Vaudevillian for the Kids

Yoo-hoo, it's me,
My name is Pinky Lee.
I skip and run with lots of fun
For every he and she.
It's plain to see,
That you can tell it's me:
With my checkered hat and my checkered coat.
The funny giggle in my throat.
My funny laugh like a billy-goat,
That's it's whooooo--- PINKY!

---The Pinky Lee Show Theme
As presented by Geocities Viewmaster Pinky Lee Link

A Schtar is Hatched

Just like Bob Dylan and Prince1, Pincus Leff2, was born in Minnesota, albeit many generations earlier--in 1907. Saint Paul was the town blessed on the second day of May with the addition of this future almost forgotten funny-man.

Port 'O Name Call

As a young man, Pincus Leff was starting to develop his schtick for show business, but his first significant change came when a manager told Pincus to give himself a pseudonym. He needed a more fitting characterization for a role as a Vaudeville bit entitled Port and Lee, of course referring nautically to left and right, respectively. Thus Pinky Lee was brought into existence. The full of energy presentation with a trademark nasally lisp was probably started here or soon afterwards. He not only sang, but 'hoofed' and played a variety of musical instruments, as well, with a chameleon-like adaptability that made him thrive in vaudeville. As testified by a visitor to a London theater, Pinky Lee's photograph is there from those days. In later years he also defended himself:

I was the cleanest comedian in burlesque.

The Schilver Schcreen

Actors could now also get work in the thirties in escapist art the the movies provided. In 1937 he had his first part in Dental Follies, which can be seen today in a compilation entitled Comedy Gems of the Thirties.

The next decade, in 1943, he played a bit part in the Striptease Lady. And in a similar genre, he followed acting in the same year starring as "Mandy" in the major motion picture, Lady of Burlesque based on Gypsy Rose Lee's (no relation) murder mystery, The G-String Murders. This movie was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score in a Comedy or Drama for its film noir sound track. William Wellman directed Barbara Stanwyck as the stripteaser Dixie Daisy as part of a burlesque show, which conveniently could include Pinky Lee. She has to fend off comic Biff Brannigan's lusty advances played by Michael O'Shea while they help figure out who suffocated the couple of comrades with the forties version of the thong before they are next. (I can almost hear the extra jokes, then, and now.)

In 1945 he was cast as "Pinky Price" in the movie Earl Carroll Vanities, and he was "Pinky" in the same year's Blonde Ransom. A year later he could be seen on the big screen playing "Itchy" in One Exciting Week. His last movie role before moving on to another medium was that of "Harry Coleman' in That's My Gal.

Somewhere during this time he met and married his wife, Bebe. (Details of these dates are not available to this writer as of this biography.) They would have a daughter, Patty (who accompanied him later onstage dancing in his "Vegas" routine), and a son they named Morgan (who became an accomplished jazz keyboardist.)

Television Transition

Unlike some radio, vaudeville, and even movie stars that hesitated, because of fearing losing star status on little screens in folks' living rooms, in accepting the desperate TV executives invitation to come over to the new entertainment marvel, television, Pinky Lee was able to take his frantic cornball demeanor to it. In 1950 debuted the first incarnation of The Pinky Lee Show. This variety show ran at prime time for seven months and it brought the frantic silly style of vaudeville to families through the airwaves. The theme song was composed for this NBC evening variety show by Henry Jerome aka Al Mortimer and Angelo Mosulino. The complete song, as contributed by a friend of a performer and collector of Pinky Lee memorabilia is as follows:

Yoohoo...It's Me! My Name Is Pinky Lee!
I Skip and run and bring lots of fun
to every he or she
If you feel blue, here's all you have to do:
Just watch me and l,2,3
I'll make the blues skidoo!
Come on to "Pinkytown",
Be as happy as a clown
You'll never wear a frown
You'll laugh til you turn upside down
With a Bummm De Bummm Hee hee!
It's plain to see that you can tell it's me
With my checkered hat and checkered coat

Musical interlude

My funny giggle in my throat

More music

My silly dance with a Billy goat

Music speeds up playfully

Put em' all together
Put em' all together and it's Whoooo?

The kids all answer:


Then the audience of youngsters laugh and cheer loudly-- full of joy
He would sing the song while holding his hand on his cheek while tilting that way. His checkered clothing was echoed by Costello-- the other comedian paired with "straight man" Abbott. After that show ended he did vaudeville, and he was at the London's Palladium when he got the call for another TV show, thus left with Bebe to return to New York.

He was a regular on this series the following year until 1953 with Vivian Blain called Those Two. The show was a quarter hour of musical comedy where the two protagonists were neighbors, and their zaniness was seen on three prime time shows out of seven. (Another Martha Stewart took Blaine's role a little later.) Though it took a beating in its critiques, closing after eighteen months, his silly singing was appreciated by a younger audience.

During the fifties he also appeared on the big screen: In 1951 he was "Pinky" in the celluloid production of In Old Amarillo, himself in South of Caliente, and who else? But "Pinky" in Pals of the Golden West. In 1953 he was in Hawaiian Nights.

Back in the Pink

After Those Two was finished, three influential persons continually argued for and finally convinced producer Lawrence White to put Pinky Lee back on. Well Josh White, the eldest of the three kids who bugged Dad to get a show with Pinky Lee got his way when NBC dropped The Gabby Hayes Show. Ironically Pinky's agency with the Palladium would not help Mr. White hire Pinky as they had considered him as AWOL. Nevertheless, he finally was able to invite Mr. Lee to come to star in a new kids comedy show that he would sell to the brass at NBC and advertisers. The network bought it with the sponsoring of Pet Milk and Tootsie Rolls, and six days after the New Year of 1954 on a Monday evening the happy-sad checkered derby and suit, and bow-tied clown was back with an introduction to The Pinky Lee Show that started with a burst of a balloon splashing out The Pinky Lee Show!, or his face, followed by the burst of Pinky onto stage going into his trademark theme song.

His unabashed harlequin show brought a wildness to television that was novel to many. This frenetic slapstick would be repeated Monday through Saturday, with the latter being a morning presentation. The "Pinkytown" was Doctor Caligari on Bubblegum, and sometimes Pinky would intro the show by driving onto the set through a huge paper loop in a little pink car. His set was also made up to be "Happy Town Circus" where he presented sketches as well as the song and dance routines. He had occasional special numbers like "Game Time" involving hot dogs and seltzer water in creative ways pitting children against each other or situations (pioneering what would be kids games on Nickelodeon. He would even pick mothers in the audience to participate in games that would sometimes involve chewing a saltine, then blowing up a paper bag to be popped. (Most burst wins.) Another competition was who could be the first to put a pillowcase on the pillow while wearing boxing gloves. The prizes included besides the the three foot Tootsie roll filled with those candies, but dolls and dogs.

He would dance wildly with members of his juvenile crowd, and would have a group hug with the kids with everyone winding up falling to the floor. He was helped with the vocals by a fourteen year old girl, Molly Bee, and two other regulars, Jimmy Brown and Barbara Luke. He gave Tootsie rolls away en masse in a large cardboard 'roll' to the kiddies while he sang their commercial. His water fountain at the studio dispensed soft drinks, (soda pop). Pinky, like other comedians who still had one foot on the vaudeville stage, would go in drag, but as a little girl, with big goofy glasses, pigtails, and, of course, a checkered dress. The other similar comedian with a background in television at this time, Milton Berle, or "Uncle Miltie" who was on Texaco Star Theater was not so kind to his parallel, and like others, making him, his short stature, his lisp, as well as the garb, the brunt of rather harsh jokes. The worst being at Berle's bachelor party the same year as Pinky's return, where in front of basically unremembered comedians, (Joey Adams, Sid Caesar, Joe E. Lewis, and Henny Youngman) he snidely remarked that the only way Pinky would be a hit would be with the room bombed. New York Times Jack Gould painted Lee as a "crude...conspiracy against parents," but conversely, his show was becoming a hit with the kids, and had some positive reviews where Time magazine referring to him as "one of the hardest working men in TV." Newsweek at that time compared his kinetics with Jerry Lewis. Lee also made claim to the cleanliness of his show as he quipped in an interview:

I don't sing any love songs. I'm never in love. No Jane Russell type jokes. No violence. There are no gestures, alluding to the derriere or other parts of the anatomy. Words like 'lousy' or 'stinker' are absolutely verboten-- It's a happy wholesome show.

Strangely, mothers and fathers did have some criticism of the overly frantic behavior, including seltzer water bottle battles, some sets being destroyed on stage, name calling, albeit innocuous, poor English, and basically activity that parents did not want copied in their homes. The network in August, 1955, a time when Pinky's show was on six out of seven days, mellowed the format out a bit, citing "Playing a trombone with a mouth full of watermelon is more messy than funny."

When the Screams Were Not For Fun

Things were on a roll (a Tootsie roll, you could say...), but in late 1955, live from the Burbank, California studio, before a relatively wide array of viewers, in the middle of his frenetic antics of hilarity, Pinky dropped to the floor in obvious agony. Some initially thought it was a gag, but horrified children there and at home were traumatized by what was called by the news reports a heart attack, rumors even flying that he had died. Later it was learned that his hectic pace pushed his immune system to its limit, and a severe toxic sinus infection made him very ill. His doctor ordered him to take a year's sabbatical. The show continued sans Pinky until June of 1956. By the time he returned in 1957 the Micky Mouse Club, which had premiered in 1955, gave his old-time frivolity an exhausting run for its money.

Sharing the Spotlight with Gumby

When Bobby Nicholson left the hosting job of NBC's Art Cloakey and Roger Muir's The Gumby Show, Pinky took up the offer, grudgingly co-hosting with a frog and rabbit but he explained,

My heart is crying. I have no pride. I just want to do the thing I love the best-- entertain children.
He did, dancing around or playing an xylophone in his uninhibited style, until the curtain fell in November of that year. The song sung on the last show was "There Are Two Little Magic Words that Can Open Any Door With Ease" written by Stan Boreson (later sometimes with The Lawrence Welk Show) that did his own production in Seattle around that time. All the networks were gun-shy on hiring a guy they knew once crumpled on live broadcast. In the beginning of the next decade he made appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1960 Pinky got a role in the original Oceans 11 playing himself. And in 1965 he made another comeback on TV when WABC put him in as host on The Pinky Lee Show. Because of the reality that Lee had no content creative powers, he left after about a month. He then kicked around as various game show contestants, guested on Bob Hope Specials, and did the tour at Dinner Theater appearances, and he did some Burlesque, from Chicago to Peoria.

The Last TV Show

In 1981 he could be found doing a tour of theaters, including Rome, NY's Capitol Theatre, or Chicago, and was sick several times. In 1983 he made his last appearance on the little lighted box on the Ricky Schroeder hosted, NBC Special, The Yummy Awards. He participated in the 1987 national circuit of Sugar Babies, and what happened? He collapsed on stage. He retired in Mission, Viejo, California.

He died quietly in his sleep an April night of the 6th in 1993, his wife survived him by three years.

In Retrospect

The Pee Wee Herman Show borrowed heavily from his predecessor, maybe in the ninety percentile, the facial expressions, the clothes, the sets, the talk, but the original had a kind desire to share love than can never be duplicated.

1 (or the artist formally known as __ {just in case of another name change or deletion})
2 (or-- as a couple of other sources in nostalgic letters from personal friend: Lefkowitz).