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Eddie Cantor (Iskowitz), one of America’s first radio stars and wildly popular, cross-platform entertainers, died at 72 on this date in 1964. Known as “Banjo Eyes” and “The Apostle of Pep,” Cantor mixed intimate stories about his wife and five daughters with high-energy dancing, vaudeville songs, jokes, and sentimental sincerity to charm his audiences on Broadway stages (in the Ziegfeld Follies from 1917 to 1927), radio (he was the medium’s highest paid star), film, and early television. His hit songs included “Makin’ Whoopee” (Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson), “Yes! We Have No Bananas” (Frank Silver/Irving Cohn), “If You Knew Susie” (Buddy DeSylva/Joseph Meyer,” “Margie” (Benny Davis/Con Conrad/J. Russel Robinson), and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” ( J. Fred Coots/Haven Gillespie). Cantor penned a few songs of his own, including the Merrie Melodies Warner Brothers cartoon theme. He was a founder of the March of Dimes (against polio) and the second president of the Screen Actors Guild (he participated in the 1919 strike to form the Guild), and at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, he publicly denounced the anti-Semitic radio sensation Father Charles Coughlin, which cost Cantor his sponsor (Camel cigarettes) and almost his radio career. He also wrote several books and was caricatured in numerous cartoons and as a Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade balloon. To see him performing “If You Knew Susie,” look below. To see him in a Busby Berkeley routine, look further down. “When I see the Ten Most Wanted Lists . . . I always have this thought: If we’d made them feel wanted earlier, they wouldn’t be wanted now.” --Eddie Cantor
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.