"Yoo-hoo, it's me/My name is . . ."
"I skip and run/Bring lots of fun/To every he and she/It's plain to see?That you can tell it's me/With my checkered hat and checkered coat/Funny giggle in my throat/Silly dance like a billy goat/Put'em all together/And it's oooooh, oooooh, oooooh, oooooh . . ."
(Big finish now.)
Pinky Lee, a blast from the past. Pinky Lee, the frenzied elf of mid-'50s television, dancing and prancing across the screen. Pinky Lee, whose talent -- whatever it was -- was certainly undeniable.
Pinky Lee walked off the chartered bus that carried Roy Radin's Vaudeville '81 troupe wearing a light-blue, brushed-denim leisure suit, a red shirt with large white polka dots open at the neck, two thick gold neck chains and a toupee that appeared to be fashioned from unknown fibers and fastened with Polident. At what seemed to be no more than 5 feet 1 or 5 feet 2 and no less than 70, Pinky Lee looked like one of those madcap weekenders in Atlantic City who lose it all betting on 33 red and are given charity tickets on the first bus to anywhere.
It had been a long ride, a very long ride, all the way from Wilkes-Barre to the Highland House in Washington with a two-hour delay due to driver error.Pinky and his wife, BeBe, went straight to their room. Later, Pinky would tell someone that he was "suffering" during the ride, and BeBe would explain, "We didn't stop once, and we all had to go." Pinky and BeBe make such a cute couple, the kind of couple Randy Newman would pick up just to say hello. They've been married 49 years now. "Do you think it'll last?" BeBe wants to know.
It's been a long time between hits for Pinky.
In the late '30s and '40s he had been popular as a vaudeville baggypants comedian, made a couple of movies and done some nightclub work. ("I made my first picture in 1942 with Barbara Stanwyck and became a star. Then came television. The rest is history," Pinky says.) In the early and mid-'50s he was right up there with Mickey Mouse and Buffalo Bob with the kiddies. His show was on NBC five days a week, and his checkered hat -- Pinky calls it "a dinky" -- and checkered coat, funny giggle in his throat, silly dance like a billy goat were all the rage.
But in 1955, live, on the air, right in front of all those kids on the set and millions more at home, Pinky collapsed, right in the middle of a commercial for Mickey Mouse watches. Pinky remembers falling and pleading, "Help me. Somebody help me." Some people thought it was a heart attack. Pinky says no. Some even suggested he was drunk. Pinky says no, no, no. "I was being poisoned to death from a nasal drip," he says. He sighs. "For the rest of my life I have to continually douche my nose -- it's not a pleasant word, but I have to."
After the treacherous nasal attack, Pinky and BeBe sold their house in Beverly Hills and went to live in Tucson, where, Pinky says, he got well. Although he didn't go back on TV because "it was too draining," he did go back to nightclubs. "I got an offer to play The Dunes," Pinky says. "I went in for two weeks, and they held me over for 18. I signed with them for three years." It was on the stage of The Dunes, in 1960, that Pinky retired. He told his audience that he was quitting while he was ahead. (Pinky says he's 62. That means he was 41 when he retired and 13 when he married. That's life in the fast lane for you.)
Now, Pinky says that he shouldn't have officially retired.
"I was ashamed of myself afterwards," he says.
He didn't really retire. He couldn't really retire.
"I couldn't get the ham in me out of my blood," he says. "I started doing colleges and theaters. I worked on and off when I got the urge . . . Whenever I got an offer that pleased me, I did it. And sometimes, even if they couldn't pay me a cent, I worked anyway."
His last shot on regular TV came in 1966 when, according to Pinky, Elton Rule of ABC called him and said, "We need you." There was to be a reincarnation of "The Pinky Lee Show." (Yoo-hoo, it's me, and all that jazz.) Pinky signed to do five shows a week; he would tape all five in one day. ABC, he says, told him it would run at 4:30 each afternoon. "But someone goofed up, and I didn't have it in my contract," Pinky says. "So when they put it on at 7:30 in the morning, what could I do?At 7:30 in the morning, who am I gonna entertain? Little babies who say, 'ga-ga'? They were nickel-and-diming me all over the place, telling me I was $2.75 or $3.25 over budget for the week. And this was at a time when ABC was losing 4 million dollars on 'The Jerry Lewis Show.' After 26 weeks I told them, 'Take your show and shove it.' I walked off." (Tom Macken, a spokesman for ABC, confirmed that Pinky briefly did a local show in L.A., on KABC, but said he could find no one who remembered anything about it.)
And since then?
"I didn't want another series after that," Pinky says. "Honestly, truly, I didn't. My doctor said a series would kill me. And I really didn't want one."
So, the rest is history.
Tuesday night's performance was to be at Northwood High in Silver Spring. The Roy Radin bus and truck tour never gigs at the Palladium. Each of his tours is billed as an All Star Revue, but this is creative billing. John Carradine was undoubtedly a big star, but that was 40 years ago. Barbara McNair was once a headline singer, just as Jan Murray was a headline comedian and Tiny Tim was a headlne weirdo. The others, such as Jud Strunk, Johnny Brown, The Harmonica Rascals and a magician named Satan Demoni, have always been on the undercard. (And then there is the ever-popular Zippy the Chimp, who must be a great-grandmonkey by now. Zippy doesn't travel by bus; he goes separately, in a Cadillac. A tribute, perhaps, to his manners -- or he has a better agent than the others.) Caradine and Pinky are the oldest people on tour, but Murray claims neither is as old as his act.
"This tour has been a lark for Pinky," BeBe says. "He doesn't really work anymore. Mr. Radin had been after him for a few years to do this. Finally, Pinky said, 'Let's do it.'"
"He's paying me a tremedous salary," Pinky says proudly. "He's paying through the nose."
Pinky is smiling.
"I always play the same role," Pinky says. "The same pathetic, little guy I've always played, you know . . . I walk down the aisle and they give me a standing ovation before they even announce my name. Yeah, they still know and love Pinky Lee.They still love the little guy with the checkered hat and checkered coat." (Funny giggle in his throat, silly dance like a billy goat.)
And then it is time to talk about the dream.
Oh sure, there's a dream.
No matter what the doctor said.
No matter that Pinky says "the present-day children wouldn't accept a "Pinky Lee Show" as I did it before. pThese kids are 8 going on 40. They're hip. They're sex-wise."
The dream is another, a newer, a hipper "Pinky Lee Show."
(A hipper "Pinky Lee Show"?)
The same piece of cake with a new frosting," Pinky says. "You know I was the first to introduce prizes and games on television. I was."
Pinky lowers his voice.
"Pinky Lee in Heaven,'" he says.
(Oh Yeah! All Right! We're Go for 39 Weeks!)
"I'm living on Cloud 9 up in heaven," Pinky says. "At the beginning of each show you see me up there. My telephone rings. I open up a little door on Cloud 9 and I answer the phone. It's my son calling -- from Earth. Pinky Lee Jr. He's down there doing a show like mine, only he calls it 'The Pinky Lee Jr. Show.' He says to me, 'Hey, Pa, I'm in trouble. The studio just burned down, and all the kids are here and they're waiting for their games and prizes. What am I gonna do?' I look into the camera and I say, 'No problem.' Then, the next thing you see is me down on Earth, driving a big checkered van. You know, checkered van for my checkered hat and checkered coat. And I pull into the lot and all the kids go into my checkered van, and we do my show. I'd have prizes and games and my talent search; I always had a talent search. I was the first to have a talent search. I was."
Great, Pinky, great. But that sounds like the old show. Didn't you want to do more of a new show?
"Oh yeah. But we'll do a lot of new modern things."
"Disco. Disco is tremendous today. We'll just get those kids up there and dancing to disco . . ."
He would have gone on had BeBe not sent someone over to tell Pinky that it was time to get on the bus, to go to the show at the high school in Silver Spring, to knock 'em in the aisles one more time. Last call. A trouper never fails on a last call.
"Gotta go," Pinky says, getting up and walking away.
Then, stopping for a second, Pinky turns and says, "Come tonight. Come and see me. I'll show you."