Wacky Imogene Coca (1908-2001) may be best remembered for playing opposite Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows, which ran Saturday nights on NBC from 1950 to 1954. However, folks under 60 may remember her as Aunt Jenny on The Brady Bunch or the patently annoying Aunt Edna on the cinematic triumph, National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Originally deemed Emogeane, she was born in Philadelphia to José Fernandez de Coca, a violinist and vaudeville band leader, and Sadie Brady Coca, a dancer who also performed in a magician’s act. SADIE BRADY COCA. Awesome.
“I began as one of those horrible little children who sing with no voice,” Coca said of her early training. By the time she was 13, however, she found herself tap dancing, somersaulting, and dancing ballet. She got her first job in the chorus of the Broadway musical When You Smile, and later went on to win the second-ever Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1951 for Your Show of Shows. She continued to appear on comedy and variety series throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
The name Imogene was first recorded as the name of the heroine in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, based on legends concerning the early Celtic British King Cunobeline. Until a few months ago, I was not aware that any other Imogene existed on the face of the earth. Then, while flipping through a copy of Southern Living, I noticed the Nashville store, Imogene & Willie.
In fact, the mid-year tally of the most popular baby names of 2014 puts Imogen (sans e) in the number one spot, according to the baby naming website Nameberry.com. Any of your pregnant friends considering Imogen? Why not consider King as well? Here is Imogene with her second husband, King Donovan, and their poodle named Ford.
On a foggy night in 1973, while driving to their dinner theater performance in Florida, she and Donovan collided with another car. Donovan sustained a slight leg injury, but the rear-view mirror entered Coca’s right eye, smashing her cheekbone. Plastic surgery and a cosmetic lens covered her now-blind eye for the rest of her career, which resumed with her long stint in Broadway’s On the Twentieth Century beginning in 1978.
A devoted animal lover, she once bought a crippled duck for 60 cents while vacationing in California. Per www.imdb.com, she nursed the bird back to health on the terrace of her Manhattan penthouse. (By the way, when Jimmy Fallon accepted Stephen Colbert’s Emmy two nights ago, he said, “If you don’t know who you are, go to imdb.com; it’s very comprehensive.”)
Coca died from natural causes at the age of 92, twice-widowed and childless, but her legacy lives on. Performers including Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg and Tracey Ullman all cite Coca as an influence. Carl Reiner, pictured below, admitted, “She worked harder than any of us.”