Paul Whiteman was such a well-known personality (even though he really didn’t have as much personality as he did organizational skills) that cartoons, topical creatures that they had become, would waste no opportunity to have a little fun with him.
The fact that he was such a large man, had such a narrow head (complete with double chin) and a pencil-thin mustache made him the object of caricature.
When Whiteman switched from Victor records to the Columbia label in 1928, Columbia gave his records a special, multi-color label that must have been expensive to design and produce. To all record-collectors, these discs are known a “potato-head” Whiteman records. (The label was even replicated for Australian issues–but not for the British ones.)
Even Disney couldn’t resist the temptation to allude to Whiteman. In Music Land (subject of a recent breakdown, and a favorite cartoon among record-collectors–as with cartoon fans in general), the King of the “Isle of Jazz” is shown as a baritone sax (an instrument that Whiteman often featured in his orchestrations), with the general facial features (and pencil-thin mustache) of Whiteman.
Usually, spoofs of Whiteman were only parts of a larger cartoon–not the entire reason for the cartoon to exist. In Bandmaster (1931), a Krazy Kat cartoon from the Charles Mintz stable, K. K. dons a Whiteman mask to lead his village band into a performance of “Twelfth Street Rag”–which also also allows him to spoof Ted Lewis (“The High-Hatted Tragedian of Jazz”), who was another occasional target of animated japery.Other studios were there to do their own takeoffs.
In Croon Crazy (1933), Cubby Bear finds he has to imitate “Sol Wrightman” when he gets the telegram that the artistes he’d been expecting for his radio revue (sponsored by the McHangnail Cuticle Company) could not make it. A Whiteman mask, and he leads the pneumatically-powered one-man band in sixteen bars of lively music.This cartoon is also notable for the presence of “Red” McKenzie on the soundtrack. “Red” scats over the titles, and sings the first chorus of “I Can Croon ‘Neath The Moon”, the cartoon’s theme song. “Red”, former kazoo-player with the Mound City Blue Blowers, had, in fact, sung with Whiteman the year before this cartoon was made.
(Incidentally, it’s interesting to compare Croon Crazy with the contemporary Merrie Melodies short, I’ve Got To Sing A Torch Song. Both cartoons have running gags about time-signals, and both devolve into strings of gags based on radio and its personalities.)Over at M-G-M, Harman and Ising did their takeoff on the King of Jazz in Toyland Broadcast, in the form of a bobo-clown (one of those weighted dolls that always stays upright), who directs the wind-up “Sambo Jazz Band” in a performance of “The Wedding OF The Painted Doll” one of the hits from “The Broadway Melody” (1929), one of M-G-M’s valuable copyrights.
Even though Paul Whiteman had gone through some valiant dieting in order to woo and win actress Margaret Livingstone, the image of the big, fat bandleader with the potato-head and the pencil-thin mustache lingered for some years.
And over at Termite Terrace, the Warner Brothers animators had their fun, as well.
In Friz Freleng’s Into Your Dance (1935, Merrie Melodies), the piggie orchestra leader has a Whiteman-esque mustache, and is billed simply as “The World’s Greatest Orchestra Leader”. He leads his troops into a snatch of the old familiar “Zampa Overture” until someone sticks a light socket onto his curly pig’s tail,and gives him a zap that sends him–and the orchestra–into super-overdrive.
In Frank Tashlin’s Porky At The Crocadero (1938, Looney Tunes), Porky winds up having to impersonate, among others, “The Jazz King”, leading the Crocadero Orchestra through a number while wearing a Potato-Head mask.
Other bandleaders spoofed herein include Guy Lombardo and Cab Calloway.
Many critics–some with Hidden Agendas–have derided the “King of Jazz’ title bestowed on Whiteman. But in the 1920s, Jazz was almost synonymous with American popular music. And many musicians of the day appreciated Whiteman’s accomplishmets. After all, he gave jobs, security, and plenty of exposure to some of the finest hot players of the age.
Among these players was a trombonist and singer who spent five years with Whiteman–at a time when others were scuffling. His name was Weldon John “Jack” Teagarden. More about him next week.