Musings: Who is (or was) Jerry Colonna?

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate and

 New York Times Best Selling Author

 

WHO IS (OR WAS) JERRY COLONNA?

 

Are you old enough to remember Jerry Colonna? I’ll give you a hint; he was not a utility infielder for the Red Sox. Unless you’ve been kicking around this planet for about seventy years you probably have no idea who he is – or was.

 

Jerry Colonna is the reason that I fell in love with Casey at the Bat.

 

In 1946 Walt Disney produced a cartoon version of the great comic verse by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, and it was narrated by Colonna. I was already familiar with the poem by that time and thought it was pretty cool, but it was words on a page. Jerry Colonna’s narration – performance, really – made those words come alive. I still vividly remember being transfixed by them as I sat watching in a movie theater (at what I assume was a Saturday matinee showing of a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers film). That is what inspired me to begin reading Casey aloud and eventually to memorize it so that I could recite it myself.

 

Jerry Colonna was, back then, pretty famous in his own right. He was a regular on the old Bob Hope radio, and then television, shows of the forties and fifties. He had a great walrus mustache and big, bulging eyes. He also had a high-pitched tenor voice that he used to great comic effect. He was the perfect foil for Hope’s fast talking, wise guy persona. Colonna was a great favorite on Hope’s legendary shows in the battle zones of World War II and then Korea.

 

I happened to be thinking about Colonna recently and decided to get on the internet to look him up, and there, to my delight, right on YouTube, is the original Disney cartoon that so inspired me all those years ago. Parts of it are the same as I remember, and parts are different. First, it is introduced by a song, “Casey the Pride of Them All,” sung, of course, by Colonna. Capital Records released it as a single later that year. I had forgotten about it, but it came back to me on hearing it. There were some extra verses, designed, I suppose, to pad out the story. What the extra verses did not do was improve on the tale of the star-crossed slugger, which was well nigh perfect the way Thayer had composed it in 1888. There is music added in, of course, and it goes without saying that the animation meets the usual Disney standard of being terrific. Then there is the narration of Colonna. It is, just as I remembered it from my childhood, wonderful. Once the window dressing is out of the way, the second half of the cartoon adheres closely to the original text, spoken with just a hint of an Irish brogue, and it captures the magic of Casey at the Bat.

 

If you like baseball and you want to give yourself a present, look it up on YouTube. You won’t be sorry. I wasn’t. In fact, I spent the better part of an afternoon watching clips of  Colonna on the internet.

 

Colonna’s narration confirms that Casey is a poem better said than read.  Listening to the words, their tempo and their pacing, puts a person right into the Mudville stands that day almost and hundred twenty years ago. There are other poems that have that special quality; the works of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service come to mind. The next time you come across a copy of Gunga Din or The Cremation of Sam McGee, read it aloud to yourself or to anyone who happens to be present. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have as the words leap off the page.

 

There is no evidence that Jerry Colonna ever did anything more with Casey at the Bat than provide the voice over for the Disney cartoon, but I wish he had. I wish he had performed it over and over again for the soldiers and sailors on the Bob Hope tours back in the day. How they’d have loved it. I know how I loved hearing him do it again on YouTube.

 

Jerry Colonna was a Boston guy, you know. Born and bred in Bean Town, he got his start playing the trombone in local dance bands, then moved on to New York and eventually to California. He had a gift for comedy and Bob Hope made him a part of his permanent entourage in 1938. He stayed with Hope for years until suffering a stroke in 1966. He died in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in 1986. He went to his grave never knowing how he’d inspired a little boy listening to his voice in a movie theater in 1946 or that the same little boy would be telling people about him more than seventy years later.