Jerry Colonna started his career as a trombonist in orchestras and dance bands in and around his native Boston; he can be heard with Joe Herlihy’s orchestra on discs recorded for Edison Records in the late 1920s. During the 1930s, Colonna played with the CBS house orchestra, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and developed a reputation for prankishness. During his tenure at CBS he occasionally worked under bandleader Raymond Scott, and made several recordings with Scott’s famous Quintette which involved Colonna mouthing nonsense syllables over Scott’s band. His off-stage antics were so calamitous that CBS nearly fired him on more than one occasion. Fred Allen, then on CBS, gave Colonna periodic guest slots, and a decade later he joined the John Scott Trotter band on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall. In an opera parody, Colonna hollered an aria “in a deadpan screech that became his trademark on Bob Hope’s show, Nachman noted. Colonna was one of three memorable 1940s Kraft Music Hall discoveries. The others were pianist-comedian Victor Borge and Trotter’s drummer, music “depreciationist” Spike Jones. Jerry Colonna had the ability to stretch a syllable to extreme lengths. In addition to songs (such as “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall, or nothing at aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall…”), he worked this bit into Road to Rio along with another of his catchphrases. The action periodically cuts to a cavalry riding to the rescue of Bing and Bob. At one point he exhorts his riders, “Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarge!” At the end of the film, when all is resolved and he is still “charging,” he pulls up and tells the audience, “Well, what do you know… we never quite made it. Exciting, though… wasn’t it?!”
According to radio historian Arthur Frank Wertheim, in Radio Comedy, Jerry Colonna was responsible for many of the catchphrases on Hope’s show, notably, “Give me a drag on that before you throw it away”, a crack the cast came to use to lance any bragging. Colonna’s usual salutation to Hope was, “Greetings, Gate!” and listeners soon began saying it. Colonna was part of several of Hope’s early USO tours during the 1940s. Jack Benny’s singing sidekick Dennis Day, a talented impressionist as well as a singer, did an effective imitation of Colonna’s manic style and expressions. Colonna joined ASCAP in 1956; his songwriting credits include “At Dusk”, “I Came to Say Goodbye”, “Sleighbells in the Sky” and “Take Your Time.” He released an LP of musical parodies in 1954 (Music? for Screaming!!! Decca DL 5540) and one of Dixieland-style music, He Sings and Swings (Mercury-Wing MGW 12153), in the late 1950s. Jerry Colonna featured in three of the popular Hope-Crosby Road films: Road to Singapore (1940) as Achilles Bombassa, Road to Rio (1947) as a Cavalry captain and The Road to Hong Kong (1962) in a cameo role. He can also be seen in the Fred Allen vehicle, It’s in the Bag! (1945), as psychiatrist Dr. Greenglass, and he made a brief appearance with Hope in the “Wife, Husband and Wolf” sketch in Star Spangled Rhythm. In 1956 he performed the featured song “My Lucky Charm” in the film Meet Me in Las Vegas, starring Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse. He provided the voice of the March Hare in the Walt Disney animated film version of Alice in Wonderland (1951) (another radio legend, Ed Wynn, voiced the Mad Hatter) and also lent his zany narration style to several Disney shorts, including Casey at the Bat (1946) and The Brave Engineer (1950).
Jerry Colonna left the Hope show as a regular in 1950, but he continued appearing with Hope on holiday television specials and live shows. He hosted his own television comedy series, The Jerry Colonna Show, which lasted a single season. He was host of the “Revenge with Music” episode on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954. His TV work also included serving as the second and last ringmaster/host/performer on Super Circus (1955–56), The Gale Storm Show (1959), a version of Babes in Toyland on Shirley Temple’s Storybook in 1960 and a guest role as Dr. Mann in “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth,” a 1966 episode of The Monkees. Jerry Colonna also appeared in a 1965 episode of McHale’s Navy. In the episode “Hello McHale?-Colonna” McHale’s men meet the famous WWII troubadour who promises to do a show for them at their Tarratupa base. However, when the men learn that shows are limited to bases that have a 50-bed hospital, they take steps to correct the shortage. This disrupts Captain Binghamton’s base hospital inspection by the Admiral who is looking for overcrowded hospitals and malingering patients, thereby putting Binghamton in the hot seat again. Colonna also appeared in one of the oldest surviving kinescope recordings of a live television broadcast, from 1947.
Jerry Colonna married Florence Purcell, whom he reportedly met on a blind date in 1930; the couple adopted a son, Robert, in 1941. The marriage lasted 56 years. After his guest shot on The Monkees, Colonna suffered a stroke. Its paralytic effect forced his retirement from show business (save for a couple of brief cameo appearances in late ’60s/early ’70s Bob Hope specials), and a 1979 heart attack forced him to spend the last seven years of his life in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital. Florence stayed by his side to the end, when he died of kidney failure in 1986. She died eight years later at the same hospital. Colonna’s great-great niece is American stand-up comedian Sarah Colonna. It is not known if he was related to the Italian Colonna family of nobles.
- September, 17, 1904
- Boston, Massachusetts
- November, 21, 1986
- Woodland Hills, California
Cause of Death
- kidney failure
- San Fernando Mission Cemetery
- Mission Hills, California