Wonderful Smith, a comedian who made his mark during a 1941 revue created by Duke Ellington called “Jump For Joy,” has died at a Northridge assisted-living facility. He was 97.
Smith, who was born in Arkadelphia, Ark. in 1911 to farmer Sam Smith Sr. and his wife Mattie, developed what at the time was a very controversial routine that mocked the New Deal and World War II preparations–he pretended to call President Delano Roosevelt and say, “just charge it to the New Deal.”
Ellington created the revue because he wanted to “take Uncle Tom out of the theater and say things that would make the audience think.” Smith’s monolog fit right in because at that time it was virtually unthinkable that a black man would be “conversing” with the president.
Smith arrived in Los Angeles at age 16, and tried to audition for a comedian spot in a San Fernando Valley night club, but could only get work parking cars. He did that, and tried out his routines on the celebrities who came to the shows. One of those was Charlie Chaplin, who would remain a fan of Smith’s.
Smith’s comedy career included working on the Red Skelton radio show in 1941; serving as one of the few African American disc jockeys in the Armed Forces Radio Service (he was drafted in 1942 and served until 1945); and playing occasional bit parts on television and in the movies through the 1990s. Among his credits are “To Sleep With Anger,” “Dynasty,” “Happy Days” and “Love American Style.”