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Imogene Coca: 1908-2001: Actress

A Born Trouper

Coca was born in Philadelphia on November 18, 1908. The daughter of Josée (Joe) Fernandez de Coca, a prominent band leader and violinist, and Sadie Brady Coca, a dancer who "disappeared" each night in a magician's act, Coca was truly a 'born trouper'. She grew up accompanying her parents on the road, spending much of her time in the theaters where they performed. Her parents wanted her to be a serious performer. Coca began piano lessons at the age of 5, singing classes at 6, and at age 8 started learning classical dance and ballet. Until 5th grade, Coca attended Philadelphia schools. When her family moved, she went to schools in Atlantic City and New York and completed school through the 8th grade.

Coca's career was ignited by her family. Her mother helped 11-year-old Coca land her first gig in a benefit performance. Coca did impressions, or as she put it "made faces", and sang a comic song. At the age of 13, Coca made her vaudeville debut, singing "O, by Gee, by Gosh, by Golly, I'm in Love" at the Dixie Theater in Manyunk, Pennsylvania. Josée Coca, whose father had immigrated to America from Coca, Spain, helped obtain bookings for Coca at the vaudeville houses where he was the orchestra leader. Four of Coca's aunts and uncles were also performers. In 1923, an aunt snuck underage 15-year-old Coca into a chorus line audition, where she won her first 'adult' role, performing in Jimmy Durante's Silver Slipper Club in New York. She debuted on Broadway at age 17 in the chorus line of When You Smile in 1925. "I was out to sing and dance like nobody's business," said Coca.

Coca spent the next several years appearing in a variety of musical revues, including a turn in the chorus of Bubbling Over with another as-yet-unknown performer—Jeannette McDonald. In Flying Colors, another production Coca was part of, she was the understudy for Patsy Kelly; when Patsy couldn't appear, Coca found herself on stage in her first speaking role. She hadn't bothered to learn the lines, assuming that Patsy would never get sick. Fortunately, the first act was set at a hotel desk and she could read her part from a script lying on the desk. During the early 1930s, Coca starred in her own acts in clubs such as New York City's famous Rainbow Room. She also began to appear in musical comedies. Nonetheless, she had to struggle to find roles and was relatively unknown.

At a Glance . . .

Born November 18, 1908 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died June 2, 2001 in Westport, Connecticut; married Robert Burton, 1935 (died, 1955); married King Donovan, 1960 (died, 1981). Religion: Catholic.

Career: Vaudeville performer, 1919; actor, Dixie Theater, Manyunk, PA, 1921; debuted in New York chorus line, 1923; actress, When You Smile, 1925; New Faces of 1934, 1934; movie actress, Dime a Dance, 1937; television actress: Admiral Broadway Revue, 1949; Your Show of Shows, 1950-54; The Coca Coca Show, 1954-55; Sid Caesar Invites You, 1958; Grindl, 1963-64; It's About Time, 1967; The Carol Burnett Show; Bewitched; The Brady Bunch; Moonlighting.

Awards: Emmy Award, Best Actress, Your Show of Shows, 1951; Tony Award Nomination, On the Twentieth Century, 1978.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographyImogene Coca: 1908-2001: Actress Biography - A Born Trouper, "pure Accident", Your Show Of Shows, Won A Tony