

The Second Comeback

Paroled after three and a half years, Kirby made his way back onto stages across the country with a decidedly new outlook. Yes I m back again/On the road again, Kirby sang in a 1982 performance reviewed by Fred Ferretti of the New York Times. I ve paid some heavy dues my friend/I ain t doing nothing wrong again. With the encouragement of his wife, Rosemary, and his fans, Kirby again picked up the pieces of his career appearing as a guest star on television series as well as performing for charities and at schools to warn young people first-hand about the damage drugs can do to a life.

In the early nineties, Kirby was diagnosed with the advanced stages of Parkinsons Disease, a chronic progressive ailment that attacks the nervous system. As a testament to his good heart and strong talent, friends and well-wishers formed the Friends of George Kirby, an all-star tribute for the comedian in 1995 to help pay his mounting medical bills after his insurance ran out. A few months later, on September 30, Kirby would succumb to the disease in Las Vegas. He was a big, fat, jolly human being who just lit up a room and made everybody laugh, the dancer Norma Miller told Jet following Kirbys death. Miller, who had also been on that historical Count Basie show in 1952, added that although Kirby had been paralyzed for some time, he was telling jokes to the end.



Editors of Ebony, Ebony Success Library, Vol. II: One Thousand Successful Blacks, Johnson Publishing Co., 1973.

Inman, David, The TV Encyclopedia, Perigree Books, 1991.

Mapp, Edward, Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1978.

McDonald, J. Fred, Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948, Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983.

Smith, Ronald Lande, The Stars of Stand-Up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing Inc., 1986.

Smith, Ronald Lande, Comedy on Record: The Complete Critical Discography, Garland Publishing Inc., 1988.

Watkins, Mel, On The Real Side, Touchstone, 1994.


Jet, May 8, 1995, p. 18; October 16, 1995, p.56.

New York Times, May 1, 1977; March 1, 1978; July 18, 1978; October 8, 1982; October 2, 1955.

Brian Escamilla