Ukulele Ike

Next time you sit down with the kids to watch Disney’s “Pinocchio,” listen to the cricket. He was born in your backyard. When that loveable bug sings, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the voice of Jiminy Cricket is that of a Missourian named Cliff Edwards.

Never heard of him?

Well, there’s at least one Columbia resident who thinks a curtain call is long overdue for Mr. Edwards. Stephen Andsager has something in common with Edwards: they’re troubadours whose instrument of choice is a ukulele.

If you’ve been around Columbia music venues and saloons for any length of time, you’ve heard Steve croon as bandleader of the Bait Shop Boys, Two-Bit Steve and Third Switch. Years ago, I played with Steve in the Mudbugs, a band with a honky swamp swing style and a sidebar campaign to make the mudbug (crawfish) the state crustacean. But the Missouri legislature didn’t share our zeal. There’s a pattern here.

These days Steve is on a mission to reintroduce Missourians to Cliff Edwards. When you look at his body of work, you’ll realize that Cliff is a familiar friend.

You’ve heard his voice as a dying Confederate soldier in “Gone with the Wind.” You’ve heard him sing, “When I See an Elephant Fly” in “Dumbo.” His hit records include “California Here I Come,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” which was a chart-topper before the Gene Kelly movie.

Clifton Avon Edwards was born in Hannibal in 1895. He later moved to St. Louis and St. Charles, and eventually Hollywood. A fixture on the vaudeville circuit and Ziegfield Follies, he appeared in movies starring Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford and Tim Conway. Along the way, he became Ukulele Ike, and made appearances on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

“He should be in the Hall of Famous Missourians,” Steve told me the other day.

“Good luck with that,” I cautioned him. One person — a politician — picks inductees into the Missouri Capitol’s Hall of Famous Missourians. The waiting list is long, and choices by the Missouri Speaker of the House are cluttered with too many politicians, in my opinion.

But Steve makes a compelling case. “Who is the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll?” he asks. “That’s easy; Elvis. But who is the King of Ukulele?”

Not Tiny Tim. Not Don Ho or Arthur Godfrey. It’s Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.

“His achievements include nine Broadway productions,” Steve said. “He had his own radio and TV shows. He sold 74 million records and performed in more than 100 films.

“Long before the guitar was the must-have instrument, all the cool kids played ukulele,” Steve said. “Just about everyone knows someone who plays a uke these days, but the instrument’s first wave of popularity began before World War II, and Ukulele Ike was the inspiration for millions of budding musicians.

“Despite his career success,” Steve told me, “Cliff’s personal life was problematic. Like most entertainers, his brand went out of style, and the popular culture of the ‘60s left him behind. He died penniless in a nursing home with no family and no one to claim his body.

“Ukuleles are everywhere lately,” Steve says. “But nowhere is there a memorial for Ukulele Ike. He was a great American entertainer who lacks the recognition he deserves. At the very least, there should be a memorial bust in his birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri.”

Or maybe the Hall of Famous Missourians.

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