Bill Dana Oral History Interview Collection
Scope and Contents
The Bill Dana Oral History Collection, 2005-2007, 2016-, consists of sixty-eight audio-visual interviews of a cross section of comedy experts, writers, producers, directors, and noted comedians who have had a direct influence on the history of the art form in the United States Interviews with Bea Arthur, Eddie Brill, Barbara Feldon, Jamie Masada, Vin diBona, Norman Lear, Fred Willard, and Diane English are representative of the diverse experiences that are documented. Among the topics covered are the birth of the joke, the creative process, the nature of show business, the beginning of their career, and the highlights of their creative lives. Also included excerpts from the interviews are. In addition, transcripts of interviews with Jonathan Winters, Betty White, Jay Sandrich, and Bill Persky and photographs are also included. The interviews were dubbed from masters originally shot on DVcam. Formats are DVcam, DVD, VHS cassettes, and Betacam.
In 2016, the oral history project was resumed through a partnership with The Interviews at the Television Academy Foundation. The first oral history conducted was with director/producer, Kevin Bright.
Highlights: The collection contains the last-known in-depth interviews with noted comedians Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Louis Nye, and Jan Murray before their passing. Knotts, Poston, and Nye were best-known collectively as the "Men in the Street"; comic personalities on Steve Allen's "Tonight Show" on NBC in the 1950s and 1960s. Jan Murray was a game-show host and Catskills stand-up comedian during the 1950s and 60s.
- 2005 - 2020
Language of Materials
Records in English.
Conditions Governing Access
The collection is open to researchers. All oral history videos must be viewed in the Emerson College Archives.
Conditions Governing Use
The status of copyright in the unpublished works of Emerson College is governed by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S.C).
Biographical / Historical
Born: October 5, 1924
Career: Comedian, Writer, Producer, Performer, Recording Artist
Education: Emerson College, Class of 1950
Family: Wife, Evelyn Shular Dana
Most people know Bill Dana as "Jose Jimenez" a popular character he created on the Steve Allen Show in the 1950s and continued to perform throughout the 60s. Dana was also a writer, producer, recording artist, and comedian.
Dana graduated from Emerson College in Boston in 1950 on the GI Bill (having served in the 263rd and 66th Infantry during WWII). After, Dana began his career as a page at NBC's famous Studio 6B while performing comedy in nightclubs around New York with partner Gene Wood. In the 1950s he performed on the "Imogene Coca show", "The Danny Thomas Show" and "The Martha Raye Show" and wrote for and produced the "Spike Jones Show." His career took another major turn when he began writing stand-up routines for the young comedian Don Adams including the now-famous "Would you believe" jokes. From there, he was brought in as a writer for the "Steve Allen Show" (ABC). He starred in and produced "The Bill Dana Show" on NBC (1963-65). His comedy albums, as both Jose Jiminez and Bill Dana, were top-sellers in the 1960s. He helped launch the careers of comedic greats such as Don Adams, Jackie Mason, Don Knotts, and Jim Nabors. He was nominated for several Emmy awards for his comedy writing. He was one of the founders of A&M records and helped start the career of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. He has authored books (notably The Laughter Prescription. Ballantine Press, 1982 with Dr. Lawrence Peters) and ecology cartoons (Ecolo-Jest. Price-Stern-Sloan, 1972). He was a top executive at the California International Artists' talent agency (CIA). He produced the new "Milton Berle Show." Another career highlight was as writer of the top-rated episode of "All in the Family" featuring Sammy Davis Jr., consistently rated in the top ten of TV Guide's "Top 100 Television Episodes of all time." Dana was a featured guest-star on many television sitcoms including "The Golden Girls" as Uncle Angelo in the 1980s.
As "Jose" he was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The first words from Earth to a man entering outer space were on May 5, 1961 from Deke Slayton to Alan Shepard in his Mercury –Redstone 3: "OK, Jose, you're on your way!" which thereafter entered the national lexicon. The relationship between Jose and the US Space program was further immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book and film "The Right Stuff." Later Dana accepted the title of "The Eighth Mercury Astronaut" honorarily bestowed upon him at Cape Canaveral. Although Dana retired the character due in 1969 due to accusations that Jose portrayed a negative stereotype of Hispanics, he has always maintained that the intent was never to make a caricature. In fact, from the very first days Jose began appearing, Dana defended Jose as comedy "with dignity" and a character that was good at heart and full of innocence which he described as a "combination Robin Hood and Bilko." He also never defined the character as Mexican or Spanish but a "neutral Latin" everyman who came to this country to improve his lot. Indeed, the character enjoyed great popularity among Mexicans, Latinos, and Puerto Ricans at the time. When the tide began to turn in the late 1960s, it was mostly from the Anglo-American critics who began referring to the comedy as consisting of racial slurs rather than humorous portrayals of dialect distinction and clever use of malaprops.
Dana's father, Joseph Szathmary, immigrated to this country from Hungary and became a successful real-estate developer. His mother, Dena, worked in a millinery shop which she ran for 50 years. Dana is the youngest of six children. Most of his siblings were also involved in entertainment. His brother Irving was composer and musical director for Dickens-Fenster and also the Bill Dana Show. Brother Albert worked on a show as a right-hand man. His brother Sidney played first violin with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. His sister Fannie was the law librarian at UCLA. His brother Arthur was a professor of philosophy at Princeton University. And his brother Irving Szathmary was an accomplished composer and wrote the music for the television show "Get Smart" as well as "The Bill Dana Show."
HISTORICAL NOTE/ TIMELINE
October 5, 1924 Born William Szathmary, Quincy, MA. Youngest of six siblings: Irving, Albert, Sidney, Arthur, and Fannie.
1930s Growing up in Quincy, meets Gene Wood (Quincy Jr. High 1937-39) (Quincy High School 1939-1942), his future comedy partner. His other main childhood buddy is Jerry Vincent. The two were his most influential comedy pals.
1942 Graduated Quincy High School, Before Dana was 18, he signed voluntary enlistment papers into Navy. He had worked in Fore River Shipyard as a layout electrician helper. Took a job in Quincy, MA at Quincy Yacht Yard while waiting to turn 18 and begin service duty.
1943 Dana wound up in the Army's 733rd Field Artillery. Paris, TX is where he was stationed. Then Miami, then Gainseville, FL at the College Training facility as an aviation cadet. US Army Air Corps. Then to San Antonio aviation cadet center. Victory Field in Vernon, TX (1944). Assigned to Company A, 263rd Infantry of the 66th Black Panther Division. After training, got stationed in Bridport, England.
December 24, 1944 Crossed the English Channel on the Cheshire, 263rd Infantry. The Cheshire was the sister ship of the Leopoldville, which was sunk outside Cherbourg Harbor on the same trip.
January, 1945 VE Day. Shipped to St Nazaire area.
February, 1945 In 66th Infantry Black Panthers outfit. In Britanny in Loire Valley. Later was sent to Dachau. Taught English in Martigues. Mareseillle.
In 83rd Infantry when he left the foreign theater to go home via Bremenhaven.
1945 Discharged from service.
1946 On the GI bill, entered Emerson College with childhood friend Gene Wood. Helped build the college's radio station WERS with Charles Dudley and Johnny Struckell.
1950 Graduated, Emerson College with a major in Speech and Drama.
August, 1950 Took a Trailways bus to Los Angeles right after graduation via Albuquerque, Texas, then to LA.
1950-1951 Moved to New York City after getting a letter from Gene Wood telling him he could find work there in the entertainment field. The two worked as pages at NBC Studios, one of which was 6-B (Dana worked for Milton Berle's Texaco Star Parade, among others).
1950-1951 Comedy team of Bill Szathmary and Gene Wood performed as Szathmary and Wood. Began getting appearances together as "Szathmary and Wood" on "The Kate Smith Show", and many nightclubs. Ed Herlihy saw the duo and booked them on "Date with Manhattan." Gene Wood would later become a writer on The Captain Kangaroo Show.
1952 Performed at Starnight at the Astor with Bill Stern. After this performance he changed his name to Bill Dana ("Dena" being his mother's name).
1953 "Dana and Wood" are booked at their first paying gig at The Enchanted Room in Queens, NY by their agent Roz Ross at GAC. Later appeared at the Ruban Bleu, Bon Soir, Number One Fifth Avenue. Others appearing there at this time were Jonathan Winters, Bea Arthur, and Imogene Coca.
1954 Dana appears on The Imogene Coca Show, with future fellow Steve Allen, co-hort Don Knotts and others. Dana hired by the Martha Raye Show as a performer.
1954 Sidelined with a back injury, Dana began writing for the young comedian Don Adams. Meets Steve Allen through Don Adams' appearances on the show. Creates "Would you believe..?" a formula for a joke that would later reappear on Don's successful "Get Smart" television series.
1957 Hired as writer, Steve Allen Show alongside Herb Sargent and Stan Burns.
Summer, 1958 First job as Head writer on The Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme Summer Show on NBC, produced by Nick Vanoff (replacement show for Steve Allen). Dana wrote their opening song theme.
November 23, 1959 Character Jose Jimenez born on the Steve Allen Show in the form of an instructor at a school for Santa Clauses.
1960 Producer-performer of "The Swinging Spiketakulars" with Spike Jones.
1960-69 At the pinnacle of his career, Dana takes on roles as a writer, actor, performer, producer, director, businessman, advertising executive, and recording artist. Makes frequent guest appearances (usually as Jose Jimenez) on many popular television shows including The Spike Jones Show, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, Batman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Hollywood Palace, Love, American Style, Get Smart, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Playboy After Dark, the Jackie Gleason Show, The Andy Williams Show, etc.
November, 1960 Receives honorary Master of Arts from Emerson College, Boston.
1960 Receives Emmy nomination as a writer for The Steve Allen Show.
1961 Producer-Writer of The Spike Jones Show.
June, 1961 Hired as head writer on the Steve Allen Show, ABC.
June, 1961 "From the first man in space...Jose Jimenez, the Astronaut" album released on Kapp records by Mickey Kapp.
Summer, 1961 Bill goes to Mexico to discuss pilot for television show using only Mexican musical talent.
October, 1961 Pocketbooks releases "My Name...Jose Jimenez", Bill's first book.
Guest-conductor at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
November, 1961 "Jose Jimenez in Orbit" released, Kapp Records. Bill performs at John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Ball.
1961 Jose makes numerous appearances on The Danny Thomas Show as an elevator operator.
September, 1962 Dana accepts "Eighth Mercury Astronaut Award" in Cape Canaveral.
January, 1962 Dana sues Roulette records for illegal release of comedy albums
February, 1962 Dana headlines 3-week stint at Mr. Kelly's, Chicago.
June, 1963 Headlines the hungry I in San Francisco as a favor to his friend Dick Gregory who was marching in Jackson, MS for the Freedom Fighters.
July 17, 1963 First episode of "The Bill Dana Show" taped at Desilu- Cahuenga studios before a live audience. First show taped "You Gotta Have Heart."
August, 1963 Comedy album "Jose Jimenez in Jollywood" (Kapp).
September 22, 1963 Premiere of "The Bill Dana Show" Sundays on NBC.
September 18, 1964 "Bill Dana Day" held in Quincy, MA.
November, 1964 Dana receives notice that The Bill Dana Show is cancelled. The show will continue to air all 42 episodes through early 1965.
February, 1966 Headlines at Harold's Club in Las Vegas with the Andy Williams "Good Time Singers."
1966 Writes and appears in the animated cartoon "Alice In Wonderland or What's a Nice Kid like you Doing in a Place like This?" a television special starring Sammy Davis, Jr., Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bill Dana, Howard Morris, Hedda Hopper, Mel Blanc, Harvey Korman.
1967 Appears in the film "The Busybody" as "Archie Brody" the film starred Sid Caesar, Jan Murray, Richard Pryor, Godfrey Cambridge, and George Jessel.
1967 Appears in the film "Un Italiano in America."
October, 1968 Project with Jack Carter in development in Jamaica. The film is never made, but Dana travels to Kingston a month before the Rodney Riots.
1960s Dana becomes part of LA CAUSA—a pro-Latino movement group along with other celebrities Vicki Carr, Anthony Quinn, and Ricardo Maltaban. Despite his receiving the IMAGE award, Dana's reputation comes under fire as his Jose character is attacked by some Hispanic groups.
March, 1969 A Look on the Light Side— a travel special starring Dana for NBC airs, showing ways Americans enjoy themselves outdoors.
1969 Co-writer and creator of Don Knotts' Nice Clean Decent Wholesome hour, a CBS special.
1969 Builds a home in Hana on Maui, Hawaii
1969 or 70 Dana "buries" Jose by reading his obituary at a Congress of Mexican- American Unity fete in Los Angeles.
1970-79 Dana is living in Maui and has for the most part disengaged from Hollywood, but does continue to work sporadically. Episodic writer for television (All in the Family, Bridget Loves Bernie, Chico and the Ma), and appears on television (The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, Toast of the Town, Playboy After Dark).
1970 Bill Dana's "Brand New Old Traditional Hawaiian Revue" plays at the Tapa Room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Hawaii.
1970 Ecolo-Jest, a series of environmental cartoons, begins appearing in The Inquirer.
February, 1972 Writes "Sammy's Visit," and Emmy-award winning episode of "All in the Family" for Sammy Davis, Jr.
1972 Appears in the television show "The Snoop Sisters-Female Instinct," as "Melvin Kaplan" directed by Leonard Stern and starring Art Carney, Helen Hayes.
October, 1972 Ecolo-Jest, the book is printed by Price-Stern-Sloan publishers.
1974 Appears in the film "The Harrad Summer" as "Jack Schacht."
1975 Stars in the film "I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now?"
1976 Appears in the film "Kill my Wife...Please!"
1978 Appears in the film "A Guide for the Married Woman" as "Ed Small," with Peter Marshall, Bonnie Franklin, Tom Poston, George Gobel, Cybill Sheperd.
1979 Co- writes (with Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan) and appears in the film "The Nude Bomb" starring Don Adams.
1980-1999 Appears in various television shows as a guest performer, such as Murder in Texas, Fantasy Island, Too Close for Comfort (with Pat Harrington), No Soap, Radio, Zorro and Son, The Facts of Life, Sledge Hammer, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Empty Nest) and eEpisodic writer for television (Matlock).
1981 Marries Evelyn Shular.
1981 Appears in the film "The Hungy i Reunion" about Enrico Banducci's famous San Francisco nightclub.
1981 Appears in the film "Murder in Texas" (cameo).
1982 Co-authors THE LAUGHTER PRESCRIPTION with Dr. Lawrence Peters of "peter principle" fame, published by Ballantine Books.
1983 Jose appears (uncredited) in the film about the Space Program, "The Right Stuff," based on the Tom Wolfe bestseller.
1984 Bill and Evelyn Dana move to Maui, fulltime.
1986-88 Appears on television show "St. Elsewhere" as "Mr. Fiscus" (Howie Mandel's father).
1990 Appears in the film "Lena's Holiday" as an Armenian cabbie.
1991 Appears as recurring character "Uncle Angelo" on The Golden Girls.
1991 The Best of Jose Jimenez Yesterday & Today is released (Rhino, 1991).
2000 Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez…the greatest bits (Laugh.com) Box set.
2004 Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez…the greatest bits re-released (Laugh.com).
2004 Bill and Evelyn Dana move to Nashville, TN.
January, 2005 Dana goes on the road with five other legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Professor Irwin Corey, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, and emceed by Dick Cavett, billed simply as "The Comedians." The average age of the performers is 78.
2005 Dana conceives and founds The American Comedy Archives, at Emerson College.
2006 Appears on "TV Land's Top Ten" discussing his award-winning All in the Family episode, voted as one of the top television shows of all time on this special.
January, 2006 Dana is given a lifetime achievement award by the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters in Los Angeles. On the dais: Shelley Berman, Hal Kanter, Jayne Meadows, Betty White, and Tom Poston.
June, 2006 Dana has his first solo stand-up show in over a year, at Leisure World in Laguna, CA.
67 Linear Feet
Bill Dana, Emerson Class of 1950, approached the President and Board of Trustees at Emerson College about founding a comedy archives at the college in the early 2000s. In 2005, Emerson's Assistant Director for Access Services and Archivist Robert Fleming began to organize the effort to begin this program. In February, 2005, Archivist and Filmmaker Jenni Matz was hired to help manage and produce the oral history interviews and the comedy archive project. In February, 2005, Dana and Matz began interviewing the "living legends of comedy" in New York City. The first interview for this collection was conducted by Jenni Matz with Bill Dana on February 21, 2005 at The Cutler Majestic Theater in Boston. The first interview by Dana and Matz as an interview team, took place February 23, 2005 with Dick Cavett in New York City. Soon thereafter, a list of potential interview subjects was created by Dana, Fleming, and Matz. Interview subjects were contacted with the help of Mr. Dana, who, as a longtime performer and noted comedian himself, had direct access to his colleagues.
Interviews were arranged and researched by Matz. Interview questions were conceived by Matz and Dana, with supervision by Fleming. Local crews were hired and for the majority of the interviews, shot by John Stephenson (another Emerson alum) on DVcam and usually in the home of the interviewee.
Lance Kyed at Emerson was consulted on the preservation issues for the digital media. Masters were duplicated by Kyed and his staff at Emerson to DVcam and a viewing copy made on VHS and DVD. The master is stored off-site. The entire interviews were also digitized and captured to RAID drives as QuickTime files using Final Cut Pro.
Over the next two years, a total of sixty-four interviews were conducted and shot. During the course of that time, additional items were collected by some of the interview subjects and other supporters of the Archives.
In 2016, the oral history project was resumed through a partnership with The Interviews at the Television Academy Foundation. The first oral history conducted was with director/producer, Kevin Bright.
Existence and Location of Originals
All oral history transcripts can be found at: http://www.emerson.edu/library/archives/american-comedy-archives/transcripts
- African American comedians
- Arthur, Beatrice
- Begley, Ed
- Berman, Shelley
- Black, Lewis, 1948-
- Bright, Kevin, 1955-
- Brill, Edwin S.
- Carter, Jack, 1922?-
- Cavett, Dick
- Comedians -- United States
- Commedia dell'arte
- Conway, Tim
- Corey, Irwin
- Crosby, Norm
- Crystal, Billy
- Dana, Bill, 1924-2017
- Denoff, Sam, 1928-
- Di Bona, Vincent
- Diller, Phyllis
- English, Diane
- Feldon, Barbara
- Friedman, Budd
- Gelbart, Larry
- Greene, Shecky
- Gregory, Dick
- Grodin, Charles
- Harrington, Pat, 1929-
- Hefner, Hugh M. (Hugh Marston), 1926-2017
- Henry, Buck
- Herzog, Doug
- Hispanic American comedians
- Jewish comedians
- Johnson, Arte, 1934-
- Kalish, Austin
- Kalish, Irma
- Kanter, Hal
- Knotts, Don, 1926-2006
- Lear, Norman
- Male comedians
- Marshall, Peter, 1927-
- Martin, Dick, 1922-
- Masada, Jamie
- Mason, Jackie
- Matz, Jenni
- McCann, Chuck
- Meadows, Jayne, 1926-2015
- Mencia, Carlos
- Murray, Howard
- Murray, Jan, 1916-2006
- Newhart, Bob
- Nye, Louis
- Oral history
- Owens, Gary
- Paige, Janis
- Persky, Bill
- Poston, Tom
- Reiner, Carl, 1922-2020
- Riley, Jack, 1935-
- Roberts, Tony, 1939-
- Rodriguez, Paul
- Rooney, Andrew A.
- Rose Marie, 1923-
- Sandrich, Jay
- Schlatter, George, 1932-
- Shapiro, George
- Stand-up Comedy
- Stern, Leonard
- Storm, Howard
- Television comedy writers
- Van Dyke, Dick
- Van Patten, Dick
- Vilanch, Bruce
- White, Betty, 1924-
- Willard, Fred, 1939-
- Winkler, Henry, 1945-
- Winters, Jonathan
- Women comedians
- Wright, Steven, 1955-
- Yankovic, Al, 1959-
- Bill Dana Oral History Interview Collection
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Finding aid written in English.