1950's TV Star Imogene Coca Dies at 92

Imogene Coca, the elfin actress and satiric comedienne who co-starred with Sid Caesar on television's classic Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, died today. She was 92.

Coca died of natural causes at her Westport residence, said longtime friend Mark Basile. "She was a humanist," Basile said. "Her humanity was so strong, so giving. She made people want to be with her.'

Star of TV’s ‘Golden Age’

Coca's saucer eyes, fluttering lashes, big smile and boundless energy lit up the screen in television's "Golden Age" and brought her an Emmy as best actress in 1951. Although she did some broad burlesque, her forte was subtle exaggeration. A talented singer and dancer, her spoofs of opera divas and prima ballerinas tiptoed a fine line between dignity and absurdity until she pushed them over the edge at the end. "The trouble with most comedians who try to do satire," a critic once wrote, "is that they are essentially brash, noisy and indelicate people who have to use a sledge hammer to smash a butterfly. Miss Coca, on the other hand, is the timid woman who, when aroused, can beat a tiger to death with a feather." With Caesar she performed skits that satirized the everyday — marital spats, takeoffs on films and TV programs, strangers meeting and speaking in cliches. "The Hickenloopers" husband-and-wife skit became a staple. Once she and Caesar pantomimed a wife posing for her amateur photographer husband. He kept rearranging her mobile features for the perfect look and wherever he put her lip or eyebrow, that's where it stayed. "The great thing about Imogene is that her left nostril never knows what the right one is doing," director-producer Max Liebman said.

‘Chemistry Was Perfect’

Coca and Caesar complemented each other marvelously. "The chemistry was perfect, that's all," Coca once said. "We never went out together; we never see each other socially. But for years we worked together from 10 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night every day of the week. What made it work is that we found the same things funny." Wrote Caesar in his 1982 autobiography, "Where Have I Been?": "She's a great actress and we grew so used to working together on stage that she could guess what I was going to say — and react to it — when the thought was still in my head." Show business came naturally to Coca, who was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 18, 1908. Her father was an orchestra conductor, her mother an actress and vaudeville dancer; she was their only child. She started piano lessons at age 5, singing lessons at 6 and dancing class at 7. She made her stage debut as a dancer at 9 and did a solo singing stint in vaudeville at age 11. "I never thought of myself in comedy at all," she once said. "I loved going to the theater and seeing people wearing beautiful clothes come down the staircase and start to dance. I wanted to play St. Joan."

Spontaneous Comedy

Her comedic ability was tapped by accident while she was rehearsing for a revue called "New Faces of 1934." The theater was cold and she borrowed a man's camel's hair coat that was ludicrously large on her. The 5-foot-3 Coca began clowning around on stage using the over-length garment in a mock fan dance. The producer, Leonard Sillman, saw and liked the bit and incorporated it in the show. She developed a small following but her career went along in fits and starts. It was not until 1949 when she was hired by Liebman for his televised "Admiral Broadway Revue" that she became widely known. She was immediate hit, as was Caesar, another cast member. They starred together the following year when the program became Your Show of Shows, a 90-minute, live program on Saturday nights. Writers for the program included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart, but everyone contributed, including the stars. Each season was 39 weeks. There were no cue cards. Offstage, Coca was extremely shy and gentle. An animal lover, she once bought a crippled duck for 60 cents while vacationing in California and brought it back to live on her penthouse terrace in Manhattan. She also had standard poodles most of her life. She was married in 1935 to Robert Burton; he arranged the music for many of her sketches. Burton died in 1955, and five years later she married actor King Donovan. They often performed in the theater together. He died in 1987. She had no immediate family.