BANJO EYES: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom by Herbert G. Goldman

BANJO EYES: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Goldman, author of acclaimed biographies of Fanny Brice (1992) and Al Jolson (1988), continues his excavation of the Jewish stars of the 1920s and '30s. The saucer-eyed Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) is all but forgotten today except to historians of the musical stage and film, yet he was a master of every medium he attempted, from vaudeville to television, and his variegated career represents a microcosm of 20th-century American show business. Indeed, as Goldman argues, Cantor's success on radio was unprecedented and pivotal in the rise of that medium. Yet his origins were humble indeed. Born on the Manhattan's Lower East Side as Israel Iskowitz, the boy was quickly orphaned and raised by his doting grandma Esther in Dickensian poverty. The boy learned that he had a natural gift for making people laugh, and that this gift could win him approval (and deflect potential beatings in the tough streets of turn-of-the-century Jewish New York). He dropped out of school at 13 but didn't truly enter show business until he was 16, when he worked as a waiter and singer at a saloon, teamed with an equally young Jimmy Durante. Gradually, he drifted into a career in the entertainment business, slowly climbing the ladder of vaudeville success until he was starring in the Ziegfeld Follies. From there his stardom grew steadily, predicated on his boundless energy, boisterous comedy, and way with a song. At the same time, he remained committed to the people he had left behind, a tireless worker for good causes (including the March of Dimes, which he founded), and a powerful advocate for the burgeoning unions in the entertainment industry. But Goldman tells Cantor's story in overly elaborate detail. At times it seems as if he has listed every public appearance the star ever made. This volume is thus unlikely to resurrect Cantor's memory, although it captures some of his appeal. Interesting reading, but ultimately a book for the already committed fan.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.