Childhood & Early Life
Imogene Coca was born as Emogeane Fernandez de Coca on November 18, 1908, in Philadelphia, USA. Her father, Joseph Fernandez Coca, a violinist and vaudeville orchestra conductor, was of Spanish descent. Her mother, Sadie nee Brady, was a dancer and magician's assistant.
Her childhood was spent mostly on the roads, accompanying her parents from one city to another, watching them perform in theatres. Later, she entered Philadelphia schools, where she studied up to fifth grade. Thereafter, she attended schools in Atlantic City and New York, studying there till eighth grade.
She began learning the piano at the age of five and singing at the age of six. At eight, she started taking lessons in classical dance and ballet.
At the age of eleven, she debuted on stage, singing a comic song and doing impressions for a benefit performance. At the age of thirteen, she made her vaudeville debut, singing at the Dixie Theater in Manyunk, Pennsylvania. Very soon, she became a serious vaudeville trouper.
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In 1923, Imogene Coca moved to New York City, where she was snuck into a chorus line audition by a performer aunt. Eventually, she won her first role, beginning her career in Jimmy Durante's Silver Slipper Club in New York.
In 1925, she debuted at Broadway, participating in the chorus line of ‘When You Smile'. Thereafter, she continued to appear in a variety of musical revues, including 'Bubblin' Over' (1926) and ‘Queen High’ (1928) and in plays like ‘Garrick Gaieties’ (1930) and ‘Shoot the Works’ (1931).
In 1932, she had her first speaking role, appearing in place of Patsy Kelly in ‘Flying Colors’ (1932-1933). Thereafter, she continued to appear in various productions like ‘New Faces of 1934’ (1934), ‘Fools Rush in’ (1934-1935), ‘Up to the Stars’ (1935), ‘New Faces of 1936’ (1936) etc.
In 1937, she made her film debut, starring as Miss Klutz in ‘Bashful Ballerina’ and as Esmeralda ‘Dime a Dance’. But it took her twelve more years to become a celebrity.
In 1949, she was cast opposite Sid Caesar in the live variety show, ‘The Admiral Broadway Revue’, which ran simultaneously on NBC and DuMont from January 28 to June 3, making her immensely popular. It led to her next show, ‘Your Show of Shows’ (1950-1954), again with Sid Caesar.
Her success in ‘Your Show of Shows’ enabled her to start her own series, ‘The Imogene Coca Show’ (1954-1955). In 1955, she returned to the Broadway with ‘Janus’ (1955–56) and ‘The Girls in 509’ (1958–59), meanwhile continuing to appear in various television shows, including ‘The George Gobel Show’.
In 1963, she returned to the big screen with ‘Promises! Promises!’ and 'Under the Yum Yum Tree'. Equally active on television, she starred in 32 episodes of the NBC situation comedy, ‘Grindl’ (1963-1964) and 18 episodes of ‘It’s About Time’ (1966-1967).
In 1960s, she also undertook national tours, appearing in productions like ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ (1960–61), ‘A Thurber Carnival’ (1961–62), ‘Caesar-Coca Revue’ (1961–62), ‘Bells Are Ringing’ (1962), ‘Luv’ (1967), ‘You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running’ (1968–69) and ‘Why I Went Crazy’ (1969).
In 1970s, she appeared in numerous television productions, including ‘Love, American Style’ (1970, 1972), ‘Bewitched’ (1971), ‘The Emperor's New Clothes’ (1972) etc. Also in the same decade, she appeared in two films, ‘10 from Your Show of Shows' (1973) and 'Rabbit Test' (1978).
Also in 1970s, she went on country wide tours with plays like ‘A Girl Could Get Lucky’ (1970), ‘The Rivals (1972), ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ (1973–74), ‘Plaza Suite ’.( 1976). In 1978-1979, she made her last Broadway appearance, playing Letitia Primrose in ‘On The Twentieth Century’.
In 1980s, she appeared in five films; ‘National Lampoon's Vacation’ (1983), ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ (1984), ‘ Papa Was a Preacher’ (1985), ‘Buy & Cell’ (1987) and, 'Her Alibi’ (1989). That apart, she appeared in numerous stage shows and television productions, reprising her role in ‘On The Twentieth Century’ in 1986-1987.
In 1991, she reunited with Sid Caesar for ‘Together Again’, touring throughout the country with the stage show. Later in 1994, she appeared with him in ‘Comic Relief VI’, a television production and also in voice role in ‘Garfield and Friends’. Her last film, ‘Hollywood: The Movie’ was released in 1996.
Family & Personal Life
On January 7, 1935, Imogene Coca married Robert Baird Burton, a musician, who arranged music for many of her sketches, remaining married to him until his death on June 17, 1955. The couple did not have any children.
On October 17, 1960, she married actor King Donovan, who often performed with her in theaters. They remained married till his death on June 30, 1987. She did not have any children with him either.
In her last years, Coca suffered from Alzheimer's disease. On June 2, 2001, she died of natural causes at her home in Westport, Connecticut.