Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On this day when the world of celebrity merges with the world of government, we visit the life of another unlikely personage who brought happiness-- however fleeting-- to many.

Leo Ezekiel Mannes was born Oct. 10, 1911, in San Francisco, on a hill. The latter detail would follow him through his career and the city of birth would mean nothing at all.

His father was an accomplished violinist. The family moved to Los Angeles, where as a young man he performed in a tent show. During the 1920's he began hanging around the radio station KPMC, where he did some children's shows and performed with a jazz trio.

The radio station wanted to lasso the rural folks who, fleeing the Dust Bowl, had landed in California. So it was that one day, the station manager, Glen Rice, excitedly broke into regular programming to tell a most unusual story. He said that as he was riding in the hills in Malibu, he had lost his way and by chance, stumbled upon a small village of hill folk who had been out of touch with civilization for 100 years. They lived in log cabins, had a blacksmith shop, and lived as people did in the 18th century.

Day by day, the radio station disclosed more pertinent facts, such as the tidbit that the hill people were directly descended from Daniel Boone. On April 6, 1930, some of the "hill people" showed up at the radio station studio on mules. Their leader was Zeke Craddock.

Zeke Craddock was Leo Ezekiel Mannes, and the whole thing was a stunt out of his busy imagination as a radio promotion man. It was so successful that crowds of radio listeners were soon camping outside the radio station in the hopes of following the "hillbillies" home to their secluded hideaway. Zeke Craddock and his actors outwitted the fans by disguising themselves in coats and ties and they stole away undetected. The ersatz bumpkins were periodically trotted out to large crowds at Grauman's Chinese Theater and other radio promotion events.

"Zeke" changed his pseudonym from " Craddock" to "Manners" and his gang of miscreants broke up into three different musical groups. Zeke Manners and one of his pals, Elton Britt, said to have been the world's highest yodeler, set off for New York City in a Model A. Upon arriving they sang at radio stations, theaters and saloons and street corners.

Not every listener was enthralled. Mr. Manners once rather ruefully recalled being given $2 to stop singing in a hotel bar.

Not long after, the group got a spot on "The Rudy Vallee Radio Show" and soon were appearing on Fred Allen's show. For awhile, Mr. Manners was one of the Three Links of Sausage, with their sponsor being Armour & Company, the meatpacker.

When the sponsorship expired, the group tried being the Murray Hill Billies in reference to that Manhattan neighborhood. The name flopped. Their success came as Zeke Manners and His Gang. In 1935 they went to London and performed for the royal family.

In 1943, Mr. Manners joined the Army, serving with the Army Air Forces' motion picture unit. He appeared in "Winged Victory," Moss Hart's musical celebrating the Air Forces.

After the war, Zeke Manners shuttled between the East and West coasts. From 1950 to 1952, he was the host of one of television's earlies talk shows, on Channel 7, WJZ, which is now WABC. The show was a two-hour free-for-all. Eddie Cantor would pop in; Virginia Graham got her start as a television host by serving as Zeke's sidekick.

Back in Los Angeles, he became the nation's first cross-country radio disc jockey on the ABC network, according to a Newsweek magazine of the time. He managed this (echoes of Tom Joyner's early career) by exploiting the time differences. He would creep out of bed at 3:30 a.m. At 4:30 a.m. he would do a 45-minute show for East Coast audiences. An hour later, he would do another show for audiences in the Rocky Mountain time zone, etc., until the cycle finally ended at 7:45 a.m. Pacific Time.

In his "hill billy" persona, he banged out tunes on the accordion, piano and organ, often backed up by ABC's janitors clanking pails. His character was something between a cowpoke just off the Chisholm Trail and Li'l Abner, albeit one who happened to live in a Manhattan penthouse with a valet.

Times changed and so did Zeke. In the mid-1950s he worked as a rock 'n roll disc jockey. In the 1960s he appeared in Las Vegas with a bluegrass group. He can be spotted in a 1985 movie, directed by his nephew Albert Brooks. The movie was "Lost in America" and he was one of a couple living in a trailer park.

All his life, he wrote songs. He wrote "The Pennsylvania Polka" with Lester Lee, which was introduced by the Andrews Sisters in 1942, and was included eight times over in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day."

His song "Fat Man Blues," a collaboration with William G. Cahan, a surgeon, included the line, "All this eatin' is defeatin' your chance / Of ever getting any good romance."

The Byrds recorded a song he wrote about the initial moon landing, "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins."

Another of his original band names, from the 1920s, was the "Beverly Hill Billies." He was the only surviving member of that group when the television show of the same name appeared in the 1960s.

By that time, he had long been known as the "Jewish Hillbilly." So, when he sued the television show for stealing his name, he had no trouble proving it was his. After all, he was Jewish. And, if you recall, he had been born on a hill.

He was made musical director of the television show. When the show ended, he developed a nightclub act for himself and the show's star, Buddy Ebsen, which appeared in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

His deathbed request, dutifully fulfilled by his family, was to be buried "as a hillbilly." He was dressed for the hereafter in a baseball "gimme" cap celebrating the Spice Girls, red suspenders, and purple shades from the 99-cent store. A cigar was placed in his pocket.

So, though you may never have heard of Zeke Manners, take heart.

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