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Red Buttons

BUTTONS, RED (Aaron Chwatt; 1919–2006), U.S. vaudeville and television comic. Born in New York City, Buttons sang on streetcorners at a young age to earn money. He then sang in the Coopermans Choir for three years, with the renowned cantor Yossele *Rosenblatt.

At 16, while in high school, he got a position as a singing waiter at Dinty Moore's Tavern in the Bronx. For the job he had to wear a bellhop's uniform, which had 48 shiny buttons. With that outfit and his red hair, the young Aaron was soon dubbed "Red Buttons." That summer, he got a job entertaining in the Catskills. In 1939, he began to perform at Minsky's Burlesque House. In 1942, he performed in Vickie on Broadway and in Wine, Women, and Song at Minsky's. This was the last burlesque performance in New York City, as Mayor La Guardia wanted to close these shows down. Buttons was actually on stage the night they raided Minsky's.

While serving in the army, Buttons appeared on Broadway in Moss Hart's Winged Victory (1943–44). After that stint, he joined Mickey Rooney's outfit in France and entertained the troops throughout Europe during World War II. After the war, he performed on Broadway in Barefoot Boy with Cheek (1947) and Hold It! (1948). From then until 1952, he performed with Big Bands in Broadway movie houses and nightclubs and made guest appearances on television. Then he landed his own TV show on CBS, The Red Buttons Show (1952–55). He won the Academy of Radio and Television Arts and Sciences Award (which later became the Emmy) as Best Comedian of 1953.

In 1956, at the Empire State Music Festival, Buttons performed with Basil Rathbone in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Leopold Stokowski directing a new score by Carl Orff.

In 1966, Buttons performed in another TV series, a spy spoof entitled The Double Life of Henry Phyfe. Adapting well to the small screen, Buttons was a guest on all the major TV variety shows, from Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, and Andy Williams, to Johnny Carson's and Merv Griffin's talk shows. Buttons was particularly popular on the Dean Martin Roasts (1974–79), where he initiated his famous "Never had a dinner" routine. His appearances on TV dramas included early theatrical programs such as Playhouse 90, U.S. Steel, and Studio One, and later series such as Knots Landing, E.R., and Street Time.

On the big screen, Buttons' performance in the film Sayonara (1957) earned him an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. His other film credits include Winged Victory (1944), Imitation General (1958), The Big Circus (1959), Hatari! (1962), The Longest Day (1962), A Ticklish Affair (1963), Your Cheatin' Heart (1964), Up from the Beach (1965), Harlow (1965), Stagecoach (the remake, 1966), They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Gable and Lombard (1976), Viva Knievel (1977), Pete's Dragon (1977), Movie, Movie (1978), When Time Ran Out (1988), 18 Again (1988), The Ambulance (1990), It Could Happen to You (1994), The Story of Us (1999), and Odessa or Bust (2001).

In 1995, to celebrate his 60th year in show business, he presented Buttons on Broadway. An original solo stand-up act, it ran for 33 performances.

Buttons received The City of Hope Spirit of Life Award, the Eddie Cantor Foundation's Suzie Award, the Friar's Club Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Junior Achievement Award for his charitable contributions to many worthy causes.


S. Allen, The Funny Men (1956).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.