Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
God must have been in dire need of a good laugh. Someone please inform Jerry, Albert, Howard, and Joan they are free to move one rung up the ladder of living comic legends. Jonathan Winters died yesterday. He was 87.
The problem with Jonathan Winters was no one knew quite what the hell to make of him let alone how to harness his talent. Winters exemplified the term "always on" and a pair of self-imposed stints in a "nut house" didn't help.
Jonathan Winters spent eight months in a private mental hospital for a nervous breakdown in 1959 and again in 1961. Back in the day, Hollywood felt no remorse when it came to in rewarding the talents of dipsomaniacs, pederasts, pill poppers, needle pushers, and other stars who flagrantly abused their celebrity, just so long as their scandals didn't make headlines. Instead of keeping his illness on the QT, Winters did what any anarchic genius would have done under similar circumstances: he turned personal misfortune into fuel for a standup bit.
Jonathan Harshman Winters III was born in Dayton, Ohio, on November 11, 1925. The son of a radio personality and an investment broker, his banker father turned to drink after the stock market crash of 1929. The couple divorced in 1932 leaving young Jonathan deposited on the doorstep of his maternal grandmother's house in Springfield, OH.
Winters dropped out of high school during his senior year to join the Marines. He served two-and-a-half-years in the Pacific Theater during World War II. It was in 1948, while studying cartooning at the Dayton Art Institute, that he met the love of his life, Eileen Schauder. The two were married a month later and remained together until her death in 2009.
A lost wristwatch is credited with giving Jonathan Winters his start in show business. Strapped for cash, a replacement watch was a luxury the newlyweds could not afford. Eileen noticed an ad for a talent contest with a brand new timepiece going to the first place winner and suggested that her husband give it a shot. His performance that night proved her right and soon after Winters landed a job on radio talking up records.
The radio gig led to a children's TV show in Dayton in 1950 which paved the way for a game show. A talk show soon followed. After two-and-a-half-years, The Johnny Winters Shows left Dayton's airwaves in 1953 after Winters request for a $5.00 raise was denied. He packed up the family and moved to New York with only $56 to their name. Within two months, he was turning down night club bookings.
Winters had the fastest mind in the business and any comedian who has ever performed before an audience owes Jonathan Winters a strong debt of gratitude. If anything, Jonathan Winters made improv look too easy. If you were fortunate to see one of Winters' contemporaries in person, chances are there was little more than a live presentation of their hit comedy album. Not our hallucinogenic surrealist. Winters' act was frequently nothing more than a string of spontaneous reactions to topics audience members threw at him. If someone called out, "a tubercular tennis ball trapped in a clothes dryer," Winters would oblige the suggestion with ten minutes worth of inspired improvisation.
Winters should have left behind a legacy of character roles, but the movies never did know how to properly utilize his demented talents. Case in point: Winters' last two features have the word "Smurfs" in their titles. If no two standup routines were ever the same, imagine how difficult it must have been to get Winters to stick to a script, particularly when it came time to shoot retakes.
He was easily the maddest cast member in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and his dual roles in The Loved One are rivaled only by a conspicuously under-dressed Liberace and Aylleen Gibbons as Rod Steiger's mother. I've been meaning to revisit The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, but the stench of 8 on the Lam still burns strong. There's no need for another visit.
I keep looking in vain to find episodes of The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters, a short-lived (weren't they all?) TV series that still brings a smile to my face almost forty years after the fact. (Whatever became of the fellow whose one contribution to showbiz history was the line, "I'm with yoooou?")
One of the more obscure pieces of the Winters puzzle was entrusted to me thirteen years ago in the form of a pair of audio cassettes from fellow devotee, David Elliott. Winters would call his friend Jim Smith at all hours of the day and night and leave outrageous, off the cuff messages on his answering machine. Smith, knowing what a great disservice it would be to not share these priceless recordings with the rest of the world, cut the calls down and released them on two volumes. Jonathan Winters Crank(y) Calls is available on Amazon.
There is only one way to remember Jonathan Winters and that's through laughter. Here are but a few favored bits from a man who always left me wanting more. God bless you, Mr. Winters.
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