An exhibit chronicling the career of Emerson alumnus Bill Dana ’50 – legendary TV comedian, author, and founder of the American Comedy Archives – is on view in the Tufte Center’s Huret and Spector Gallery through June 15.
Bill Dana: A Celebration of Life, Love, and Laughter!, curated by Emerson’s Archives and Special Collections, features photographs and memorabilia from the American Comedy Archives, which is housed at the College. Multimedia portions of the exhibit include clips of Dana performing on various TV shows, as well as excerpts of interviews with Dana and several of his fellow comedians from the Archives.
The show begins with William Szathmary’s childhood in Quincy, Massachusetts, and takes the viewer through his Emerson days, his prolific career in show business, and his later years, when he established the Comedy Archives with his long-time friend, fellow alumnus, and Trustee Emeritus Ted Cutler ’51.
Dana was best known for his character José Jiménez, whom he originally created while a writer on The Steve Allen Show. The character proved so popular, Dana eventually was given his own sitcom, The Bill Dana Show.
“Part [of the exhibit] is trying to capture what an explosively popular character José was,” said Robert Fleming, executive director of Emerson’s Iwasaki Library and Archives.
José Jiménez skits centered around the character taking on different roles, for instance, a scuba diver or an astronaut.
The character was so huge that he had guest appearances on other hit shows of the 1960s, including The Ed Sullivan Show and Batman. He was invited to perform at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball, and was such a favorite of the Mercury astronauts that he was made an honorary NASA astronaut.
But times changed and so did Dana, Fleming said. In the early ‘60s, humor based on ethnicity was common and accepted, but as the decade came to a close, Dana accepted that the most popular Latino in America should not be a Jewish boy from Quincy. He retired the character in the early 1970s.
The exhibit features photos from Dana’s Emerson days, including shots of him at WERS, which, along with Cutler, he helped get off the ground; as well as Dana performing in the old Carriage House Theater and hanging out on the steps of 130 Beacon Street.
All of the artifacts in the exhibit were donated to Emerson by Dana himself in 2005, the same year he and Cutler founded the American Comedy Archives in order to acquire, preserve, and make accessible primary source material that documents the careers of those who broke ground in the fields of radio, television, film, or live performance comedy. It is the first academic collection of its kind devoted to exploring comedy as an American art form, and includes manuscripts, photos, video and film, as well as dozens of recorded oral histories, many of which have been digitized and are available online through the Archive of American Television.
The exhibit will feature clips from interviews with Dana, Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, Ed Begley Jr., and more, and will allow visitors to browse full interviews online.
Bill Dana: A Celebration of Life, Love, and Laughter! will be on view Monday through Friday, 1:00-5:00 pm, through June 15. A reception for Emerson community members will be held Saturday, June 2, 4:00 pm, as part of Alumni Weekend.
Members of the general public can arrange to see the exhibit by contacting Robert Fleming via email.