● Was allowed by New York State to live rent-free in his home in Yonkers until it was torn down for a throughway?
● Had to take three shots a day, and gave up $11,000 in summer resort bookings, because of hay fever?
● Was the musical director for lounge-act singers Sandler and Young?
If you guessed Leo De Lyon, it’s because the post header gave it away. Or you’re related to him.
I always felt embarrassed for Leo when I was a kid. “Who’d name their son ‘Leo De Lyon?’” I asked myself. Little did I know he named himself “Leo De Lyon.” It’s a stage name.
Leo performed double-duty on Top Cat. He was both the voice of The Brain and Spook. But he’s remained an enigma over the years because he’s not known for anything but Top Cat, unlike the other voice actors on the show. So, as a public service, I’ve delved into old newspapers to see what I could find. It seems Leo was the Comedy Sensation of 1949. Walter Winchell’s column of April 8th reads:
Horatio Alger-stuff: Comedian Leo de Lyon, 23, opens at the Roxy on the 15th—after clicking big at the Strand only a fortnight ago. He was a clerk in a cloak-and-suitery a year ago.He was being touted as “the next Danny Kaye” and landed a screen test at Paramount that year. Over the next few years, New York show biz columnists included quips from him and snippets about him, such as the newsie little items you read above. However, the Oakland Tribune’s theatre/movie reporter conducted an interview with him published January 3, 1950 that gives a bit of his background.
Off Guard Moment Reveals True Character, Critic Finds
By WOOD SOANES
Interviews with actors are always interesting because if the interviewer throws his questions with sufficient curves he is quite likely to catch the subject off guard and thus discover just what manner of man he is dealing with.
Take Leo de Lyon who is the head man of the Orpheum bill this week for instance. On the stage, de Lyon displays a great vocal gift, a sure sense of timing and the potentials of greatness in the entertainment field. He gives no indication of being ether a sentimentalist or a philanthropist.
In the interview the other day he gave responses with frankness and honesty and yet it wasn't going too well. I learned, through quick replies, something of how he had made his start in the theater, where he proposed to go, something of his family background and upbringing, a little of his ambitions.
It wasn't until he was about ready to leave for an appointment with the photographer that a chance question revealed something of the man himself. He had said that he came to Oakland a few days ahead of his opening, principally because he had no engagements to fill and because he wanted to get away from Hollywood and do some work on his musical compositions.
Well, he got away from Hollywood all right but he didn’t do any composing. Instead he spent the afternoon and evening before Christmas at Oak Knoll Hospital. He put in seven hours entertaining patients in the various wards without any monetary compensation, and without bothering to do what most actors would do immediately —notify the theater press agent of his mission.
“I really had a wonderful time,” he admitted after trying to brush off further inquiries. "I called the Red Cross and asked them if any of the veterans’ hospitals nearby could use an act. They told me they were short of funds, and I replied that I wasn’t looking for a job of work, I was simply thinking of the time I spent in the Halloran Hospital on Staten Island.
“Well, we had a lot of fun. I know that at Christmas time most of the ambulatory patients are either taken to private homes or their own homes. The fellows who are unable to get around are really stuck. And there were a lot of guys stuck at Oak Knoll. We really had a time for ourselves.”
Leo de Lyon was born Irving Levin in Patterson, New Jersey, on April 27, 1925 and spent his boyhood in Brooklyn, where the family moved when he was 10. It was a musical family, although none but his older brother Max had ever gone in for professional entertainment. Max Levin started life as an actor in community affairs but later thought better of it and became a textile manufacturer.
“Today Max is still a frustrated actor,” de Lyon said, “and in my book he would have been m great actor if he stayed with it My only claim to fame was that I was a boy soprano. When I was 12 my voice changed with one exception from the normal—I became a baritone who could still hold soprano notes without being falsetto. It simply annoyed me. I had no idea that it would one day prove the means of a livelihood.”
Since the Levin family inclined toward music, young Irving was given instruction in various instruments, mostly those played with the hands, but also in trumpet playing. It was as a trumpet tootler that he got his first job as the leader of his own six-piece band on what is known as the "Borscht Circuit" in New York. His first professional engagement was at a bistro called the Sawdust Trail in New York.
“I might have remained a band leader,” he mused, “had it not been for the hecklers in the audience. The Sawdust Trail did not cater to the elite. I found that I could silence them by screaming. Fortunately for me, the owner was a very successful New York attorney, and he came to my aid.
“It was through him that I acquired the name of Leo de Lyon and when I got a spot on the ‘Believe it or Not’ program because I could hum and whistle a fugue, simultaneously, it was not long before I was picked for an introductory engagement on Arthur Godfrey’s show. The audience liked my act and I’ve been busy ever since.”
But while a career awaits him in entertaining, de Lyon would like nothing better than to be represented in a concert recital at Carnegie Hall, and he is pretty sure he can do it. He has been at work for some time on the composition of what he calls satirical-classics—fugues, tone poems and the like, nothing so pretentious as concertos.
“Four of my compositions are to be recorded by London Records,” he said, “and should be ready for general distribution next spring. If they meet with favor, I’ll be one step closer to Carnegie Hall.”
Meantime, de Lyon continues his tour of vaudeville and night clubs and he is very proud of the fact that between a pair of night club engagements he was asked by Paul Whiteman’s daughter, Margo, to do an appearance at the Marymount School which she attended. Not only did he do his night club routine without charge, but he was complimented by the Mother Superior.
“Dirt really isn’t necessary for comedy,” de Lyon said sagely, an observation he could have passed on to many of his colleagues—but he had already passed out of No. 204 on his way to the cameraman, and, eventually, the theater. I hope he never changes his mind.
A few years ago, on the Top Cat DVD, De Lyon related to animation writer/historian Earl Kress how he got hired by Hanna-Barbera:
Alan Dinehart, Jr., he’d directed a lot. He did some casting. He directed a lot on it. And he was a big fan of mine from my performance days. And, years later, when they were puttin’ Top Cat together, he said he’d like me to go down there and try to read for some of these characters. And one he had in mind, specifically, was The Brain line, you know, “dehhhh,” that thing. ‘Cause I used to do bits of that. And I went out and did a couple of audition tapes and that’s how I got in. John Stephenson and myself, we were also what they would call “utility infielders.” In other words, the garbage man, or the psychiatrist, and I was used sometimes as the enforcer—(does voice) “Uh, alright, T.C., you’d better come around four o’clock, or we’re gonna belt ya, ya know what I mean?”—that kind of stuff. Like a punchy fighter. We did all their weird voices.
Kliph Nesteroff had a chance to interview Leo about his early career. You can read it HERE and HERE.
Top Cat lasted one year in prime-time in the 1961-62 season before the 30 episodes went into Saturday mornings the following year and then syndication. The ad above is from Broadcasting magazine of April 22, 1963, as Screen Gems tries to sign up new stations. If the barber had a moustache, he’d look a bit like Alan Dinehart.