(b. 1908 in Saint Paul, Minnesota; d. 3 April 1993 in Mission Viejo, California), burlesque and vaudeville comedian who went on to star as the host of television’s first comedy-variety series for children.
As a young boy, Pinky Lee—born Pincus Leff—dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but the dream was dashed when his schoolmates made fun of his lisp. Pinky soon turned his lisp into part of a comedy act, however, and by the 1930s he was touring on the burlesque and vaudeville circuits. In 1932 he married Bebe Dancis. The couple had two children.
Lee became an established comic character: a cute, wide-eyed, goofy comedian who sang, danced, and performed in variety skits. His clothes were part of the character. He dressed in a mismatched checkered suit, baggy pants and a too-small, roll-brim, checkered hat. By 1947 his lisp had become such a valued part of his character that he insured it with Lloyds of London for $50,000.
As vaudeville disappeared, the multitalented Lee adapted his act for variety shows. He starred at Earl Carroll’s Theatre in Hollywood, and in the late 1940s he performed at London’s Palladium. Films provided another showcase for his talents. He appeared in Lady of Burlesque (1943), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1945), Blonde Ransom (1945), That’s My Gal (1947), and South Caliente (1951).
In 1949 the comic began working in the new medium of television. He first appeared on Hollywood Premiere, a short-lived series of half-hour programs. Like all other television in those days, everything on the show was done live. The program was produced in Hollywood and shown via
kinescope on the eastern and midwestern NBC networks. In 1951 Lee starred in The Pinky Lee Show, a loosely structured situation comedy set in a vaudeville theater. The series, in which Pinky appeared as a fumbling stagehand, lasted for seven months. He then appeared in a musical situation comedy produced by Larry White, called Those Two. As host, Pinky portrayed a piano accompanist madly in love with a nightclub singer, first played by the actress Vivian Blaine, later played by the actress Martha Stewart. The series, which ran on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 7:30–7:45 p.m., was used to fill the remainder of the half hour in which NBC aired its nightly news program. The show was canceled in April 1953, but the producer White’s young son had other ideas. He kept telling his father he missed Pinky Lee and pestered him to bring the character back.
On 4 January 1954, The Pinky Lee Show premiered nationally on NBC as the first variety show for children. Lee opened his shows by driving a miniature car onto a stage with a live audience of children, and went into a silly introductory song-and-dance number that started with the greeting “Yoo hoo, its me! My name is Pinky Lee!” The comedian would then spend the next twenty-six minutes frantically playing games, telling stories, and wreaking havoc that involved everyone in the studio—series regulars, puppets, and the studio audience. Another appeal of the show was Lee’s talent as a master improviser, and he often surprised staff members and the audience alike with his antics. All was not silly, however; he also had a regular segment of the show called “Mr. and Mrs. Grumpy,” in which he portrayed “Pinky the Clown,” a part he performed with much pathos. In one memorable segment the Grumpys moved away, leaving the lonely Pinky behind. It is said that both the studio audience and the television crew were moved to tears.
Lee loved performing for children, and the feeling was mutual. He was more like a mischievous older brother than the usual authoritative adult. Parents complained that Lee was overexciting kids with his breakneck pace and causing them to adopt his peculiar mannerisms, but kids had no complaints.
During his burlesque and variety show days, Lee had often told vulgar jokes, which made people wonder if he was the right person to host a children’s show. “I guess a few parents may have been apprehensive when I first decided that entertaining kids was for me,” he said in a 1955 interview. He admitted that he didn’t know what he was getting into, but the national show immediately became a huge hit. His live show was broadcast from Los Angeles and appeared Monday through Friday from 5:00 to 5:30 P.M.
The second season Lee agreed to NBC’s request that he add a Saturday morning show to his already punishing schedule. On 20 September 1955, while on the air, Lee collapsed in front of his studio audience. The children laughed, thinking this was another one of his skits. Instead it was a case of exhaustion and a serious sinus infection. Lee’s doctor told him to take time off, move to a drier climate, and start taking care of himself. Lee reluctantly moved to Tucson, Arizona, to recuperate. While he was off the air his show fell in the ratings. One reason for this was his absence; another was the growing popularity of the Mickey Mouse Club on ABC. On 9 June 1956 The Pinky Lee Show was canceled.
Lee recovered enough to take over as host The Gumby Show, a children’s show that aired in 1957. Lee welcomed the audience and viewers to his Fun Shop, where he presented the adventures of Gumby and his friends. Gumby was a green clay action character created by a combination of live animation and stop-motion photography. The series, which only lasted a season, would be revisited about thirty years later as the comedian Eddie Murphy, in bright green costume, re-created the character Gumby on Saturday Night Live sketches.
After The Gumby Show was canceled, Lee brought back his old slapstick comedy routines, playing in Las Vegas, Nevada, for three years. In 1964 and again in 1966 he hosted a local Pinky Lee Show for children at KABC in Los Angeles. In 1970 he appeared at the University of Colorado in a nostalgic show put on for college students. He was moved to tears by the three-minute ovation given him by the nineteen- to twenty-four-year-old students who remembered him fondly from their childhood. In later years, when the mood suited him, Lee toured the country in vaudeville-style revues; including the musical Sugar Babies in 1989. On 3 April 1993 he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Lee, who had been lambasted by the critics for his “low” humor in his early career, felt vindicated in his later years with the revival of vaudeville-style routines and the popularity of slapstick humor displayed by the likes of the Three Stooges. He said that his kind of broad and slapstick humor was just what the country needed.
Background about Pinky Lee’s life and career can be found in Robert L. Smith, Who’s Who in Comedy (1992). Jeffery Davis, Children’s Television (1995), describes Pinky Lee’s children’s show and traces his influences on later comedians and children’s programming. Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, The Complete Directory to Prime Networks and Cable TV Shows (1999), provides insight into the early days of television and Pinky Lee’s place in television history. A description of Lee’s life after The Pinky Lee Show was canceled can be found in L. Botto, “Now You See Them, Now You Don’t,” Look (7 Sept. 1971). An obituary is in the New York Times (7 Apr. 1993).