Harry von Zell
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|Harry von Zell|
July 11, 1906|
Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||November 21, 1981
Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Cancer|
|Alma mater||University of California, Los Angeles|
|Occupation||Radio announcer; film and television actor|
|Spouse(s)||Minerva McGarvey (1925-1981; his death)|
Harry von Zell (July 11, 1906 – November 21, 1981), born in Indianapolis, Indiana, made his mark as an announcer of radio programs and an actor in films and television shows. He is best remembered for his work on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.
Life and career
After living in Indianapolis, where his father was a sports reporter, Harry von Zell and his family moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where he graduated from high school. Later, the family moved to California, where Zell studied music and drama at the University of California, Los Angeles and worked at a variety of jobs. After friends tricked him into singing on a radio program, he received offers from radio stations, and his radio career began.
Zell broke into show business as a singer and announcer at radio station KMIC in Inglewood, California in the mid-1920s. Later, auditioning for Paul Whiteman's radio show in 1929, he was chosen from a field of 250 announcers. When that series came to an end in 1930, he headed for New York and became a CBS staff announcer, working with Fred Allen, Phil Baker, Eddy Duchin and Ed Wynn. He also announced for The Aldrich Family, The Amazing Mr. Smith, and The March of Time. An obituary noted, "At times during the 1920s and 1930s Zell was announcer on as many as twenty shows a week." His longest running radio partnership was his nine seasons with veteran comedian Eddie Cantor. From October 1940 to June 1949 Zell served as Cantor's commercial spokesperson and straight man. As Cantor cast member Dinah Shore's solo career began to blossom, she brought Zell in as announcer on her Birds Eye Open House program.
As a young announcer, Zell made a memorable verbal slip in 1931 when he referred to U.S. President Herbert Hoover as "Hoobert Heever" during a live tribute on Hoover's birthday. Hoover was not present at this tribute. Zell's blooper came at the end of a lengthy coverage of Hoover's career, in which Zell had pronounced the President's name correctly several times. Some mistakenly believe Hoover was present when the incident happened, because of a re-enactment fabricated by Kermit Schaefer for his Pardon My Blooper record album.
Zell was the vocalist for the first recording session of Charlie Barnet's musical career; a session on October 9, 1933 has Zell singing "I Want You, I Need You" (which was remade on October 25, 1933), as well as "What Is Sweeter (Than the Sweetness of 'I Love You')?".
In 1941 Zell sang on NBC's popular "jam session" program The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. He and three other staff announcers became a makeshift barbershop quartet, with Zell offering commentary in a florid, Victorian style.
As an actor, Zell appeared on the Joan Davis radio series as the love interest of Verna Felton's character. When he entered a room, Felton would often shout excitedly, "Why, Mr. von Zellllllllllll!" After this Zell headlined his own short-lived radio program, The Smiths of Hollywood, which featured Arthur Treacher and Jan Ford (who would later become Howard Hughes' paramour under the name of Terry Moore).
As a film actor, Zell appeared in at least 28 features and in his own series of slapstick comedy shorts for Columbia Pictures (1946–50).
His film debut came in 1943, when he provided the offscreen narration for four entries in the Flicker Flashbacks series of silent-film satires. His face was first seen on screen in feature films of 1945. His movies included Saxon Charm, Dear Wife, Son of Paleface, Two Flags West, USS Teakettle, and For Heaven's Sake.
Zell had work in the early days of television, in 1931 describing boxing matches on experimental television boxing broadcasts. Nearly twenty years later the exposure Zell received from the Columbia comedies led to his being hired for television shows as the medium began to reach a mass audience. In early 1950, he had his first major television exposure as announcer and spokesman for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on Jackie Gleason's The Life of Riley. In September 1951, when The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show moved from radio to television he replaced the radio show's announcer, Bill Goodwin. Appearing under his own name (as Goodwin had), Harry von Zell continued to play the befuddled friend of the Burns family and the show-within-a-show's announcer until 1958, the year of Gracie Allen's retirement and the series conclusion. He also appeared on McHale's Navy as Admiral Parker in one episode.
During the 1958-59 television season, Zell continued working with George Burns on his short-lived 25 week NBC sitcom, "The George Burns Show." That same year he wrote the teleplays for four episodes of NBC's Wagon Train and also acted in one of them. In 1959 he joined comedian George Gobel announcing for his single season half-hour program on CBS. In 1962 he appeared in the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Ancient Romeo." In 1963 he appeared in "The Case of the Libelous Locket" as murderer Sidney Hawes. He was also cast in an episode of NBC's western series, The Tall Man. Between 1960 and 1961 he appeared in five episodes of the television series Bachelor Father as Bentley Gregg's (John Forsythe) good friend Frank Curtis.
Zell delivered the commentary on Celebrity Golf, a series of half-hour, nine-hole golf matches made in 1960 with Sam Snead taking on Hollywood celebrities at Los Angeles golf courses such as Woodland Hills and Lakeside Country Club. Those matches can now be viewed late nights on the Golf Channel. In his later years Zell was a commercial spokesman for Los Angeles-based savings and loan association Home Savings of America. In 1976 he was one of the many leading radio announcers who participated in a television special, The Good Old Days of Radio. He also appeared on one of the Ellery Queen shows in 1975.
Harry von Zell died of cancer November 21, 1981, at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. Survivors included his wife, Minerva; son, Ken; and daughter, Linda Salamone.
Other radio appearances
- Stars in the Air - Episode: "Weekend for Three" (1952)
- "Longtime Entertainer Harry Von Zell Dies". Santa Cruz Sentinel. November 23, 1981. p. 22. Retrieved May 22, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- Dunning, John. (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. P. 21, 24.
- "Harry Von Zell Makes Movie Debut -- At Last". The Lincoln Star. August 12, 1945. p. 32. Retrieved May 23, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.
- Radio Dial Log in The New York Sun dated August 20, 1931
- Kirby, Walter (March 23, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 44. Retrieved May 21, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.