On this day in comedy on September 30, 1995 Impressionist, George Kirby died.
Born June 8, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois, Kirby got started in show business at the Club DeLisa on the South Side. He cut a record as a stand-up blues singer in 1947 for Aristocrat Records. His easily accessible style and warm demeanor made him a favorite among other performers. It also made Kirby an unwitting pioneer for Civil Rights in entertainment when singer, Bobby Darin insisted Kirby open for him during his first run at the famed Copacabana, a club not known for allowing non-headlining “Negros” to perform or be in the show room. Darin and Kirby changed all that. The club forever changed its racist policy in the name of humanity and commerce.
Throughout Kirby’s career he had mixed audiences. Since he was an impressionist few could find division in laughing at familiar voices. He had universal appeal, doing impressions of white icons like John Wayne, Clark Gable and Walter Brennan and not just black performers like Nat King Cole (who he nailed). Kirby was innovative in his choice of targets. He did female singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and with a singer’s range and dexterity to pull it off flawlessly.
Television was a friend to Kirby as he worked across the board. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Temptations Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Kirby had his own show for a short time and was a regular on The Kopycats, a show with impressionists such as Frank Gorshin, Marilyn Michaels, Charlie Callas, Fred Travalena and Rich Little acting out famous scenes doing the impressions of those actors. Kirby was riding high.
The success for impressionists was tenuous. Like magicians at the turn of the century the day of the public’s rapt attention to the novelty art form cooled and acts like Kirby were left staring out at more tables and chairs than patrons. Gigs dried up and Kirby, a functioning heroin addict began dealing to make up the lost income. This led to a loss of freedom. Kirby was busted and sent to prison for 42 months on a plea bargain. His career never did recover to its former glory and his health was failing. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and died of it in a Las Vegas nursing home.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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