Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom

Banjo Eyes: Eddie Cantor and the Birth of Modern Stardom


W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Bert Williams, and Fanny Brice were delighted to share the stage with him. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Al Smith, and other eminent politicians admired him and sought his support. He founded the March of Dimes, raised millions for the new state of Israel, and remains the only American entertainer ever to reign successively as the biggest star on Broadway, in the movies, and on radio. But while his name still brings a smile to those old enough to remember his antic energy and big, rolling eyes, few appreciate the far-reaching influence of Eddie Cantor. Banjo Eyes returns the spotlight to the small, unlikely figure who reigned as the clown prince of American musical theatre during a glorious era when New York was the center of the world, and Broadway was the center of New York. Written by acclaimed biographer Herbert G. Goldman, it vividly recreates Cantor's extraordinary journey. Here are the overcrowded tenements and sidewalk scuffles of New York's teeming Lower East Side, where Cantor was born Israel Iskowitz, the only child of penniless Jewish immigrants, in 1892. Here is the dreaded "hook," the cat calls, and the spontaneous ovations of the old burlesque houses in which the teenaged Eddie first made his mark. And here, in riveting detail, is the Broadway of Florenz Ziegfeld and the Shubert brothers, brimming with backstage romances, double dealings, fierce camaraderie and even fiercer rivalries. We follow Cantor west to Hollywood, where he became the first Broadway musical star to sustain a successful film career, then return east for the golden age of radio and, later, the early days of television. It was in radio, Goldman argues, that Cantor achieved lasting influence. Before Eddie, a "star" was merely an actor in the top rung of what was widely regarded as a rather curious profession. Through his repeated on-air references to his wife, Ida, and their five daughters, Cantor made himself a "member of the family" to millions of Americans in a way that no performer had been or had ever sought to be. And through his deep involvement with political and social causes, especially those involving FDR and his own philanthropies, he emerged as a public figure only slightly less revered than Roosevelt himself. Goldman shows that while the notion of the entertainer as role model and the blurring of the line between an actor's public and private life may be staples of today's celebrity culture, it was Eddie Cantor who first made them so, redefining what it meant to be a star in the process. Anyone intrigued by our current cult of celebrity or hungering for an unforgettable look behind the show business curtains of yesteryear will not want to miss this vibrant portrait of a beloved comedian determined to do more than make 'em laugh.


Eddie Cantor has been dead for more than thirty years. In view of the high level of stardom he enjoyed, the length of time he held it, and the different media in which he was important, he has become the most forgotten star of the twentieth century.

Cantor made no films that are either enjoyed as classics, like Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, or analyzed obsessively by students of the cinema, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He did not star in TV shows that have remained in syndication. He is also not -- and never was -- a darling of the intelligentsia.

Cantor, his individual talents aside, was essentially a musical comedy performer. Musical comedy -- its comedy as important as its music -- ruled the Broadway stage during the '20s, survived well past the establishment of "integrated musicals" in the 1940s, and did not die until the mid-1960s, when the musical theatre took new directions ranging from theatrical (Man of La Mancha) to cynical (Sweet Charity) to experimental rock 'n' roll (Hair). By the early '70s, musical comedy, and indeed, musical theatre as, primarily, an entertainment medium was a rarity, presented as "nostalgia."

Indeed, musical comedy, arguably the purest form of entertainment, is often viewed as something of a jester-lackey to the culture of pre-1965 -- a culture now seen, frankly, as repressive. Nor can old Broadway musicals be viewed as abstract art, as can silent films, which seem a world unto themselves due to their very nature. Cantor was so much a part of this now largely despised "show biz" -- the very mention of which causes discomfort to many and which is often thought as "better left forgotten" -- that his name has, since the '70s, been greeted with disdain, or with blank stares from those who do not understand his importance, style of performance art, or talent.

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