Imogene Coca is best remembered for playing opposite Sid Caesar in the live 90-minute Your Show of Shows (1950), which ran every Saturday night in regular season on NBC from February 1950 to June 1954. Their repertoire of comedy acts included the very memorable, hilarious, timeless and irreconcilable married couple Charlie and Doris Hickenlooper. Coca, however, did not begin her career in comedy. Her father, who was the conductor at a small Philadelphia opera house, and her mother, who performed in vaudeville, certainly instilled in her a desire to perform, but nurtured that desire with piano lessons, vocal training and dance. “I began as one of those horrible little children who sing with no voice,” Coca said of her early training. By the time she was 13, she found herself tap dancing, somersaulting (along with various other acrobatics), dancing ballet and otherwise committed full-time as a serious vaudeville trouper. She left Philadelphia at 15 for New York, where she plied her trade as a dancer. She debuted in the chorus of “When You Smile.” For the next 30 years music and dance were her staple. She could be found in the troupes of musical revues and doing her own acts in Manhattan clubs, such as the Rainbow Room, the Silver Slipper and Cafe Society Uptown. Her first husband, Robert Burton (who died in 1955), arranged music for many of her performances. Comedy and pantomime filtered into her routines quite by accident. In the production of “New Faces of 1934” Leonard Sillman, the choreographer for the show, loaned her his coat to keep her warm in what was a very cold theater. To augment what warmth she was getting from the oversized coat, Coca, along with three male dancers in the chorus began jumping up and down and improvising dance steps. Stillman noticed them and immediately recognized the comedic affect. He encouraged them to repeat the routine in the show, coat and all, which they did. Although coolly received by the audience at first, eventually the bit had the audience in stitches. Even the critics laughed, crediting Coca with great comedic talent. To hone her skills in what would become her forte in show business, Coca did the next four summers in the Poconos working with Danny Kaye, Carol Channing and the like.
It wasn’t until near the end of WWII that she found much work in her new field and it wasn’t until January 1949 that she was paired with Caesar in NBC’s The Admiral Broadway Revue (1949), a show that aired only until that summer. In the fall of 1950 “Your Show of Shows” was launched on NBC. Coca won an Emmy the following year for her contributions to the program. She and Ceasar left the show in 1954 to pursue individual routes. They did not, however, match the success they enjoyed in “Your Show of Shows.” Coca attempted a solo with The Imogene Coca Show (1954), but it lasted only one season. In 1958 Caesar and she paired again on Sid Caesar Invites You (1958); still, it was not the same. Only in 1967 did some of that same magic again occur when the original cast from “Your Show of Shows” reunited on CBS in _The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special (1967) (TV)_; it won an Emmy for outstanding variety special.
Coca starred in two single-season sitcoms in the 1960s: NBC’s 1963-64 Grindl (1963) and CBS’ 1966-67 It’s About Time (1966). In the 1970s she could be found visiting on Dick Cavett’s talk show and making guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show (1967). Thereafter, she appeared only sporadically on TV and in the movies–her most notable appearance was as Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) with Chevy Chase. Coca and Caesar re-visited some of their old sketches and put together the 1991 show “Together Again”, which they toured throughout the country on stage. In her later years Coca and her second husband, actor King Donovan (who died in 1987), lived in Connecticut and Manhattan, staying close to her roots in vaudeville, theatre and “Your Show of Shows.”
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