Wonderful Smith (Floyd Smith)
BiographyArkadelphia, Arkansas, USA
In Rita Dove's poem "Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove," Wonderful Smith adorns like the panache of jewelry the "free arm" of his good friend "Miss Mac" (as Smith was wont to call McDaniel) while the two walked arm in arm into that storied venue where Ms. McDaniel was about to receive her Academy Award for her role in the 1939 movie "Gone With the Wind. Read more... "those who had the great fortune to know him or perchance to see him perform there was a quality about Wonderful Smith that simply sparkled. Even his name, Wonderful, he would frequently say with a twinkle in his eye, resulted from the thrill his parents felt at his birth. Eight other siblings adhered to rather conventional names. Telling of this quality to sparkle, whether on the arm or just in the company of others, is the story of how Smith met Hattie McDaniel five years prior to his escorting her into the Coconut Grove. They were on a Los Angeles street car. He recognized her from her movies, and she laughed, a bit embarrassed. Her laughter and embarrassment were not because she was a celebrity caught taking a ride on public transportation, but because, she confessed to Smith, she was riding the trolley on her way to get a car even though she didn't know how to drive. Smith, whose wonderful sense of humor shone upon Ms. McDaniel that day, laughed, too; he did know how to drive, and drove often, but frequented public transportation because for all his driving he didn't have a car. He had, in fact, lots of experience as a chauffeur, having migrated to Los Angeles from Arkadelphia, Arkansas, in 1927 and soon landing a job driving for a family in Hancock Park. Miss Mac got her car and, Wonderful Smith offered his services as her chauffeur. He not only became her part-time chauffeur; he became one of her closest, dearest friends. It was another kind of association with cars that took him from the arm of another's celebrity spot light at the Coconut Grove in 1939 to a little bit of the limelight of his own. In 1941, Smith auditioned for a part in Duke Ellington's revue "Jump for Joy." The production was largely a satire on the stereotyping to which the entertainment world usually relegated African American performers. When Smith was asked at his audition where he was currently playing, he responded, "Grace Hayes Lodge's parking lot," where, he proceeded to explain, he parked cars and honed his comedy skills in the parking lot by trying out jokes on the various celebrities who frequented the then-famous San Fernando Valley night club. He was invited to join the 60-member cast of the revue and developed for the show his signature routine: "Hello, Mr. President," wherein he would assume the role of a buck private in the army talking on the phone with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For its time, the premise that a lowly citizen and black man to boot could talk to the President was a risky and controversial proposition, but a successful one at the Mayan. The audiences roared with laughter and ovation whenever Wonderful Smith began his bit. Hollywood (specifically, Monogram Pictures) cashed in on the success Smith was enjoying in the revue and invited him to reprise his role for the 1941 feature release "Top Sergeant Mulligan." The studio must have felt that Mr. Smith's material needed some toning down for the general public and left on the cutting room floor most of the routine. What remains is the only known recording of any part of Wonderful Smith's "Hello, Mr. President." Smith's success seemed assured when he was asked late in 1941 to be a regular on the Red Skelton radio program playing the role of a cook and being hailed as radio's "comedy find of the year" - for a "Negro," that is. With the country at war in 1942, Smith's career took a decidedly different turn, especially for a "Negro." He was drafted and stationed for a part of his time in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, becoming in this far-away outpost one of only a handful of African Americans to serve as a disc jockey in the Armed Forces Radio Service. He was also given an unfamiliar, but welcomed, opportunity to discard the so-called "blackface dialect" that he was usually expected to voice whenever he spoke to an audience. This opportunity allowed him to expand his talents, but also worked against him when he returned from the war. In 1947, the producers of Red Skelton's radio program decided, as Wonderful Smith revealed in an interview years later, that Mr. Smith "had difficulty sounding as Negroid as they expected." His services as "cook" were no longer required. Thereafter, Wonderful Smith worked only sporadically in television and movies, garnering bit spots here and there. He sparkled again, for instance, as the janitor in the company of other perhaps more famous comedians, such as Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Rob Reiner, in the 1984 film "This Is Spinal Tap." Wonderful Smith died in 2008 at the age of 97.