This Day in Jewish History

1911: Phil Silvers, Funnyman Who Played Scheming Sgt. Bilko, Is Born

U.S. comedian got his big break after emceeing the TV and Radio Correspondents’ Dinner in 1952, in front of President Eisenhower.

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May 11, 1911, is the birthdate of Phil Silvers, the comic actor who created the character of Sgt. Bilko for television. Although “The Phil Silvers Show,” in which Silvers portrayed an irrepressible con man-cum-army sergeant always scheming (though never succeeding) to make it rich, lasted only four seasons from 1955-59, it made Bilko immortal in reruns, and earned Silvers a reputation as one of Hollywood’s great funnymen.

Philip Silver was the youngest of the eight children of Saul Silver and the former Sarah Hendler, both immigrants to the United States from the Russian Empire. Known within the family as “Fischl,” Silver (the “s” was added to his name when he began performing) grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

With a beautiful soprano singing voice, Phil began his showbiz career at age 11, singing in movie theaters when the projector broke down. At age 13, he was discovered by vaudeville performer Gus Edwards, who heard him singing for free on the beach at Coney Island. Edwards offered Phil a part in his revue. Silvers accepted, and quit school.

When Silvers’ voice cracked, he stopped singing, but continued performing, now with the vaudeville act of Flo Campbell and Joe Morris: Silvers would sit in the audience, posing as Morris’ son, and shout out insults at him.

Silvers performed in the Borscht Belt – the Jewish summer colony in New York’s Catskill Mountains – in the 1930s, worked with Minsky’s Burlesque, had a number of roles in Vitaphone film shorts, before his 1939 Broadway premiere, as the most memorable part of a short-lived play called “Yokel Boy.”

During the next decade, Silvers had a number of other roles on stage, and performed in nightclubs and on radio, but also began working in movies. But the parts were generally skimpy, and his real break didn’t come until 1952, when he returned to Broadway to star (and win a Tony) in “Top Banana,” a musical – with songs by Johnny Mercer – about the host of a TV variety show, apparently based on the era’s top television entertainer, Milton Berle.

In 1954, Silvers was invited to be the emcee at the TV and Radio Correspondents’ Dinner, in Washington, D.C. The audience included President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, as well as numerous other officials and politicians.

When Silvers came on stage, he stood at the podium, alternately shuffling papers absentmindedly and glancing up at the audience over some 15 seconds before looking up and saying to the president, “My goodness, who’s minding the store?”

The line brought down the house, and also led, a few days later, to a call from CBS-TV offering Silvers his own sitcom on the network. The show that emerged was “You’ll Never Get Rich,” later called “The Phil Silvers Show,” but popularly known as “Sgt. Bilko,” created and written by Nat Hiken.

In it, Silvers played a motor pool master sergeant in a fictional army base in Kansas who’s always trying to outsmart the army’s bureaucracy, but whose scams never quite succeed.

Bilko was the pinnacle of Silvers’ career, though he continued performing until nearly the end of his life, even after a stroke in 1972.

In addition to bad health, Silvers had an inveterate gambling addiction, and his two marriages ended in divorce. With his first wife, Jo-Carroll Dennison, Miss America of 1942, he had no children, but Evelyn Patrick, his second wife, bore Silvers five daughters.

Phil Silvers died on November 1, 1975. At his funeral, his friend and fellow performer Red Buttons said of Silvers that he had taken “a comic spark and ignited it into a comic brilliance. He found what all truly great comedians have been able to discover in themselves – a rhythm of movement and speech that complemented their physical being.”