Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: CLIFF ARQUETTE as CHARLEY WEAVER

By Steve Crum

CLIFF ARQUETTE'S show business career was, by his
choice, pretty much over by 1956. He chose to retire at that time after decades as an entertainer. In the beginning, he played piano in night clubs, and then in a dance orchestra. He worked in theatre and movies as a musician and comedian, sometimes dressing in funny costumes and makeup for effect. In radio, he was a literal one-man show. While making a living in radio in Chicago, he once did 13 live radio programs at different stations each and every day, shuttling from one studio across town to another.

Then came JACK PAAR. Paar was starring on The Tonight Show in 1959 when one night he asked, "Whatever happened to Cliff Arquette?" Arquette, who happened to be watching Paar that night, recounted his shock over hearing this. "I almost dropped my Scotch," he quipped. Paar soon phoned Arquette, asking him to appear on his show. Dressing up as one of his most popular characters, the old codger from Mt. Idy, Charley Weaver, Arquette appeared, and was a sensation. He became a regular on Paar's late night show, reading his fictional, funny "Letters from Mama." The letters told of bizarre Mt. Idy and the oddball inhabitants therein, including Elsie Krack, Leonard Box, Grandma and Grandpa Ogg, and Ludlow Bean. Paar and Charley (dressed in baggy pants, droopy shirt, rumpled hat, glasses and mustache) would both sit on Paar's desk, dangling their feet, as Charley opened his shtick with, "I got a letter from Mama." He would then read his letter, which of course he wrote in long hand, which might include something like: "Dear Steinway: (Mama always wnted me to be upright and grand.) Things are fine in Mount Idy (she goes on). Birdie Rodd is pretty upset. Saturday night somebody broke into her house and stole her bathtub. She says whoever did it can keep the washrag, soap and the tub, but she would like them to return her mother." During each performance, when Charley would get a rousing laugh at one of his jokes, he would outstretch his arms, facing the audience, and declare, "These are MY people!"

Charley Weaver was resurrected. Arquette rarely appeared except as Charley, including his guest stints on many TV shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Steve Allen Show, and his popular work on The Hollywood Squares, in which he occupied the bottom left square. Arquette did appear in syrup commercials as Mrs. Butterworth, speaking in a falsetto voice, wearing a matronly dress, but still sporting his mustache.
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CLIFF ARQUETTE (Dec. 28, 1905-Sept. 23, 1974) was a Civil War history buff who operated his Charley Weaver Museum of the Civil War in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a decade. (It is now the Soldiers National Museum.) A descendant of explorer Meriwether Lewis, Arquette began his own family history. He is a patriarch of actors, not explorers. His son, the late Lewis Arquette, was a familiar presence on TV shows and in films. Perhaps his most memorable role was as J. D. Pickett on The Waltons. Five of his grandchildren have become successful actors: Patricia (star of TV's Medium), Alexis, Rosanna, David (the Scream movies), and Richmond. Before his death due to stroke at age 68, Cliff Arquette had written three best selling books about Mt. Idy. There was also his comedy record album, pictured above. (Note that CHARLEY is misspelled on the album.)

In the introduction to Charley Weaver's Letters from Mama, Jack Paar discussed "the wild old man from Mt. Idy." An excerpt: "Sometimes his jokes are old, and I live in the constant fear that the audience will beat him to the punch line, but they never have. And I suspect that if they ever do, he will rewrite the ending on the spot. I would not like to say that all his jokes are old, although some have been found to be carved in stone. What I want to say is that in a free-for-all ad lib session, Charley Weaver has and will beat the fastest gun alive. Charley Weaver has done more for the success of the 'Tonight' show than anyone who was ever on it. He is my 'wild old man,' and it's understandable, when you realize that before every show he rinses his jockey shorts in turpentine. Nobody will ever catch him."
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The rather hairless looking 1947 ABC-Radio publicity portrait of CLIFF ARQUETTE (shown right), sans Charley Weaver, describes Arquette as "...The comedian known for his characterizations of elderly men and women, is starred in a new ABC comedy series, Point Sublime, based on the adventures of general store keeper Arquette in Point Sublime, California. Arquette is helped into and out of his predicaments by his side kick, Mel Blanc. Mondays, 8 p.m., EST." Arquette was a fixture on the radio series from its 1940 beginning on NBC. After it trasnferred to the Mutual Network in 1944, ABC picked it up on Oct. 6, 1947. It then left the air after its first season. [from Steve Crum's show biz memorabilia collection]
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