Part Spike Jones, part Lee Tracy, part Bob Wills, New York-born Jack White was a vaudeville emcee, an actor, a band leader, an insult comedian, a singer, a nightclub owner, an obsessive baseball fan, and how he ever made it to 49 before he died is anyone’s guess.
As the story goes, White had worked as a singing waiter and a bricklayer before auditioning for an amateur musical production. Something about White’s performance struck Irving Berlin of all people, who may have sensed in the oily, fast-talking wise-ass the spark of a natural. Berlin may have regretted the move later, as once onstage White went to great lengths to confuse his audience while entertaining himself.
“Ace of clubs!”
White set up jokes with no punchlines, offered punchlines that made no sense, tossed out showbiz in-jokes and insults and kept the whole thing moving so fast no one seemed to notice.
“Now take the pauper—that tall guy over there we call Stump. Between him and his old man, they got four elbows. He couldn’t afford to go coffee so he hadda goatee! Now he walks through the streets shouting. Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a grapefruit. When she got there all she had was spongecake, so now the dog’ll only eat bah-naaa-nasa!”
He kept the same absurdist banter running off the tracks while acting as a sort-of bandleader in 1929 with The Montrealers, naking the band itself part of the act. Much as Spike Jones would a decade later, White deconstructed pop songs, employed unexpected instrumentation, traded incomprehensible one-liners with his musicians (sometimes individually, sometimes as a group), and turned what was in theory a musical performance into a Dada slapstick routine, with the well-rehearsed musicians responding to each sorrt-of punchline with a unified “Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!”
“How are you feeling today?” he calls to an unseen musician.
“Like a rotten apple!”
“Like a rotten apple? How’s that?”
“Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!” After making a Vitaphone short with the Montrealers in ‘29, White would go on to appear in four others and a handful of features (including King of Jazz) over the next two years, returning in 1937 to play small roles in two more. His final film was ‘37’s 52nd Street, a semi-fictional recounting of how New York’s 52nd Street became home to so many famed nightclubs. For White it was typecasting, as he was part owner of Club 18 where among other duties he parlayed his years on vaudeville into becoming the house emcee. true to smartass form, one night when boxer Max Baer walked into the club, White called from the stage, “Hey Maxie! The folks don’t recognize you! Stretch out on the floor will you?”
White was offered more film roles, but he recoiled (and justifiably so) at the idea of moving to California. It was too far away from West 52nd, and he wasn’t about to leave Club 18 behind. More important than the nightclub scene, he also wasn’t about to leave the New York Giants behind.
“Five of hearts!”
White went beyond obsessive when it came to baseball. He traveled with the Giants to spring training every year, and was allowed to sit in the dugout during regular season games (a practice that somehow continued even after he sprinted onto the field to kiss Jimmy Ripple after the outfielder hit a home run).
“Four of clubs!”
White never became a big movie star nor a nationally-recognized name, but you get the distinct impression that wasn’t what he was after. The rest of the country likely wouldn’t have much use for his absurd, sharp-tongued shtick anyway. He was the proverbial Runyonesque character. He had his own audience and his own stage in his own club in the heart of his own town, plus he had his own baseball team on top of it. What the hell more could he want?
White died of tuberculosis in 1942 at age 49. In New York, of course.
”Eight of diamonds!”
by Jim Knipfel