"My uncle was the town drunk, and we lived in Chicago."
- George Gobel in the 1950s
Emmy Award-winning comedian and TV host George Gobel was born in Chicago on May 20, 1919. He grew up in Albany Park and graduated from Roosevelt High School at 3436 West Wilson Avenue in 1937. George came from a show business family. Even before high school, George was a child star on radio singing and playing guitar as the "littlest cowboy" and "Little Georgie Gobel" on The National Barn Dance. The popular national radio show was aired by NBC and produced by WLS Radio in Chicago.
During World War II, George was a first lieutenant in the Army Air Force and a pilot instructor who spent the entire war in the U.S. George pointed out proudly one night in 1969 on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson that when was on duty in Oklahoma, "not one Japanese Zero ever got past Tulsa." (CLICK HERE to see the video of that show.) George had a quirky, off beat, deadpan sense of humor that worked well on radio and in Chicago night clubs after the war.
For six years from 1954 to 1960, George hosted his own Saturday night variety show on CBS-TV. He opened one show in the fall of 1954 with the following statement: "I am proud to announce that this program is being beamed to our armed forces at Helsing's Bar and Grill. And let me say something to our fighting men there. Men, stop fighting."
That same fall in 1954, according to a feature in Time Magazine, Gobel always had the ability to make fun of himself in a way that made people laugh. Viewers loved his stories about his "wierd" wife Alice and other adventures both real and imaginary. He was only 35 and very successful when tried to establish himself in the pecking order of national TV celebrities at that time. "Walter Winchell has been a great blessing to the cancer drive, Bob Hope's been doin' great work for cerebral palsy, and Eddie Cantor is the big boost for the heart fund. By the time I get started, all the good diseases will be taken."
After his own network show ended in 1960, George Gobel remained popular as a guest on other shows. He almost seemed to invent the phrase famous for being famous. A special Gibson guitar was named after him when he specificed certain dimensions for it. In 1957, the U.S. Air Force christened a B-52 bomber as "Lonesome George" in honor of Gobel's nick name.
George also played the role of Mayor Harper on a TV series version of Harper Valley PTA in the early 1980s. Although in some ways he was a second-tier Hollywood celebrity, Gobel was a very popular comedian and guest host who often appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over many years from the 1970s to 1990. One reason was that Gobel was close to Fred De Cordova who had been a director for Gobel's show in the 1950s and was Carson's producer. Norman Lear, Jack Brooks, and other successful TV writers and directors had also gotten their start working for Gobel in the 1950s. Gobel was well liked by other stars in the Hollywood community because he was low key, non-threatening, self effacing, and never tried to upstage another comedian or actor.
One of his most famous appearances with Carson was on an anniversary show in 1970. Gobel sat waiting in the Green Room until the end of a show that featured Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and other super stars. When he finally came on stage only minutes before the end of the show, Gobel said, "Have you ever felt like the world is a tuxedo and you are a pair of brown shoes?" But then he took on Carson, "Without me tonight your show would have been nothin."
Even late in George's career he balanced semi-retirement with being a regular guest on the NBC-TV game show Hollywood Squares with host Peter Marshall from about 1966 to 1981. Gobel's joke answers to questions were a popular feature of the program. George Gobel died in California on Feb. 24, 1991.