1950's TV Star Imogene Coca Dies at 92

H A R T F O R D, Conn., June 2, 2001 -- Imogene Coca, the elfin actress andsatiric comedienne who co-starred with Sid Caesar on television'sclassic Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, died today. She was92.

Coca died of natural causes at her Westport residence, saidlongtime friend Mark Basile. "She was a humanist," Basile said. "Her humanity was sostrong, 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 boundlessenergy lit up the screen in television's "Golden Age" and broughther an Emmy as best actress in 1951. Although she did some broadburlesque, her forte was subtle exaggeration. A talented singer and dancer, her spoofs of opera divas andprima ballerinas tiptoed a fine line between dignity and absurdityuntil she pushed them over the edge at the end. "The trouble with most comedians who try to do satire," acritic once wrote, "is that they are essentially brash, noisy andindelicate people who have to use a sledge hammer to smash abutterfly. 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 meetingand speaking in cliches. "The Hickenloopers" husband-and-wifeskit became a staple. Once she and Caesar pantomimed a wife posing for her amateurphotographer husband. He kept rearranging her mobile features forthe perfect look and wherever he put her lip or eyebrow, that'swhere it stayed. "The great thing about Imogene is that her left nostril neverknows what the right one is doing," director-producer Max Liebmansaid.

‘Chemistry Was Perfect’

Coca and Caesar complemented each other marvelously. "The chemistry was perfect, that's all," Coca once said. "Wenever went out together; we never see each other socially. But foryears we worked together from 10 in the morning to 6 or 7 at nightevery day of the week. What made it work is that we found the samethings funny." Wrote Caesar in his 1982 autobiography, "Where Have I Been?":"She's a great actress and we grew so used to working together onstage that she could guess what I was going to say — and react toit — when the thought was still in my head." Show business came naturally to Coca, who was born inPhiladelphia on Nov. 18, 1908. Her father was an orchestraconductor, her mother an actress and vaudeville dancer; she wastheir only child. She started piano lessons at age 5, singing lessons at 6 anddancing class at 7. She made her stage debut as a dancer at 9 anddid 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 beautifulclothes come down the staircase and start to dance. I wanted toplay St. Joan."

Spontaneous Comedy

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