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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Phil Harris (1904-95)

Wonga Philip Harris was born June 24, 1904, in Linton, Indiana, at the home of his grandmother. In 1916, when Phil was eight years old, his parents, Harry and Dollie Harris, who were circus performers, moved to their roots in Nashville, Tennessee. His father was a circus bandleader and hired Phil to play drumset for the circus. He also cultivated a pleasant popular singing voice.

Phil started his show business career, in all earnestness, as a drummer with a band led by Carol Lofner at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, in the 1920s. In 1927, he married Marcia Ralston (born Mascotte Marcia Henderson, and usually called "Mascotte"--1906-88) in Australia. At this time, he was drummer of the Lofner-Harris Band, which was traveling around the world at that time. Mascotte was a woman Phil met in Australia and the two fell in love. They would eventually adopt a son whom they'd name after Phil (born March 18, 1935).

In 1932, he broke up with Carol Lofner and became the successful bandleader at the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. He met Alice Faye in 1933, who would later become his second wife. Phil made his nonmusical radio debut on Hollywood On the Air, May 29,1933.

Also in 1933, Phil did a lot of acting: In June, Phil appeared in the feature, Melody Cruise. So This Is Phil Harris debuted in August. This was the first of several such attractions whose other titles included Harris in the Spring and Double or Nothing. This is Phil Harris won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Subject Comedy at the Sixth Academy Awards at the Ambassador Hotel in March 1934. Phil's movie career basically lasted until 1945.

Besides acting, Phil continued his music, leading the band at the Cocoanut Grove until 1936, when he was hired as bandleader for the Jack Benny Program. At the same time, Mahlon Merrick, was hired as the musical conductor and arranger. Mahlon was actually in charge of the band and played alto saxophone with the group. He also wrote all of the band's arrangements. Phil was not just a "ringer," but he actually did lead the orchestra. But the way his position was set up, he would only need to rehearse the band on Sunday morning. The band had one other rehearsal on Saturday morning with Mahlon leading.

The character Phil Harris played on Jack Benny's show was nothing like the real Phil Harris. He was made into an ignorant, selfish womanizer who didn't understand anything and liked to get drunk. He was genuinely funny.

In 1939 Phil divorced Mascotte. He had a relationship with actress/singer Alice Faye, who was going through a divorce with her husband, Tony Martin at the same time. Prior to the divorce, in 1938, there was a fist fight between Phil and RKO Studio mogul Bob Stevens at the Trocadero Nightclub in Hollywood to win Alice's hand. Phil won and Bob ended up with Sharon Gunn, a dancer.

Phil married Alice on May 12, 1941. They had two daughters, which Alice had by Caesarian section, Alice (born May 19, 1942) and Phyllis (born March 26, 1944). And the couple would remain married for 54 years, somewhat of a record for show business performers.

In December 1942, Phil and his entire band joined the Merchant Marine, stationed at Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, which allowed Phil to work on the Jack Benny show from time to time. They all returned to their regular places when World War II was over.

Phil and Alice were invited to star in the Fitch Bandwagon in 1946. The program started in the 1930s as a vehicle to display the best bands and musicians and their talents. Since Phil and Alice were musicians, it was thought they would follow suit. However, it was transformed into a situation comedy. Besides Phil and Alice, Jeanine Roos and Anne Whitfield were cast as their daughters, Alice and Phyllis, as their parents wouldn't allow them to act (and they were very young at this time). Bill Forman was the announcer and the music was led by Walter Scharf (and Phil was not the leader of this group).

While the Fitch program was going on, Phil still functioned as the bandleader and featured actor on Jack Benny's program. Both shows aired on Sunday night. Jack's program aired at 10:00 pm (in New York, which was 7:00 pm in Hollywood, where the show was done) while Phil's program aired at 10:30 (which was 7:30). As both shows were done in the same general area of NBC Radio City West, Phil would have to leave Jack's program at 7:24.

As Alice and Phil's radio program became more popular, more actors were added. Elliott Lewis was cast as Frankie Remley (1901-67), an actual member of the Jack Benny Program's orchestra who played guitar. He had a reputation for getting things wrong and over doing things. Walter Tetley (born Walter C. Tetzlaff--1915-75), who never finished going through puberty, was cast as Julius Abruzzio, the delivery boy for the grocery store. Robert North was Willie, Alice's not-so-funny deadbeat brother. The program title was changed from the Fitch Bandwagon to the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show in October 1948. The sponsor was Rexall Drug Stores.

Jack Benny's program last aired on NBC on December 26, 1948. It first aired on CBS on January 2, 1949. Phil Harris-Alice Faye remained on NBC. NBC Radio City West was quite a bit further than where he had to go when both shows were in the same building. He ended up leaving nine minutes earlier, at 7:15, but still getting paid the same. Even leaving ten minutes earlier, he would often walk into the studio two or three minutes past the opening. He had been wearing soft soled shoes. In 1950, the program's sponsor was RCA electronics.

Phil remained with Jack Benny until 1952. This was amicable and Phil and Alice remained close friends with Jack and Mary Benny until they passed away. Phil was replaced by Bing Crosby's brother, Bob, on Jack's show. Not having a program to do immediately before his show, Phil began a warm-up program which wasn't aired to the radio audience. It would start at 7:15, include some racy dialog not normally heard on radio at that time, and was usually more entertaining than the radio show. Bill Forman moderated this and many of these 45 minute shows (the 15 minute prelude plus the 30 minute broadcast) were recorded.

In 1954, Phil appeared in The High and the Mighty, probably the first film about an air disaster told from the viewpoint of the passengers and crew. It was a drama which starred John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Phil Harris, Alfalfa Switzer, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Joy Kim, William Hopper, Regis Toomey, and William Schallert. This was one of the most unlikely casts of all time and is considered one of the greatest films of its kind.

After Phil and Alice left their radio show in December 1953, Phil acted in a handful of more movies. He did guest parts on other radio and television shows. His last major motion picture feature was the Jerry Lewis film, The Patsy (1954) [actually, the last film was a very unknown production called Cool, Baby, Cool (AKA The Cool Ones) (1967), starring Roddy McDowall, Deborah Walley, and Glen Campbell).] And then came animation...

His first animated feature was Disney's The Jungle Book (1967), in which he did the voice of Baloo, the bear. Youngsters who were too young to hear Phil sing "That's What I Like About the South" and "Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette," could enjoy him singing songs they could relate to. He was also Thomas O'Malley in Disney's The Aristocats (1970), Little John, the bear, in Disney's Robin Hood (1973), and Patou in Don Bluth's Rock-a-Doodle (1991), which starred Glen Campell. This was Phil's final performance.

Phil and Alice were virtually retired from regular show business when Phil turned 65 in 1969. At that time the couple moved to the Palm Springs area, where they spent the rest of their lives. They would do casual television spots for real estate and golf developments in the area.

Death came on August 11, 1995, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 91 years old. His remains were cremated and placed into a decorative urn with three brass dolphins. This was placed next to his wife's remains, after she died three years later, at the Palm Spring Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cathedral City (near Palm Springs).

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