If you don't know what comedian Barney Williams looks like, don't worry. There's a bust of him at his gravesite. He died back in 1876. He was famous in his day for his Irish character "Ragged Pat."
Another early American humorist you can visit: Billy West. No relation to either the silent film Chaplin imitator or today's young cartoon-voice mimic, this one was born William H. West and you'll find him under that name...and under an impressive bronze monument.
He's got his banjo with him, appropriate for a man known as "The Eminent Minstrel." The wandering minstrel was buried here in 1902.
If you're fond of that old joke, "But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?" you might take a detour to visit the grave of actress Laura Keene. She was starring in the comedy "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater. One night in 1865 an actor named John Booth made a very unscheduled walk-on. Laura passed on in 1873.
If you approach a gate at Green-Wood and hear a squeaky voice say: "Bell out of order...please knock" or "Nobody can see the great Oz, not nobody no how..." then you are definitely being haunted by a comic actor within: Frank Morgan. Morgan was best known for replacing the balky W.C. Fields as "The Wizard of Oz." He played several other minor roles in that movie, too. He died ten years after that film was made: 1949.
WOODLAWN CEMETERY (Bronx)
The most celebrity-stocked cemetery in New York City, Woodlawn boasts of everyone from Bat Masterson to F.W. Woolworth. They have a few dead humorists taking the serious edge off the bone-dump.
Clarence Day is spending all the days of eternity at Woodlawn. He wrote "Life with Father" (it became an enduring comedy film with William Powell and TV series with Leon Ames). He died in 1935.
George McManus may not be a familiar name, but some will at least remember his famous comic strip "Bringing Up Father," featuring the antics of Maggie and Jiggs. The jig was up for George back in 1954.
Nora Bayes, who died in 1928, was billed as "The Greatest Single Woman Singing Comedienne in the World." This included novelty tunes such as "My Barney Lies Over the Ocean" and "I Work Eight Hours, I Sleep Eight Hours, That Leaves Eight Hours for Love." She was an Orthodox Jewish girl (Eleanor Goldberg) but in her later years she studied Christian Science. She was confident she could beat the cancer that reduced her to 82 pounds...but ended up booked into Jewish Hospital where she died at the age of 50.
You might notice that the Runyon family is buried in Woodlawn. You'll find Ellen Runyon, wife of the famous author of "Guys and Dolls," Damon Runyon. But where's Damon? He's not in the Bronx at all. Actually, what's left of him might still be in Manhattan. He was cremated, and at his request his son hired a plane, flew over Manhattan, and dumped Dad all over Times Square. (It was George M. Cohan who sang "Remember me to Herald Square..." But he's resting at Woodlawn Cemetery!)
CYPRESS HILLS CEMETERY (Queens)
Make up your own "Come up and see me" joke for Mae West. She's six feet under the sod in Queens.
Mae was a native New Yorker, as if you couldn't tell from that tough and sultry Brooklyn accent. She was also tough enough to spend ten days in a New York jail for staging an "immoral play" called "Sex" in 1927. She came to Hollywood to star in a select group of memorable movies and become a legend in her own time. Her time was up in 1980. It had been prolonged, she believed, by her enema-a-day habit. Her remains were returned to New York City from Hollywood, proof that even in death, Mae West's body could really move.
UNION FIELD CEMETRY (Queens)
As the cowardly lion, Bert Lahr finally found the one word to live by: "Courage." On his death bed in 1967, his final word was: "Hurt."
Depressing, isn't it? Well, Lahr was the type of comedian who drew a greasepaint line between comedy and tragedy and then slipped on it, landing heavily on both sides.
You're welcome to visit the gravesite, but leave the Lays Potato Chips at home.
MOUNT NEBOH CEMETERY (Queens)
A fellow named Solomon Rabinowitz wrote enduring humorous stories. He died back in 1916.
Yes, ENDURING. Because some 50 years after his death, his anecdotes were gathered into the hit musical "Fiddler on the Roof." If you want to visit Solomon, look for him under the grave marked Sholom Aleichem.
GATES OF HEAVEN CEMETERY (Hawthorne)
Some tough guys are buried here (James Cagney, "Dutch" Schultz and Babe Ruth) so you wonder if anyone's listening to the dry wit of fellow dead man Fred Allen.
Fred wrote much of his own material on radio. He was not only admired in his own time (especially by his friend and rival Jack Benny) but influenced the following generation of comedians, especially Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. Cavett loved to lapse into a droll, creaky Fred Allen imitation (which few viewers of his ABC late night show seemed to understand).
Since he dropped dead on 57th Street in Manhattan in 1956, it's not surprising that Fred decided to get out of town to find some lasting peace.
WESTCHESTER HILLS CEMETERY (Westchester)
"Bells are Ringing" was one of her hits. But they tolled for Judy Holliday back in 1965. She was one of the country's most promising comedy stars. Her lively style brought her Broadway success in musical comedies, and she won the hearts of the nation when she starred in the film "Born Yesterday." But she died to soon when cancer claimed her at the age of 42.
FERNCLIFF CEMETRY (Westchester)
Moms Mabley was, along with Phyllis Diller, one of the pioneering women of stand-up, known for a cartoonish physical appearance and a stubbornly forthright delivery. She was born Loretta Aiken, but re-named herself after an old boyfriend named Jackie Mabley. She was a parishioner at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for 25 years, but moved a little bit more uptown after her death in 1975.
Fans of the old days of The New Yorker may recognize the name Otto Soglow. He had a whimsical style for line drawings and his favorite cartoon character was dubbed "The Little King." He remains to be seen at Ferncliff. And so does half of the classic comedy team Weber and Fields. Lew Fields died in 1941. The duo were most famous for a bit that was later adapted by Laurel and Hardy (in "Men o' War") and Abbott and Costello (for "In the Navy"). The boys only have a nickel...enough for one glass of beer. So to avoid looking like cheapskates, the stooge is supposed to say "no thanks, I don't care for anything." The results, as they say, are predictable. No doubt the duo did have enough money in the end to have separate graves, and so they did. But maybe they met in heaven giving out their famous greetings: "I am delightfulness to meet you!" "Der disgust is all mine!"
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