How do you do-o-o-o? The final installment of this month’s Radio Round-Up profiles Bert Gordon’s radio career, and the influence of his character “The Mad Russian”…
Born as Bernard Gorodetsky, Bert Gordon (1895-1974) starred in his own a series of “school daze” sketches as a teenager, with Gus Edwards’ Newsboys Sextette. Later, he went to work with Edwards’ competitor Joe Wood with a similar act with “The Nine Crazy Kids,” with a young Bert Lahr among the performers. In the late teens, Gordon became a headliner in vaudeville circuits, and in the 1920s, appeared in Broadway revues and musical comedies on stage. In 1930, he appeared in a Broadway production of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, where he met Russian-born actor Gregory Ratoff, and replaced him in the role of Gieber Goldfarb when Ratoff bought the rights to the musical.
After appearing in the Broadway production of Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt in 1931—which featured Fanny Brice and Ted Healy—Gordon’s stage career dwindled. Like many other vaudeville performers, he soon appeared on radio, when in 1935, Eddie Cantor hired Gordon as a comic character actor on his self-titled The Eddie Cantor Show. Although his character was not fully developed in its earliest appearances, he portrayed “The Mad Russian” by 1937 in Cantor’s Texaco Town program, as it was renamed. The character was based on his stage tours imitating the Russian accent of fellow actor Gregory Ratoff. His signature line on Cantor’s show, inflected by his Russian tones: “Do you mean it?” (This line would be referenced in such Warners cartoons as Tex Avery’s Don’t Look Now from 1936, as well as 1944’s Hare Ribbin’ and What’s Cookin’ Doc, spoken by Bugs Bunny’s effeminate “booby-prize” Oscar statue.)
Gordon also appeared on Gillette Community Sing, hosted by Milton Berle as Count Mischa Moody, whom he appeared as on-screen for the RKO feature New Faces of 1937. When Cantor took over Camel Caravan around 1938, Gordon’s “Mad Russian” would enter in a spontaneous moment, particularly when Cantor interacted with a guest star, as he burst in with his greeting: “How do you do-o-o-o?” which generated greater applause and laughter from audiences.
Besides appearing with Eddie Cantor, Gordon was a regular on Joe Penner’s final radio season in its second half during 1940, where he replaced Artie Auerbach. He briefly returned to Broadway that same year in a musical satire on the radio industry, Hold on to Your Hats, which was produced by Al Jolson. He made several guest appearances as “The Mad Russian” throughout the 1940s, including The Abbott and Costello Show and Duffy’s Tavern. To capitalize on Gordon’s popularity, Poverty Row studio PRC produced a feature based on his catchphrase, How DOooo You Do! Gordon remained with Cantor until 1949, which made it difficult to find radio and television work. He appeared in the Borscht Belt theatrical circuit, appearing in solo acts and musical revues, with his last professional appearance on a 1964 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.Many animated short cartoons referenced or imitated “The Mad Russian,” particularly his famous greeting. In Hare Ribbin’ (1944), director Bob Clampett pitted Bugs against a dog which resembled Gordon’s character, with his wooly hair and Russian accent, voiced by Sam Glaser (also known as Sammy Wolfe). Glaser was a vaudeville comic part of a group of stooges for Ted Healy, before his former “stooges” took their act solo in a series of two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures. Glaser performed in a nightclub owned by former boxer Maxie Rosenbloom, where Clampett watched his performance and hired him to lend his vocals for his cartoon, which he recorded on September 4, 1943. (Wolfe was paid $100 for his performance—a higher sum than Mel Blanc’s usual $65 fee.)
In a further connection, Bert Gordon made a guest appearance on The Mel Blanc Show in its October 29, 1946 broadcast. In it, Blanc and Gordon perform a sketch involving Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America—Gordon plays “The Mad Russian” as a Native American to Blanc’s Columbus.
Presented here is an excerpt of The Mad Russian, from a February 5, 1941 broadcast, when Cantor’s show was renamed Time to Smile, sponsored by Ipana Toothpaste. What follows are accompanied clips from animated shorts that referenced his trademark greeting. (Only one 1939 episode of Camel Caravan is available online, but unobtainable for use of this column.) After listening to many episodes of Cantor’s programs, I have been unable to find any instance of The Mad Russian uttering “Do you mean it?” from the 1930s or 1940s broadcasts as of this writing. Anyone able to pinpoint in the comments below would be helpful.
Clips used: Hare Ribbin’ (WB/1944), Slap Happy Pappy (WB/1940), Kristopher Kolumbus Jr. (WB/1939), Circus Today (WB/1940), Awful Orphan (WB/1949), Tangled Travels (Columbia/1944; voiced by Dave Barry), Porky’s Movie Mystery (WB/1939), Russian Rhapsody (WB/1944), Paying the Piper (WB/1949), Fresh Fish (WB/1939)
P.P.S. (Personal Post Script): I’d like to thank everyone for donations on my PayPal. So far, I have reached nearly $850, which is much better than I expected. No donation is too small—even a dollar would suffice—but if readers are unable to donate but would like to help, please send the word around. This post details the cause for these donations, for those who have missed it last week.
(Thanks to Keith Scott, Andrew Gilmore and Yowp for their help.)