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Will José Jiménez be scooping at the Doo-Dah Parade?

 

By Jim Vanore

Hanging on the street corner in 1950s-60s Philadelphia, we actually did sing acapella.
Occasionally.
It depended on the mood of the evening. Sometime we’d sing to the accompaniment of a pocket-sized radio; sometimes not.
Sometimes, we would instead mimic one of the contemporary stand-up comic routines that were popular—with our own creatively-scripted remarks added, of course. And these may or may not (more often not) have been suitable for public broadcast.
Some of our favorites were Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First;” the sidewalk barker, Sid Stone from Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater; and any of the Bob Newhart monologues.
But when we really wanted to get creative, and include a good portion of the crowd, we’d try to banter back and forth like the characters from the “Man-on-the-Street” bit made so popular on Steve Allen’s TV show.
Those characters included the pretentious, ultra-hip country-clubber (Louie Nye), the stumbling, mispronouncing bamboozler (Dayton Allen), the semi-comatose poor soul who never could remember his own name (Tom Poston), the overtly nervous and paranoid (Don Knotts), and the introverted, always frightened foreigner (Bill Dana).
All of those comedians went on to stellar careers. Only one is still with us, and still making us laugh—Bill Dana, who’s immortalization of man-on-the-street alter ego José Jiménez was just the tip of this ice berg of talent.
“It’s nice to let people know that some of us are still around,” he quipped during a recent telephone interview.
Dana, who will appear as Grand Marshall at this year’s Doo-Dah Parade in Ocean City at noon, April 18, also has a sharp ear to go with his astute wit.
“I can hear the ‘Philadelphia’ in your voice,” he noted as we began our conversation.
Having had relatives in Philadelphia (his cousin Lily was personal secretary to Walter Annenberg), Dana immediately picked up my intonation. This aptitude no doubt helped him to nail the José Jiménez inflection.
So accurate was he in performing that Caribbean creation, that most of us thought at the time, that he was genuinely from the islands.
In fact, he is a native-born American (Quincy, Massachusetts) of Hungarian (born William Szathmary) descent.
He was working in a shipyard as World War II exploded.
“Since I was working in a shipyard, it was natural that, when I was drafted, they put me in field artillery,” he said with affected irony.
Dana attended Emerson College after war service, and while at Emerson, he and his friend Gene Wood took a trip to Puerto Rico.
“I met a guy (from the island) and we got to talking,” he began to explain. “I asked him what he did. He said, ‘I’m the Dutch representative.’
“I said, ‘oh, do you work with the Netherlands?’
“’No,’ the man emphasized, ‘Dutch representative.’
“So I asked him exactly what he did—repair dikes?
“’No,’ he declared, ‘I am the Dutch representative—Dutch, Plymouth, Chrysler…’
“I was just captured by his lovely speech configuration,” Dana said.
So the seed of what was to become José Jimenéz, that introverted, and semi-alarmed man being interviewed, was planted.
“Gene and I were always cut-ups at school,” he said, “but I never thought of it as a profession. I was working at Douglas Aircraft after graduating and making good money, while Gene was working as a page at NBC for much less.
“Gene called me and said, “That stuff we used to do in college—they pay for that here.’”
So Dana gave up his $80 a week job in the aircraft industry to become an NBC page for $32 a week. Given that close proximity to show business—especially during those early days of the new medium of television—Dana’s talent flourished.
Eventually he would write for such popular sitcoms as “Get Smart” (he wrote the “Would you believe…” lines that became omni-present in everyday speech in the 1960s), and “All in the Family” (he wrote the celebrated script for the Sammy Davis episode).
And of course, there was always José—loveable, pathetic, inscrutable; but always funny.
He wrote, produced, and starred in the Bill Dana Show on NBC TV and his comedy albums both as Bill Dana and Jose Jimenez were best sellers in the ‘60s. And in 2005, along with Jenni Matz, Dana founded the American Comedy Archives at his alma mater, Emerson College.
Although today’s TV viewers are familiar with reruns of other classics from televisions infancy—“I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” come to mind—few have seen those “Man-on-the-Street” skits.
“The two-inch video tape that those shows were recorded on back then was considered valuable,” Dana explained. “So they were reused. Those shows were recorded over. It was a crime against humanity. It makes me want to cry whenever I think of it.”
He and his wife, Evelyn will be driving up to Ocean City from his Nashville home for the Doo-Dah Parade.
“We’ll stop and see my brother Arthur,” he said. “He’s a professor emeritus at Princeton.”
His other brother, Irving, was an arranger with the Paul Whiteman orchestra and the musical director for “Get Smart.”
“It was Irving who coined the word, ‘jazz,’” Dana noted.
Coming from such talented roots, he has thought about writing a book, but has never pushed it past that point.
“I’m a comedy writer,” he said. “The difference between a writer and a comedy writer is discipline.
“Charles Grodin is always getting on me to write a book,” he continued. “And Steve Allen (who wrote numerous books) used to tell me to write every day, and then put it aside. Maybe someday…”
Right now he is working on a follow-up to “The Laughter Prescription,” which he co-wrote with Dr. Laurence Peter, author of “The Peter Principle.”
A book about his multi-talented family would seem a natural.
“My problem is focus,” Dana confessed, “but I have to admit, mine is a fascinating family. It would make a great story.”
For right now, he is focusing on Ocean City and the April 18 Doo-Dah Parade. Dana is also scheduled to star in the Doo-Dah Comedy show 8 p.m. that evening at the Music Pier, when he will recreate his humorous routines.
Upon learning that there will be several hundred basset hounds in the parade with him, he quipped, “Uh-oh; I hope they won’t be putting me on scooper duty.”
Now wouldn’t that just be José Jiménez’s luck!

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