Long before Richard Pryor or Godfrey Cambridge or Dave Chappelle were raising eyebrows, Wonderful Smith was clearing the way for them.
I hadn’t heard of Wonderful Smith before reading an appreciation of his life in this morning’s Los Angeles Times.
In the summer of 1941, Wonderful Smith was 30 and trying to make it in Hollywood as a comedian. He did a bit about a black soldier’s phone call to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Hello, Mr. President” was remarkable because at that time, no one could imagine a black man chatting with the president, much less making jokes about current events.
Here’s how the Times describes it:
Pretending to talk on the telephone, he would ask an operator to get the president on the line, telling her to “just charge it to the New Deal.”
“This is buck private Wonderful Smith of Arkansas. . . . No sir, I’m not related to Governor Al Smith,” he would say, referring to the former governor of New York. “There’s quite a difference in us. As much difference as night and day.”
“Hello, Mr. President” was a small part of “Jump For Joy,” an all-black musical staged that summer by Duke Ellington at the Mayan Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. It targeted racial stereotypes in film and theater. Ellington, then 42, later called it the first “social significance show” and “the hippest thing we ever did.”
According to the Times story, no complete recording of “Hello, Mr. President” exists. An edited version of it appears in the 1941 film “Top Sergeant Mulligan.”
Wonderful Smith was a DJ in the Army during World War II, then a radio actor, then an actor seen in bit parts in any number of ’70s TV shows. He was 97 when he died last month in suburban Los Angeles.
“Wonderful” was no stage name, either. His elated parents named him that when he was born in Arkansas in 1911.
Video bonus: You also may have seen Wonderful Smith in “This Is Spinal Tap.” He plays the janitor who points the hopelessly lost band members to the stage from the bowels of the theater.