May 17, 1996


What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)

I enjoyed Caryn Johnson's opening patter at the Oscar ceremonies. If she had been the whole show, I would have watched it all, but I find the Oscar ceremonies boring.

What, you didn't see Caryn? Sure you did, but you probably know her as Whoopi Goldberg. Before she became a dramatic actor she was a stand up comedian and she needed a catchy name; or at least she thought that she did. I think that she would have made it even if her name was Jane Smith, but "Whoopi Goldberg" tagged her immediately as a funny lady. Besides, it was good for one gag: "You don't look Jewish."

Arnold Dorsey decided that he needed a flashier name, so he took one from composer Engelbert Humperdinck. Milton Hines became Soupy Sales.

I suspect that there is a story behind everyone who changes his name. In the early days of Hollywood, the studio moguls decided whether your name was suited to the silver screen, and what they said had the force of a royal command. The power of the studio bosses was enhanced because the superstars of the past were once hungry actors who would have done anything for a job.

When I was growing up, the majority of comics were Jewish. Jack Benny, George Burns, Shecky Green, Milton Berle, Red Buttons and many others were Jewish. Now most comics come out of other minority groups: hispanics, blacks, even women. Whoopi counts as a member of two down-trodden minorities -even though there are more women than men. The fact is that Whoopi's color has little to do with how funny she is, any more than it does for Bill Cosby. Nor does David Letterman's color have anything to do with how un-funny he is. Take away George Carlin's dirty words and all that you would have left is a sad philosopher. It takes a lot more than being able to read lines to make a comedian. Jack Benny could make an audience laugh without saying a word.

Stewart Granger, who was born James Stewart, had to change his name because his real name was already taken by another actor.

Joel Grey was born Joe Katz. His father was the well known Jewish comedian Mickey Katz. I suppose that Joe figured that in the dark "all Katz are Grey," that Grey was what he should be called.

Anna Italiano became Anne Bancroft. I like Anna Italiano better. She is married to Melvin Kaminski who is now known as Mel Brooks. She could use the name Anne Italiano Bancroft Kaminski Brooks.

Actor Michael Crawford sort-of had to change his name because nobody is likely to take Michael Dumbell-Smith seriously. He must have had a hard time in grade school, as did Sarah Jane Fulks, who became Jane Wyman. Edward Albert Heimberger became Eddie Albert.

Some changed their name because their original name was almost unpronounceable to most English speakers. Maria Kalogeropoulos became Maria Callas; John Deutchendorf became John Denver; Vincent Scognamiglio became Vincent Gardenia; Tadeus Wladyslaw Konopka became Ted Knight.

The World Almanac has a list of celebrities who changed their names -there are lots of them. I enjoy perusing it occasionally and wonder whether that name change made a difference, and whether that difference was for better or for worse.

When I entertain, it is under the name of Ira Pilgrim.

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