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Remembering Jerry Colonna

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Jerry Colonna is the reason that I fell in love with "Casey at the Bat" all those years ago.


Are you old enough to remember Jerry Colonna? I'll give you a hint; he was not a utility infielder for the Red Sox. Unless you've been kicking around this planet for 75 years or more, you probably have no idea who he is -- or was.

Jerry Colonna is the reason that I fell in love with "Casey at the Bat" all those years ago.

In 1946, Walt Disney produced a cartoon version of the great comic verse by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, and it was narrated by Colonna. I was already familiar with the poem by that time and thought it was pretty cool, but it was just words on a page. Jerry Colonna's narration -- performance, really -- made those words come alive. I still vividly remember being transfixed by them as I sat watching in a movie theater at what I assume was a Saturday matinee showing of a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers film. It is what inspired me to begin reading "Casey" aloud and eventually to memorize it so that I could recite it myself.

Jerry Colonna was, back then, pretty famous in his own right. He was a regular on the old Bob Hope radio, and then television, shows of the 40s and 50s. He had a great walrus mustache and big, bulging eyes. He also had a high-pitched tenor voice that he used to great comic effect. He was the perfect foil for Hope's fast-talking, wise-guy persona. Colonna was a great favorite on Hope's legendary shows in the battle zones of World War II and then Korea. He even appeared in several of the famous Hope/Bing Crosby road pictures.

I happened to be thinking about Colonna recently and decided to get on the internet to look him up, and there, to my delight, right on YouTube, is the original Disney cartoon that so inspired me all those years ago. Parts of it are the same as I remember, and parts were changed from the way Thayer first wrote it. First, it is introduced by a song, "Casey the Pride of Them All," sung, of course, by Colonna. Capitol Records released it as a single later that year. I had forgotten about the song, but it came back to me on hearing it again. There were some extra verses, designed, I suppose, to pad out the story. The extra verses do not improve on the tale of the star-crossed slugger, which was well-nigh perfect the way Thayer had composed it in 1888. There is a musical score added, and it goes without saying that the animation meets the usual Disney standard of being terrific. Then, there is the narration of Colonna. It is, just as I remembered it from my childhood, wonderful. Once the window dressing is out of the way, the second half of the cartoon adheres closely to the original text, spoken with just a hint of an Irish brogue, and it captures the magic of "Casey at the Bat."

If you like baseball and you want to give yourself a present, look up "Casey at the Bat" on YouTube. You won't be sorry. I wasn't. In fact, I spent the better part of an afternoon watching clips of Colonna on the internet.

Colonna's narration confirms that "Casey" is a poem better said than read. It was, in fact, made famous by the narration of DeWolf Hopper, a well-known Broadway figure of the 19th century. He made it a permanent part of his repertoire and estimated that he recited it more than 10 thousand times over the years. Listening to Colonna's words of three quarters of a century ago, their tempo and their pacing, puts a person right into the Mudville stands that day. There are other poems that have that special quality; the works of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service come to mind. The next time you come across a copy of "Gunga Din" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee," read it aloud to yourself or to anyone who happens to be present. You'll be surprised at how much fun you'll have as the words leap off the page.

There is no evidence that Jerry Colonna ever did anything more with "Casey at the Bat" than provide the voice over for the Disney cartoon, but I wish he had. I wish he had performed it over and over again for the soldiers and sailors on the Bob Hope tours back in the day. How they'd have loved it. I know how I loved hearing him do it again on YouTube.

Jerry Colonna was a Boston guy, you know. Born and bred in Beantown, he got his start playing the trombone in local dance bands. With his flair comedy, he moved on to New York and then Hollywood. He became a part of the Bob Hope entourage in 1938. He stayed with Hope for years until suffering a stroke in 1966, which forced his retirement from show business. He died in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in 1986. He went to his grave never knowing how he'd inspired a little boy listening to his voice in a movie theater in 1946 or that the same little boy would be telling people about him more than 75 years later.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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