Toledo Blade Article
March 28, 2000
By: Betsy Hiel, A Blade Staff Writer
“I was born on a horse farm in Deerfield, Michigan, over Mrs. Feldman’s bakery in Toledo, Ohio.”
So begins the tale of the famous comedian Danny Thomas in his autobiography Make Room for Danny.
Danny Thomas may not have been born in Toledo, but it was the town he always called home. It was the place from which he drew much of his material for his comedy acts, and it was where he returned to ponder big decisions.
“It’s funny, but every time there was an impending change in my life, I was always irresistibly drawn back to Toledo,” he wrote. “It was the place of my roots, my home base.”
Danny Thomas was born Amos Jacobs in 1914. He was the fifth of 10 children born to Arab immigrants from what is now Lebanon, and grew up in the north end enclave known as Little Syria.
He died in 1991 in Los Angeles at the age of 79.
Throughout his career, he told stories rich in Toledo ethnic lore.
From Mrs. Feldman, a Polish Jew, he was introduced to Yiddish humor. Schooled by Ursuline nuns at St. Francis de Sales, he took a school character of Crotchy Callahan in his comedy act.
And Uncle Tanoose, the character played by Hans Conried in the popular television series Make Room for Daddy, was based on Danny’s uncle, Tonoose Simon, who lived in Toledo’s north end.
His old standards, “Ode to a Wailing Syrian,” “The Jack Story,” “Crotchy Callahan,” and “We’re Strong for Toledo,” attest to his roots here.
Though he went on to become a millionaire, the famous entertainer grew up poor among immigrants. Working odd jobs, Amos and his brother Ray sold newspapers.
His entrée into show business came about because he didn’t like Toledo’s cold winter and took a job inside a theater.
So in the 1920s, in what Danny called the “Golden Age” of entertainment, he began selling candy and soda inside the long-vanished Empire Theater on St. Clair and Orange streets. The theater fascinated the boy. What he remembered best were the actors who were storytellers.
“As I watched from the balcony of that shabby little Empire Theater, it became the epicenter of my show business universe,” he wrote in his book.
Young Amos was hooked.
He took what he learned there, said Toledoan Josephine Geha-Zraik, who came to know Danny quite well before he went on to fame. The Jacobs boys were all musically inclined, she remembers. Danny played the spoons, was a good dancer, and a great storyteller.
“Danny was absolutely hilarious. I’ve never heard anyone who could tell a story like he could,” she said.
It was something he enjoyed, said his only surviving brother, Eddie Jacobs. “They were long, drawn-out stories with a punch.”
He dropped out of Woodward High School as a junior to pursue his show business dream. It was not until he landed a job in 1940 at the 5100 Club in Chicago that he changed his name.
“He took the name of the youngest brother Danny, and the eldest, Thomas,” said his brother Eddie. “If he failed he was going to come back as Amos Jacobs.”
That never happened.
Danny went from making $50 a week in Chicago to $5,000 a week in California in a few years. His big break came with Make Room for Daddy in the 1950s. The series ran 11 years, from 1953 to 1964, with Danny becoming one of television’s most famous personalities.
He returned to Toledo as part of his effort to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 1959, and a parade downtown drew 40,000 people.
“After he got famous, he never forgot his family and gave them all money for Christmas,” said Ms. Geha- .
“And he never acted like he was a big deal,” adds his brother Eddie. “But, after he got famous, a lot of the community became a relative,” says Ms. Geha-Zraik, chuckling.
Some in Toledo were critical of Danny’s decision to locate St. Jude’s hospital in Memphis. The hospital specializes in treatment of children suffering from leukemia. That happened because Danny wanted the hospital “somewhere there are a lot of poor children, both black and white,” he wrote. Memphis has twice Toledo’s population and more poverty.
Danny, as has often been told, made a vow to the patron saint St. Jude at a time when he was struggling professionally. But few know how keeping that vow came from an event in his childhood.
His little brother Danny was bitten by a rat when he was 6 months old. His mother vowed that she would beg for the poor if her baby lived. The child survived.
“Anyway, for an entire year after that Mom used to take the streetcar to the end of the line, and she would walk all the way back downtown begging pennies door to door, with that Middle-Eastern accent of hers,” Danny wrote. “They can’t pronounce the letter ‘P,’ you know. So she would say, ‘Blease give bennies to the boor. I bromise God.’ ”
Although doors were slammed in her face, she persevered. “I’m sure that that memory of her was the chief reason why I later kept my own vow to St. Jude.”
He received many honors for his humanitarian work. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan gave Danny the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1989, the Medical College of Ohio awarded him a doctorate in human letters.
Retired Col. Michael Nassr, the great-grandson of the first known Arab immigrant to Toledo, recalled meeting Danny when he was performing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the mid-1970s.
“I was transfixed,” said Colonel Nassr. “You couldn’t believe the amount of Toledo references he had in his tales.”
When Danny’s father died, he told the comedian to never forsake his Lebanese heritage. Toledo remained special for him, whether coming back for family visits or taking Toledo on stage and screen to the rest of America.
“In my act I’ve always gotten a laugh, and credit, for singing a song about much maligned Toledo with the same fervor that Tony Bennett exhibits when he sings about leaving his heart in San Francisco,” the actor wrote. Danny would use the same introductory music as the Tony Bennett song and then launch into “We’re Strong for Toledo.”
Audiences would laugh, Danny wrote, “But I genuinely love the grimy old city.”