'Lonesome George' Gobel, early TV comic, dies

February 25, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

GEORGE GOBEL, the sad-eyed comic with the flat-top haircut whose battles with his television wife, "Spooky Old Alice," added a dimension to domestic warfare in the 1950s, died yesterday.

Sam Honigberg, his friend and publicist for nearly 40 years, said Gobel had had a series of strokes, which left him unable to walk, and had undergone surgery nearly a month ago to see if his mobility could be improved.

"He may have had another stroke," Honigberg said. Gobel died at Encino Hospital in Los Angeles. The Emmy Award-winning actor was 71.

Gobel carried several sobriquets throughout his lengthy career, which began when he was 11 and singing as "Little George Gobel" on radio's "The National Barn Dance."

He next became "Lonesome George," singer of sad cowboy ballads in which he would pick at his guitar while pining for lost loves, or evenings on the prairie.

On television, 20-plus years later, Gobel enriched the language with such phrases as "Well, I'll be a dirty bird" and "You don't hardly get those no more."

His underplayed, deadpan humor stood in contrast to the other TV comics of the day such frenetic entertainers as Milton Berle and Red Skelton.

But his flair as a short, 5-foot-5 teller of tall tales, kept him at, or near, the top of the ratings throughout the 1954-to-1960 run of "The George Gobel Show."

The NBC show, which won him an Emmy in 1955, started with an opening monologue, a sketch or song by a guest star, and then the inevitable aggravation he suffered at the hands of his wife, Alice, portrayed first by Jeff Donnell and then Phillis Avery.

George Leslie Gobel was born in Chicago to a grocer father and a mother who taught piano.

Gobel's interest in entertainment began as a child when he imitated his father's customers. He learned to play guitar in grammar school and sang in a church choir. The choir appeared on a Chicago radio station and young George's solo produced an invitation to the Barn Dance program, one of the few shows in radio's history that charged admission to its studio audience.

Gobel learned to fly and in 1943 enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Although he wanted to be a fighter pilot, he was assigned as a B-26 pilot instructor to Frederic, Okla.

As Gobel recalled: "You might laugh at that, but we must have done a good job down there because not one enemy plane got past Tulsa."

CBS learned of him and used him as a regular guest on Garry Moore's TV shows in 1952. He also appeared on the "Colgate Comedy Hour," "The Spike Jones Show" and "Who Said That?"

"The George Gobel Show" went on the air on Oct. 2, 1954, and became "the hit of the season," said TV Guide.

Producer David O. Selznick chose him as the only live comic for TV's two-hour salute to Thomas A. Edison on the 75th anniversary of the inventor's invention of the incandescent lamp. Gobel's remark from that late 1954 special "If it weren't for electricity we'd all be watching television by candlelight" remains one of the classic one-liners of American comedy.

There was a real Alice throughout Gobel's life his high school sweetheart Alice Humecki, whom he married in 1942. They have two daughters and a son and three grandchildren.

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