Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mordru's Vaudeville Career

Those of you who have been online since the mid-1990s will remember an ongoing research project we worked on from time to time, delving into the career of Mordru when he was in Vaudeville. The scope of the project eventually widened considerably, leading to discussions about his career and activities well into the 1990s. Most of the research was provided by Mike Chary and Troy McNemar, though others were able to find selected anecdotes. I dug into my archives to bring some of the interesting items.

Mordru was the top-selling Vaudeville act at Manhattan's Purple Pelican Club (long since closed) from 1925-34. No lesser luminaries than George Burns, Milton Berle, and Gabby Herkowitz praised his act. The man was a hit, and is still a model of comedic timing. Unfortunately, Mordru disdained the trend of feature motion pictures. He thought they were a passing phase and concentrated on his stage act. It proved to be a bad career move--almost as bad as his refusal to join Bob Hope's USO tour in 1942, which opened him up to some criticism.

Mordru, circa 1933

Mordru had a flourishing post-war career in the Catskills until his name was turned in to the HUAC in 1946. He was jailed for contempt of Congress because he wouldn't remove his hat. The only "bad timing" Mordru ever demonstrated was in joining the Communist Party right after the Berlin airlift (which some say was just a ill-timed publicity stunt) in 1948. He was not officially blacklisted, but had some troubles for a while afterwards.

Mordru tried to parlay his Vaudeville career into theatrical shorts. He auditioned as a replacement for Curly of the Three Stooges after Curly suffered a stroke in 1946, but Stooge Moe Howard picked his brother Shemp over Mordru. The winged hat that Mordru wore was a consolation present from Moe after Mordru failed the audition. (After Shemp died and was replaced by Joe Besser, Mordru once again tried to join the team, as he attempted to bribe Moe in 1958 for a spot in the line-up after Joe left.) Some thought that "The Two Stooges and a Magician" could have kept that act going well into the 1970s, while others thought that Mordru's vaudeville talents would have been wasted in the ensemble, though.

Mordru, as part of the "Vaudeville Legends" trading card set, 1950

Mordru was a fantastic Vaudevillian straight-man, though his television attempts (such as 1953's "Merry Mercilous Vaudeville Hour") never lasted. His attempts at screwball romance comedies in the 1950s were ill-thought out and should be ignored. "One Magic Moment" deserves a spot on the top 10 worst movies of all time. Mordru's true talent was on the stage where he could gauge his performance to his live audience (which, supposedly, is what Milton Berle is said to have admired most about Mordru).

Mordru's one-time partner Glorith - who often found herself wearing little clothing during their act - never really made the transition off the stage. She made one "B-Movie", a 1954 debacle called "Creatures on the Loose" (which later spawned a comic book series) famous only for the brief shot of Glorith topless. (She later claimed that was a body double). She later had a minor career in Branson.

He had a notable guest-starring role in a fifth-season episode of "I Love Lucy" (1956). The scene where he accidentally transforms Desi into a giant snail is a classic and often appears in clip shows.

Mordru and the cast of "I Love Lucy", 1956

In late 1961, Jim Backus and Mordru were on the Joey Bishop Show attempting a Vaudeville revival. It would have been his big break. Just before they were set to go on, some stage rigging malfunctioned and Mordru was buried under sandbags, and Backus had to go on with Bob Newhart as his straight man. The rest is history, with the first pairing of the two on a 1962 episode of the original Bob Newhart Show. Many years later, Backus' unofficial biographer excised a chapter about Backus' scheme to dump a mound of Earth on Mordru just before show time. Years before, Marilyn Monroe took a shine to Mordru and stood up an engagement with Backus. To get revenge, Backus planned to humiliate Mordru on national TV. Bob Hope had wanted the Backus/Mordru team for one of his TV specials and USO tours, and they were being courted by the Las Vegas Hilton to play as a lounge act. When Mordru flew the coop, the Hilton got Elvis and the King's career was reborn. I don't think Mordru ever forgave Elvis for that.

Mordru, backstage at the Bob Newhart show, 1962

Mordru found himself a bit part of the Watergate scandal in 1973. He was recruited by Charles Colson to magically erase 18 minutes of a White House tape, but he declined out of respect for the office of the Presidency. Mordru, who once entertained John F. Kennedy alongside the Rat Pack and even briefly considered running for mayor of Moosejaw, steered clear of all politicians and turned down the opportunity to perform at Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Ball with Ben Gazzara and the cast of "What's Happening" in 1977.

In 1975, Mordru was invited to appear on "Cowboy Wally's Western Rodeo Spectacular" as a rodeo clown. It worked out for him, so various rodeos around the country started inviting him to appear as a sort of guest clown. Sadly, one time a bull actually charged him, and Mordru blew it up with an eldritch blast, at which point the audience booed him and he turned them all into leeks, and it went down hill from there.

In 1976 he tried out for the Jack Tripper role on "Three's Company"; the girl auditioning for the Chrissy Sommers role (a 21-year-old Geena Davis) had to slap him twice and they had to call security to escort him off the lot. Mordru with a laugh track - can there be a worse fate for a Vaudeville great? He was also rumored to have had an affair with Bea Arthur around that time.

Mordru scored a television appearance appeared on the two-part "Legends of the Super-Heroes" in 1978, featuring The Challenge and The Roast. In "The Challenge", Mordru's big scene has him fleeing Batman while riding on a jet-ski. (See this YouTube video, about 3:00 into the clip.)

The "Roast" closes with a big song and dance number by Mordru, who favors the crowd with his personal rendition of "That's Entertainment!", with all-new, evil lyrics ("I think diseases are nice/A condition that's chronic/A plague that is bubonic..."), that is, until Batman brings out the comedy classic, the pie in the face. (See this YouTube video, starting at the beginning.)

In 1983, Mordru was inducted into the Vaudeville Hall of Fame. Introducing him was his first partner, "Doctor" Artie Mayavale, citing his "groundbreaking work in physical humour". The Vaudeville Hall inducted Mordru at its opening and still, to this day, its annual fund raising ball is called the Hat Ball. (The replica hat is behind only the seltzer bottle and a replica Groucho eyes/nose/moustache in gift shop sales.)

Statue of Mordru outside the Vaudeville Hall of Fame

In 1991, Mordru was supposedly arrested along with Pee-Wee Herman at an infamous movie theater. Pee-Wee got all the publicity, but Mordru was allegedly right there next to him. In an odd twist for most Hollywood rumors, this was actually started by Mordru's own publicity machine. At the lowest ebb that his career had ever taken, Mordru was hoping to drum up some exposure (no pun intended). Unfortunately, he couldn't even get the lowest of the tabloids to print the fake photos he made.

In 1993, Ken Burns did the definitive documentary on sock-making, 18 hours long. Paul Levitz narrated the middle 6 hours. Mordru financed that one with money he'd saved from his Vaudeville career. It was a tremendous money-loser and Mordru had to do some commercials for a while, including an American Express "Do you know me?" spot and the 1-800-COLLECT spot with him dressed as a leprechaun.

Mark Evanier and Peter David did a treatment for a Mordru variety series in 1996, originally to co-star Phil Hartman. The plans were scrapped with Hartman's death in 1998, as Hartman was considered the best foil to Mordru since the days of Mordru & Allen. Word has it that the centerpiece of the show was a segment called "Hat Trick" where Mordru would sing snippets of popular songs. Test audiences couldn't stop laughing at his rendition of the Spice Girls' "Wannabe." It's a shame because it finally soured Mordru on the TV business.

Mordru, 1998

Several years ago, Mordru hosted a series of late night infomercials plugging an eight holovid collection of his greatest Vaudeville acts. Many of these are home videos from his own private collection of early club appearances not available before then, ranging from the famous "Leeta-89" sketch to the infamous "Mysterious Missing Footnote" sketch (far from Mordru's best material). The "Graveyard at Dusk" sketch, however, was hilarious, though it was mostly material stolen from the Marx Brothers: "This morning I got up and enslaved the Legion of Super-Heroes in my pajamas. How they got in my pajamas I'll never know."

Ewan McGregor, rumored to be considering the part of Mordru in a murder mystery film set in the days of Vaudeville

Mordru has kept a low profile in the past several years, making a rare public appearance in Metropolis and another on Zarok. He's mostly retired, and lives in the April Fools Retirement Community outside of Miami.

Before and after: Mordru after Botox and some personal grooming


Anonymous said...

That wasn't the best joke I've read today... But you win for the funniest.

J.D. Long said...

I love April Fool's Day.

I just can't figure out whether this is the ONLY joke, or that easy quiz is too.

BTW, did you hear the Legion Cartoon has been renewed?


Anonymous said...

I can't believe you left out that time Mordru subbed for Johnny Carson for a week on the Tonight Show in the mid-80s. Rumor had it that NBC was considering him as a permanent replacement until the show where he nearly disintegrated the San Diego Zoo's Joan Embray after the tasmanian devil she'd brought peed on his arm. Supposedly, NBC had the tapes wiped for fear of lawsuit, but I've heard bootlegs still occasionally turn up....

Anonymous said...

I had forgotten about Mordru's extensive vaudville career until you reminded me. My God, some of those insider stories are hilarious!