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Jay C. Flippen (1899–1971)

Jay C. Flippen was a versatile entertainer whose career spanned more than six decades and multiple show business genres, from minstrelsy to motion pictures. Flippen became an iconic Hollywood character actor during the 1950s and 1960s. Long before that, he had established himself as a popular stage and radio performer whom Milton Berle eulogized as “one of the greatest standup comedians I ever saw.”

J. C. Flippen was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on March 6, 1899. He may have been named for his father, whose name was either Jay Charles or John Constantine. However, Flippen reminisced that his parents could not decide on a name and took to calling him by the initials “J. C.” His mother was Emma Pack Flippen. He had one sibling, an older sister, Era.

In September 1908, Flippen’s father died at the age of forty-eight; Flippen’s sister died the following spring, when she would have been about eighteen years old. Flippen’s father had supported the family mainly as a bookkeeper, but the family’s means of support after his death is unknown. Some of their income probably was derived from fees charged for either dance or theater classes, or both, taught by Emma, and from local talent shows that she organized. In any case, it is known that through these ventures, young Flippen was introduced to show business and received sufficient training to make it possible for him to join Al G. Field Minstrels when he was sixteen years old. He left Little Rock, toured briefly with the ensemble, and then joined a succession of acts that eventually led him to Broadway.

During his minstrelsy days, Flippen became famous as a blackface comedian. For a while, his popularity as such impeded his ability to demonstrate his considerable skills as an all-around entertainer, and he continued performing in blackface well into the 1920s. Nonetheless, he became a popular headliner without the blackface, first in burlesque in the late 1910s and early 1920s, then on the vaudeville circuit and, eventually, on Broadway as a comedian, master of ceremonies, and singer. He also was a recording artist and featured vocalist on at least two dozen recordings for the Pathé label in the mid-to-late 1920s.

Flippen married Cathlyn Young in 1922, but the marriage ended sometime before 1930, when U.S. Census Bureau records show him divorced and living with his mother in the Hotel Astor, his long-time residence in New York City’s Times Square.

Flippen was a lifelong and avid baseball fan who cultivated friendships with several major league baseball players. In 1940, he teamed with sports announcer Mel Allen for radio broadcasts of New York Yankees games. Flippen had worked in radio since the 1930s. In addition to calling baseball games, he appeared many times as a guest performer in numerous comedy and variety radio shows, and as one of the first game show hosts, emceeing the WHN Amateur Hour in the 1930s and the CBS network’s Earn Your Vacation in 1949.

In 1947, a year after moving from New York to Los Angeles, California, Flippen married screenwriter Ruth Brooks. The couple resided in the Los Angeles area for the rest of their lives.

Although Flippen appeared in some inconsequential films in the 1920s and 1930s, his movie career began in earnest in the mid-1940s. His fifty-plus feature film credits include significant supporting roles in Winchester ’73 (1950), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), Bend of the River (1952), The Wild One(1953), The Far Country (1954), Oklahoma! (1955), Cat Ballou (1965), and Hellfighters (1968). Many of his films were westerns, including five starring Jimmy Stewart, but he was not limited to the genre, as he also delivered acclaimed performances in comedies, dramas, and musicals.

At the same time that his film career flourished, he ventured into television, making dozens of memorable guest appearances in shows such as Bonanza, The Untouchables, Route 66, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gunsmoke, and The Virginian. In 1962–63, he also co-starred in the comedy series Ensign O’Toole.

During production of Cat Ballou in 1965, Flippen developed a serious leg infection, probably a complication of diabetes resulting from an injury to the leg. He endured excruciating pain while completing his scenes for the film. Afterward, the leg had to be amputated in order to save his life. He resumed his acting career after a short convalescence with a “comeback” role in an episode of The Virginian and continued to appear in films and television shows into the early 1970s. If not the first, he certainly was among the first motion picture stars whose physical disability was candidly portrayed on screen.

Flippen died during surgery in Los Angeles on February 3, 1971.

For additional information:
Cullen, Frank, with Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly. Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Flippen, Jay C. “Veteran Comedian Tells of Show Business in Old Days.” The Daily Herald (Provo, Utah), August 22, 1954, p. 25.

“Jay C. Flippen, Actor, Dies at 70; Was Entertainer For 50 Years.” New York Times, February 5, 1971, p. 34.

“Jay C. Flippen.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0282435/?ref_=fn_nm_nm_1 (accessed March 7, 2014).

“Noted Actor Dies; Native of Little Rock.” Arkansas Gazette, February 5, 1971, p. 10B.

Slide, Anthony. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Greg A. Phelps
Lindsey Wilson College

Last Updated 4/11/2014

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