Coca, Imogene (1909–2001)

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Coca, Imogene (1909–2001)

American actress and comedian who was the star of television's groundbreaking comedy "Your Show of Shows." Born on November 18, 1909, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on June 2, 2001, in Westport, Connecticut; only child of Joseph (a musical conductor) and Sadie (Brady) Coca (a dancer and vaudeville actress); married Robert Burton (an actor-musician), in 1935 (deceased); married King Donovan (an actor).

Imogene Coca, who would capture America's heart as the pixilated co-star of the 1950s television program "Your Show of Shows," was a veteran performer before she finished grammar school. She told Ed Wallace of the New York World-Telegram: "I began as one of those horrible little children who sing with no voice." Thrust into vaudeville by her father at 14, she was a full time trouper—a tap, acrobatic, and ballet dancer. Deciding to forego high school for her career, she made her New York debut a year later in the chorus of the short-run musical When You Smile. Most of her early years were taken up with night club and vaudeville gigs, including a stint as Leonard Sillman's dancing partner in a vaudeville act booked at the Palace in New York. With the decline of vaudeville, Coca moved on to a series of minor stage roles. In 1934, Sillman drafted her for his New Faces revue and quite by accident discovered her flair for comedy. During a rehearsal break in the drafty theater, she put on an oversized man's polo coat and gave her rendition of a seductive fan dance. Sillman loved it and included the number in the show along with several other pantomimes. The reviewers hailed Coca as a rising young comedian.

She became a regular in Sillman's shows from 1935 to 1938, appearing in feature spots in seven productions. (In the 1935 revue Fools Rush In, Coca met her husband Bob Burton.) In 1938, she toured as a singer with George Olsen's orchestra before returning to New York for her first outstanding stage role in the 1939 production Straw Hat Revue. With a cast that included her husband and Danny Kaye, Coca appeared in 8 of the show's 25 sketches. This success was followed by a dry spell that lasted through the war years and discouraged the actress so greatly that she almost abandoned her career. When her husband joined the army, Coca went to live with her mother in Philadelphia.

Night club work sustained her through 1944 and 1945, during which time she polished some of her best routines, including a satire of Phil Spitalny's all-girl orchestra featuring Evelyn and her Magic Violin as well as a riotous take on 20 years of Hollywood femmes fatales. Reviewing her act at the night club Le Ruban Bleu, Virginia Forbes wrote in the New York Sun: "Miss Coca has the light lunatic touch which she uses to satirize fur fashion shows and torch singers in general. Her properties include everything from a voluminous evening wrap, probably made by Worth about 1910, to jack-in-the-box toys. 'Drunk with love,' which relates her adventures in a quaint little cocktail lounge, is hilarious." With a series of good reviews, bookings started to pick up, and Coca began to play the better clubs like New York's Blue Angel and Chicago's Palmer House. In 1948, she was tapped as a summer replacement for Helen Hayes in Happy Birthday. After signing the contract, Coca felt out of her league filling Hayes' shoes and, had it been possible, would have canceled the booking.

Coca's big break finally came with her first television appearance in January 1949 in Max Liebman's "Admiral Broadway Revue," with a cast that included star comedians Sid Caesar and Mary McCarty . An instant hit, Coca was then cast in Liebman's 90-minute weekly revue "Your Show of Shows," which first aired on February 24, 1950, and is now considered one of the classics of television's heyday. Coca performed individually on the program—pantomimes, monologues, impersonations, original songs and dances—and also partnered with Caesar, Carl Reiner, and Howie Morris in a variety of comedy skits. Coca's solos included an inspired satire of a ballet, complete with a portrayal of her handsome partner and the accompanying corps de ballet. Ernest Haverman, in a 1951 article for Life magazine, called her humor "a matter of subtle and almost imperceptible shadings, balanced between dignity and absurdity."

Coca's career peaked with "Your Show of Shows," which went off the air in 1954. Later television endeavors—including a reuniting with Caesar in 1958 and two series, "Grindle" and "It's About Time"—were never as successful. In

1958, she appeared in the stage show The Girls in 509, where she met her second husband King Donovan; in 1963, she could be seen in the film Under the Yum-Yum Tree. She also took on a variety of stage roles, mostly in touring companies. In 1977, Coca joined Sid Caesar again for a cabaret tour. It was not until 1978, however, that Coca struck gold with the role of Letitia Primrose in the Cy Coleman musical On the Twentieth Century, which also proved to be a comeback success for lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (The show boasted a superb set by Robin Wagner that included several replicas of the 1930s streamlined train the Twentieth Century Limited.) In addition to its Broadway run, the show had a successful tour.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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