Character Actors

Charles Butterworth

Charles Butterworth (Bizarre Los Angeles)

No Substitute for Human Kindness

by Jim Bishop

King Press, 1974

There never was a guy like Charlie Butterworth. He had a face like a bereaved horse. His attitude, even when affronted, was whispered obsequiousness. Butterworth as a comedian, could fumble with the brim of a hat for two reels while trying to tell an irate executive that the building was burning down.

He was a big name in lights on Broadway when Bob Hope was still looking for the way out of Cleveland and Danny Thomas was living over a grocery store in Toledo. And yet, in spite of Charlie‘s great record as a hilarious “sap.” I don’t recall his name in the top row of marquee lights.

Offstage, he was addicted to sad one-line observations. Like the time he was in New Orleans and he stood watching a jazz cornet player being buried. The black women were sobbing as though they missed that cheating man. The band was in slow step, playing, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.”

Butterworth shook his head. “Sure takes the edge offa dying,” he said. He saved his money as W.C. Fields did, stashing it in many banks, none of which he trusted. If he had a woman, she was as casual as last year’s bedroom slippers.

Charlie‘s love, an affection which was not reciprocated, was booze. To my knowledge, he would not drink when a show was in rehearsal, nor while it enjoyed a run. But, Butterworth and the final curtain usually came down together.

When I was in my more balmy years, I would see him roll up to the Peninsula House in a small car with a black canvas top. The Peninsula House was a large wooden hotel on the sands at Sea Bright, N.J. It has two wings with a third in the muddle. It looked like the start of a crooked game of dominoes.

The hotel help bowed to Mr. Butterworth, but he could outbow them. With a flirt of his hand, he would direct them to his luggage. It consisted of a small bag of underwear and shirts, and three heavy cases of liquor. The manager tried to give the great comedian a suite facing the sea, but Charlie preferred a small room facing Ocean Avenue.

It sounds modest, but it wasn’t. The Jersey Central Railroad ran down the middle of Ocean Avenue, and the engineers blew shrill steam whistles for all the crossings.

Mr. B used the railroad as an alarm clock to prevent being overtaken by sudden sobriety. He bolted the door, jammed a chair under the knob and placed a mattress on the floor. This was intelligent because he could not fall far, and he had only to reach for the next bottle.

What devils or gorgeous fantasies he solicited, I never inquired. Sometimes he ran dry in 10 days, sometimes in two weeks. If he had medical assistance to still the quivering chin, the trembling hands, the solitary remorse, it was done secretly.

He was a cheapskate, but he tipped lavishly on the way out. Mr. Butterworth got into the little car with the canvas top and left with the soiled underwear. His good friend (and mine), Walter O’Keefe, begged Charlie to get an automobile with a hard top. He listened politely and at great length, and said no.

One evening, he left The Lambs, floating eastward on 44th Street, when the hot sidewalk bounced up and smashed him hard. The cops turned him over and one said, “We can’t have this great man make a public spectacle of himself,” so they did what Irish cops are wont to do. They dragged him to a nearby convent and gave him to the Sisters of Charity.

They talked; they listened; they prayed him through it. One elderly nun came in every morning to listen to his jokes. “I’m afraid,” he croaked, “that I will never be funny again, Sister.” She giggled, “You’ll always be funny,” she said. “God put you here to make people laugh.”

Morning after morning, she listened to his whispered jests, clasped her chest, and laughed uproariously. When he was ready to leave, he said, “What’s your name?” “Sister Consuela Marie,” she said. Butterworth shook his head. “Strange,” he said, “I never had a lady friend to speak of, but you are my true, my best friend.”

“Ah,” she said, “that’s blarney. Be gone and be sober.” He left. Years later, Walter O’Keefe was still trying to tout Charlie off the cars with the canvas tops. “If it turns over,” O’Keefe said, “you’ll kill yourself.”

He did. Late one night, Mr. Charles Butterworth was driving alone through Hollywood when he hit a tree. The car turned over. Charlie was dead. In the newspapers, it was a big one-day story.

Two years later, a lawyer appeared at the New York convent. He asked for Sister Consuela Marie. “There was a lot of probate trouble,” he said to the old lady, “but Butterworth left it all to you in his will.” In his hand was a check for $230,000…

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