The most famous unknown in TV
You probably know Larry Mann, CBC actor. But you’ve probably never recognized Larry Mann, TV pitchman of a thousand voices. What’s more, his most exhilarating performances never even get on the air
LARRY MANN, whose trade might be described as actor-etcctera, is one of the few in show business who has succeeded simultaneously in being famous and anonymous. The famous Mann is known to millions of Canadians as a serious actor on stage, radio, and television. His bulb-shaped contours, bedecked with beards, wigs and loony head-gear and emitting squeaks, trills and exotic accents, also could be seen a few years ago chatting with Uncle Chichimus, an early television puppet of beloved memory, later turned up as a regular on the children’s show Howdy Doody, and presently can be recognized by the discerning in Wayne and Shuster sketches on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The anonymous Mann is unknown to all but a handful of Canadians. He’s the oflf-camera announcer with the round vowels selling instant pudding; the weird little voice inside a washing machine on a television commercial; the thick Russian accent on radio urging children to put chocolate powder in their milk. He’s also the voice that accompanies church-basement films about missionary work and the cut-up at an industrial show for car salesmen. In addition to these functions, he’s the CBC’s top warm-up man. the greeter who relaxes and coaches audiences who turn up in television studios to watch the shows.
Mann, a thirty-seven-year-old, glib, beaming potpourri, is described by everyone associated with his many crafts—directors, advertising agency executives, booking agents, producers—as the most versatile man in Canadian show business. Only actor John Drainie is mentioned as coming close to Mann in pliability and only satirist Max (Rawhide) Ferguson approaches him in the range and inventiveness of his comic voices. Mann, it is agreed, is unique.
"An actor can’t make a five-figure income just acting in this country,” Mann has observed. “You have to do other things, warm-ups, industrial show's, emceeing, commercials. I've sold everything from cemetery plots to laxatives. 1 mean everything.”
As a pitchman for "everything" he's been the Magoo-likc character who fumbles into a drugstore searching for Bufferin to cure his headache, and the folksy narrator who thinks boys and girls will adore Coco Puffs. He has been a talking Chevrolet, and to sell Quik he once was seven different accents supposedly coming from a shortwave set. Mann capped these international pyrotechnics by delivering the straight announcement at the end. in level Canadian tones.
He also does a multitude of straight commercials, his voice resonant with conviction, for an assortment of products and services, including trust companies, finance companies, detergents and wax.
Among his less known facets is his skill as a warm-up man — the entertainer who banters and coaxes a studio audience into becoming a benign anti jolly group before a show' goes on the air. Larry Mann is acknowledged to be the best in Canada at this odd craft.
"You know,” he says, "it's the one thing, of all the things I do. that I enjoy most. 1 wish I could make a living doing nothing but warm-ups. You walk out in front of. say. two hundred people, all of whom feel awkward, uneasy. You start to talk anti after a while you can feel a rapport (lowing back and forth. Makes me feel just great. It's the most exciting job of all.” Mann's warm-up technique is deceptively random. Just before a Front Page Challenge television show a few weeks ago, about sixty adults had arranged
themselves in scattered clumps on the collapsible bleachers the CBC sets up for this purpose. They waited, eyes darting at the hulking cameras, the labyrinth of cables and mike booms, the glaring lights and the solemn young men with ear phones.
Gradually, their attention shifted to a man standing before them, a big. round man whose face mir rored the watchful blankness of their own expressions. Larry Mann continued to stare at them with the emptiness he has noticed on all studio audience faces when they first arrive. Very slowly, he began to smile. He got in return a few timid smiles. His smile widened. so did the others. He rocked on his feet, grinning joyously. Retlexively, sixty people smiled back at him.
"Well, a few brave souls made it.” he began. "Good for you. I'm Larry Mann . . . are you all feeling pretty good?”
"Feel me and see.” called an elderly man delightedly.
This man. and two others, attend every audience show on nighttime television. Lonely ones, living in rooming houses, they have needs long ago recognized by Mann, who unfailingly furnishes them with the same straight line, week after week. He turned to another of his regulars.
'Anyone here from out-of-town?"
I am," called the regular. "I’m from Mmiico.” Mimico is a suburb of Toronto.
"And how' did you get here?” asked Mann.
"I flew here.” grinned the regular. "TCA.” There was general laughter and the old man looked around
proudly. He has been saying this, at every Larry Mann warm-up. for three years.
Mann explained the function of the control booth, with its battery of monitor sets, adding that the entire staff was probably watching Channel 4. a Buffalo station. In the same vein, he explained other items of interest, and by now there was a lot of laughter; the mood of the audience was markedly lighter. In a moment. Mann introduced the Front Page Challenge panel, signaling sturdily for applause as each entered.
During the show'. Mann indicated with upraised arms when applause would be helpful, and the audience never missed a cue.
“Mann can go out in front of any audience under any circumstances.” comments Len Starmer, supervising producer of light entertainment for CBC television. “He’s the best we have for any warm-up.” Such pronouncements are confusing, in view of the fact that last year Mann was hired for warm-ups of five shows — Wayne and Shuster. Here's Duffy. One of a Kind. Front Page Challenge and the Hit Parade — and this year he does only one. Front Page Challenge. "A lot of people watched Larry work and were so interested that they applied to be warm-up men." Starmer explains. "In all fairness, we felt they should have an opportunity to develop.”
But Larry Mann is accustomed to such setbacks as part of the ebb and flow of his perilous profession. In 1946. when he was an apprehensive twentyfour-year-old newcomer to the radio business, he heard that Lever Brothers was holding auditions for an announcer to do the Canadian commercials on Amos 'n Andy. He attended the session, to discover the most important announcers in the country awaiting their turns. He prepared to leave, feeling overmatched, but his name was next to be called. Next day, he was notified that he had won the job. This led to him doing other Lever commercials including the ones on the Bob Hope show' and those on Brave Voyage, Canada's first soap opera.
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Mann can mimic any accent at all — once he even fooled Gratiën Gelinas with his French
“Then 1 woke up one morning and I'd lost every one of them," Mann recalls in an expressionless voice. "They told me 1 wasn't doing the kind of job they wanted.’
Among the shows that Mann has dearly loved and lost are two that many consider to be among the most charming that television ever attempted. One was his five evenings a week fifteen-minute session with the puppet Uncle Chichimus, for which Mann deliriously festooned himself with pith helmets, monocles, drooping mustaches, sou'westers—a new and zanier assortment every show. Each costume change had a matching accent; Mann has never encountered an accent he can't duplicate. After a two-year run, the puppeteer. John Conway, quit, and CBC producers pondered a new show for Larry Mann.
He played “heavy” roles
Their dazzling solution to the problem was to put Mann on television five days a week with no prepared show at all. Titled Ad and Lib. it consisted of Mann and actor Joe Austin improvising dialogue and action for fifteen suspenseful minutes.
“It was a good show, we were just beginning to hit our stride," sighs Leo Orenstein, who produced it. "When it ended, though. Larry had developed astonishingly as an actor."
Because of his heavy build, it is Mann's lot almost invariably to be awarded supporting roles. Consequently, he is employed more often than actors with a higher star status. On a recent Sunday evening, for instance, he played the role of a bear in a radio allegory and moments later was seen in an hour-long television drama in which he was a newspaper reporter. A few days later he started rehearsing a mystery for television, in which he would play a murderer.
Most of these supporting roles could be performed competently with little effort. It is Mann's style, however, to pour into every line all the resources he can dredge from his experience, intelligence and imagination. His effort is so mammoth that he often inadvertently learns every line in the play. “He always has ideas about improving his part," says one producer.
“Eve never seen him. not even in the smallest part, when he wasn't believable," comments former Toronto disk jockey Mickey Lester, who raved for weeks on his program about Larry Mann after seeing him in a stage show, Iurvey. In this stage adaptation of Earle Birney’s war novel, Mann played a multitude of character parts. Mann recalls this show fondly because one of his roles was that of a French-Canadian, and his accent was so authentic that Gratiën Gelinas came backstage to inquire in what part of Montreal he lived.
But Mann also recalls another stage role in which he made the worst fluff of his career. This was in a play, by John Gray, called Bright Sun at Midnight. It was unquestionably based on the suicide of diplomat Herbert Norman, but all comparisons were sternly discouraged by Gray and the producers. The Normanlike character was known as Matthews. It was Mann's line, as the United States ambassador, to remark to John Drainie, playing the minister of External Affairs,
“You knew’ Matthews best of all. didn't you?" One night the line came out. “You knew Norman best of all. didn't you?” Drainie and Mann stared at one another in horror, gulped and carried on staunchly. Afterwards Drainie stomped into
This is Mann: rumpled clown, manicured pitchman
Mann's dressing cubicle, picked up a black grease pencil and printed "MATTHEWS" across the mirror.
T left it there too,” recalls Mann. “Made up through it every night. I never forgot again.”
The second ugliest moment Mann has experienced while acting came last year during a television play, Some of My Best Friends, and demonstrated the improvising agility he developed on Ad and Lib. He was playing a bedroom scene, in which he was to exchange some lines with an actress playing his wife, pick his tuxedo jacket off the bed, put it on and exit. But there was no jacket on the bed.
“Why don’t you tell that maid to keep her grubby hands oil' my clothes,” Mann snarled at his distraught cohort. He walked off camera to the clotheshooks where his wardrobe hung, grabbed a jacket and hurried back. The actress near swooned; in his haste he had snatched up a business suit jacket. Mann muttered again about the hired help, stalked oil camera and found his tuxedo jacket. “I need a drink,” he informed the actress. She alertly poured one, he drank it and they exited.
'The whole thing lost only twenty seconds,” grins Mann. “Later we found that no one had even noticed the trouble, except one solemn producer who inquired about the significance' of the coat. Hah, get that! The significance!"
Despite the multi-tangle of peripheral employments with which Mann keeps his income chunky, it is his skill as an actor that authorities claim is the underlying reason for his success in all other fields.
"He’s a good straight actor,” says Johnny Wayne, commenting on Mann's frequent roles in Wayne and Shuster sketches. “That's a fundamental part of being a good comedian.”
It's typical of Mann's far-reaching but muted career that the comedy scenes in which several CBC producers recall him being "unforgettably funny" were scenes where Mann himself had no funny lines. One was a Wayne and Shuster satire of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which Mann played a barmaid with mincing elephantine grace and a wig of curls. Wayne arrived in the tavern, greeted one curvaceous barmaid with, “Hello there, my saucy little baggage!” Then he turned to the simpering Mann: "And hello to you, my baggy little sausage!"
Another was the now-famous satire of Julius Caesar, in which Wayne ordered bartender, played by Mann: "Give me martinus."
"Don't you mean a martini?” asked Mann, with a straight man's limpid innocence. "If I want two," retorted Wayne, “I'll ask for them.”
Television producer Drew Crossan says Mann also has a wonderful sense of pathos.
His skill at portraying sadness is no superficial knack, for as a flinching, outwardly confident child, he was deeply, wretchedly lonely. His father was occupied all through the depression years of Larry's youth with trying to keep a large chain of clothing stores from slipping away; eventually he lost all but one.
His mother, upset by their difficulties, was a busy, preoccupied woman. Both Larry and his brother Paul, nine years older, were often jeered at by their schoolmates for being Jewish. At seventeen, Paul was expelled for fighting with an older boy who had insulted him. He went to the U. S., where he is now regarded as one of the most gifted actors and teachers in the States. Among his recent pupils were the cast of My Fair Lady, sent to him at the producer's expense.
At eighteen, Larry joined the RCAF,
hoping to become a pilot. Instead, he was shunted into ground school and became an instrument-maker. With some airmen who had been announcers in civilian life, Mann shared the task of supplying a mess-hall audience with news flashes interspersed with records and chatter.
When he returned to Toronto, he landed a job with a new Toronto station, CHUM, and started by doing the station breaks. Soon he was covering on-the-spot news, and his coverage of the burning of the Noronic in Toronto harbor won him international awards.
Shortly afterwards he was made program director at CHUM. It was during this time that he was also the Lever Brothers announcer for Canada. Not long after this account was taken away from him, Mann decided to move with his wife and young sons to Rochester. “1 wanted to learn about television,” he explains.
He was restless in Rochester and soon was commuting to Toronto for commercials on radio shows. Eventually he moved back, hoping for the job as news announcer on embryo Canadian television. One afternoon he decided to visit Don Harron, a friend from high-school days, who was rehearsing in a television studio.
Harron looked at him, turned to. the man at his side and said, “Here's your man. right here.” Harron then introduced Mann to producer Norm Jewison, who said, "Come with me.” Jewison explained,
when they arrived in his office, that he was looking for a man who could talk to puppets. Thus Larry Mann's career began. talking to Uncle Chichimus.
It was only after Ad and Lib that Mann felt he could accept offers for acting jobs, which previously he had been turning down. “I don't act,” he was explaining to producer Silvio Narizzano, as he always did.
“Sure you do,” insisted Narizzano. “Try it." The part was that of a bookie. For comfort, Mann wrapped his script in a Racing Form and stuck it in his back pocket.
Since then his many-ply career has developed on the strength of its truest thread, that Mann is a superb actor. The knowledge that his talent is genuine, and appreciated, is giving Mann confidence for the first time in his years of pretending to have it. "He's relaxing,” comments his wife, Gloria, of the man so highly praised for relaxing others. Passionately anxious to have the closeness he feels he missed as a child, Larry is devoted to his four sons, Danny, eleven, Ronnie, nine, Ricky, five, and Jeffrey Brian, born in February.
"I hate to be alone, even now,” observes Mann. 'I can't bear it." He often says he wants to give of himself as much as possible so that people will enjoy themselves. "I realize, of course, what this implies. I want to get, as well. I want to be liked—Ell never get enough of that."