Harry Stewart Biography
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Harry Stewart: 10/21/08 to 05/20/56 Revised 2/12/08
Two Norwegian-born brothers, Hans (the younger) and Nils Skarbo, along with
their sister Pauline, immigrated to the United States in the early 1900's.
Their first stop was in Minnesota for the
birth of a girl, (Alfhild J.) by Johanna, Nels wife and then they traveled to
the Tacoma, Washington. They worked on Fox Island
for a season and eventually acquired land there by paying back taxes for it.
Harry Edward Stewart, Norwegian, was born into the Skarbo family on
Wednesday, October 21,1908 in Tacoma,
Washington. At approximately two
years of age, his mother, Elise, died in 1910 while giving birth to another
child who only survived a couple of days. Harry's father, Hans, was overcome
with grief from the incident and realized he was unable to cope with caring for
his two year old son, so put him up for adoption with the Stewart family.
Harry's older sister, Frieda, (born in 1902), and older brother, George, (born
in 1906), were cared for by Han's older brother Nels and his family. Both
George & Frieda thought "Nels" was their father until they become
adults. They were then told that "Hans" was actually their father.
The Skarbo family often entertained themselves by playing instruments and
singing together. Hans, whose grief stayed with him until he died in 1941, is
buried on Fox Island, Washington, with his brother Nels.
Harry was raised in the Proctor District, attended Washington
Grade School then Stadium High School
in Tacoma. When
Harry was age 15 or 16, he acquired tuberculosis, which resulted in one lung
removal. He was a bellhop at the Carlton Hotel also worked graveyard shift from
midnight to seven A.M. at the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Co. Harry just
"hung around" the then new radio station "KVI" and was
eventually given a job as an announcer, weather reporter, news man and banjo
player in 1927. In 1931 he moved to Los
with the hope of getting an announcing and banjo playing job with one of the
larger stations. In those days, both announcers and banjo players were too
plentiful. If he wanted to continue in the radio field, he had to think up a
new act or forget about eating. He had not written or acted any comedy, but the
character named Yogi Yorgesson, Swede-Hindu mystic, born of the need for
survival, CAME TO HIM after starving in the area for a while. "Yogi"
was a cross between Ivar Haglund, (locally famous as owner of Ivar's Acres of
Clams, Seattle) and Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu Spiritualist. He tried out his
routine on the nationally broadcast show "Merrymakers". It was six
months before he got a job with Al Pearce and his gang, whom he was with for
about three and one half years (1934-1937). His character for the show was
"Yogi Yorgesson," (the Hindu mystic from Stockholm, Sweden)
with a Swedish comedy touch. Yogi: "mystical" and Yorgesson:
"comedic Swedish name." He gazed into a small fish bowl turned upside
down as his "crystal ball" and would make statements such as, "I
can see my face on da udder side." That was his line, but his skit also
answered questions that were posed to him by listeners. Actually, the
listeners’ questions were simply part of the script that he wrote. He used an
exaggerated Swedish dialect to add to the humor. One routine done on that show
is remembered by his son Steve which went like this: A lady called in and asked,
"My baby just swallowed some bullets, what should I do?" Yogi
answered, "Give him some caster oil and don't point him at anybody!"
His costume consisted of Swede boots, Hindu loincloth, lumberjack shirt and a
Gretchen was a dancer at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe in New York before she met Harry. Harry &
Gretchen were married in Chicago
sometime in late 1930’s. Gretchen Ida (Sissell) Ross was born May 4, 1909 in San Francisco and had a
daughter named Eleanor Ross. Her birth first name was Gertrude, which she
didn't like so she changed it to Gretchen, but not legally. Harry and Gretchen
had a son, Steven Clemens Stewart, born in Chicago on March 20, 1941. Stevens’ middle
name was given in honor of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), the most notable figure
in their family tree. Steven Stewart has two sons, Matthew and Christopher.
Eleanor (Ross) Capaso had two children. She died around 1978. Harry died on
Sunday, May 20, 1956 about eighteen miles north of Tonopah, Nevada
at the age of 48.
In 1939, Harry and Gretchen were living in Chicago with a production/announcing job for
a company as a Script Writer that produced articulate sound ads, called
"Articulated Commercials." The best remembered ads were, Bromo
Seltzer's (Inner Sanctum sponsor and others) Wheeeooo, wheeeooo, whee,
wheeeooo. Bromo Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer, like the
sound of an old steam engine whistle and train. This sound was well
known at that time and was also used by Spike Jones on a record named,
"Laura", sung by Jimmy Cassidy. Lifebouy soap's jingle
(Al Jolson sponsor and others) which went like this: "Singing in the bath
tub, singing for joy, living the life of Lifebouy, can't help singing 'cause I
know, Lifebouy really stops, Beeee, Ooooo." (The sound of a Fog Horn) He
was also featured on a local radio program in the Chicago area and did some comedy writing for
the show as well. Harry was featured on "40 Million" and
"Command Performance" as well as "Moonlight Memories &
Miller." He also performed his comedy routine up and down the Eastern Coast touring with Band Leader Ben
Bernie who had Johnny Duffy as piano player. His contact with Johnny Duffy was
a lasting one, as Johnny became Harry’s musician on the S & G Label as well
as all of his Capitol recordings. Johnny was the musician used on both songs
Ken Curtis sang on the S & G Label also. The tour eventually extended
He wrote his own script and performed as “Yogi Yorgesson” the Scandinavian
Swami by looking into his crystal ball for answers to questions, then reciting
jokes as well as him singing the song; “The Object Of My Affection,” was
recorded on The Ben Bernie War Workers Program on August 21, 1942. (R-187 &
R-186) NOTE: That song was not released to Capitol Records until 1953, eleven
years later! He has performed in Toronto, Vancouver & Kelowna,
(at the annual regatta) Canada;
Puyallup and Tacoma,
and Portland, Oregon
as well as Ely and Las Vegas,
Nevada." He maintained this
comedy routine throughout the balance of his life.
Harry, Gretchen and family moved back to Los Angeles, California
in 1946 and Harry performed as; "Longfellow Larson" the janitor on
the "Phone Again, Finnegan" program starring Frank McHugh and Stuart
Erwin. Johnny Duffy was also on these programs, (as well as on Lassie),
supplying the music. Johnny Duffy Born in Kildare,
Ireland in 1916
was the music director for many major networks top shows. He also was featured
on a radio program called, “Ivory & Ebony,” on which he played the piano
& organ. He was also featured on the program, ‘The String Nocturne.” He
recorded on the Liberty Label until his death in 1972. Harry told jokes and
sang a song on each program. Some of the songs were: “Don’t Send My Boss To
Prison”, “ The Fight Song” & “ Mrs. Sloan.” Harry also directed the radio
show; “Lora Lawton” on NBC at least three times: 1) June 9, 1947: 2) July 28,
1947: & 3) Sept. 15, 1947. He wrote the part of; "Froggie (animal) and
Gremlin (human.)" for the radio program called, "The Smilin' Ed
McConnell Show," more commonly known as; "The Buster Brown Show"
airing on Saturday as a children’s show. Froggie responded to the comment;
"Plunk your magic twanger, Froggie!" The "Lassie"
radio program debuted on Sunday, June 8, 1947 (15 Minute weekly show for
"Red Heart Dog Food"). Harry Stewart was director for: 1) The Nov. 5,
1949 program; “His Master’s Eyes:” 2) The Nov.12, 1949 program; “I Learned
Him:” 3) The Nov.19, 1949 program; “Reprieve:” 4) The Nov.26, 1949 program;
“The Chaplain’s Dog:” and 5) The Dec. 17, 1949 program as Ken Carson sings;
“Mule Train” accompanied by LASSIE !! These five programs were aired on NBC.
These were accomplished while maintaining his comedy act. "Lassie"
first aired on ABC and then on NBC until 1950. He became frustrated with
directing, and once made the comment; "I'm tired of working for a dog that
makes more money than I do."
Harry often returned to the Pacific Northwest
visiting relatives and friends and fishing while on vacation and tour. His
family stayed at his sister's home, Frieda (Skarbo) Lueckenotte. Each summer's
visit was mentioned in the Tacoma News Tribune. Harry was performing his act at
the Puyallup county fair and various clubs,
including the Palomar Theater in Seattle,
where he met Stan Boreson. They both were performing with similar styles of
Swedish comedy and soon became close friends. Stan was attending the University of Washington while performing at some
local clubs in the evenings.
In 1947 Harry co-wrote with Jimmy Williard, "Humphrey, the Sweet
Singing Pig", sung by The King's Jesters on Vogue label # R-751. This is
the only one we have showing the song's authorship as, "Yogi
Yorgesson," all others are as, "Harry Stewart." The S&G
Record Company located in Los Angeles, at 1401 Mateo Street, Los Angeles 21,
Calif., and in business at least through 1954, published the first one Harry
sang, "My Clam Digger's Sweetheart" (#319). It was a big hit first in
the Northwest, from Seattle to Portland, and then nationally. At that time,
the big nationally hit was, "Now Is The Hour," sung by Gracie Fields.
In Astoria, Oregon however, Harry's number was so
popular that it out sold Gracie's!! Astoria,
Oregon is considered the Clam
Capitol of the world. It was popular enough to warrant a re-issue by The S
& G Record Company later in 1948 (#3009). Harry switched from the fledging
S & G Record Company to Capitol Records in 1949. Harry continued, the rest of his life,
recording with Capitol Records, producing some great hits as the character he
created, "Yogi Yorgesson" (Swedish Comedy) and "Harry Kari"
(Oriental Comedy), until his death in 1956. On May 5, 1953, Harry Stewart was
on the CBS ½ hour radio show of: “The Johnny Mercer Show” along with Jud
Conlon’s Rhythmaires & Buddy Cole. Harry had only two songs released
singing duet with Gege Pearson. Gege Pearson appeared on radio programs such
as: “The Red Skelton Show” as Sara Drew from 1946-1949, on NBC, “My Favorite
Husband,” Mar. 17, 1951, “Liz (Lucile Ball) Hires A New Secretary For George”
also on Mar. 31, 1951, “The April Fool Joke.” She was on stage in the Mar. 26,
1953 show, “Dig, The Thief.” She was on The T.V. “I Love Lucy” show as a
tourist on Oct. 3, 1955, was the voice of
“Crusader Rabbit” in 1957 as well as the voice on the cartoon, “It’s
Nice To Have A Mouse Around The House,” Jan. 16, 1965. She was in the 1942
movie; “Campus Rhythm” starring Gale Storm. Her other exploits are still under
research. Harry also recorded two songs under the name; "Claude
Hopper" (Western Comedy) and two songs under the name; "Klaus
Hammerschmidt" (German Comedy). This is his last release that he wrote and
sang, however he did have two songs using a Hispanic accent, character
un-named, which were never released. They are titled, "I'm Muy Pooped
Caballero” and "Ha, Ha, Ha For Him," but are not assigned any numbers
and no release is planned.
I was given eleven additional songs that Harry wrote but were kept in the
family. 1 - Swanson, Swenson & Jenson: 2 - Mr. Kefauver: 3. The Mrs.
Wouldn’t Approve: 4 - I Tell My Troubles To Joe: 5 - Readers Digest: 6 - No,
Thank You: 7 - Over the Hill: 8 - Things Are Getting Better: 9 - Hark, the
Barking Snark; 10 - There’ll Be No Sad Tomorrow (sung by Ken Curtis): 11 -
Christmas, a serious song sung by Ken Curtis.
Harry and Gretchen had a beautiful home at 9210 Hazen Drive, Beverly Hills,
While living and working in Los Angeles, he was
singing and also performing his comedy routine in other parts of the country
and in Canada.
By 1950 his records had sold so well in state of Minnesota, that he took a promotional tour
there in April 1950, singing and performing his "Yogi Act.” His song
selections were well received but his "Yogi Act” (which he wrote himself),
bombed! Wearing the turban on his head while gazing into his Crystal
Ball, (a fishbowl turned upside down), then answering questions people had
submitted to him simply did not impress the folks in Minnesota. Upon his return to L.A. he pondered the reception in Duluth, Minnesota
and changed his routine to a country "bumpkin" wearing a straw hat,
dressed in rube clothes and chewing on a straw. He made a return engagement in
late June 1950. He continued with his song singing and introduced his new
"bumpkin" act which was accepted by the locals. He said that jokes
about chickens and pigs seemed to go over best. He told one story of his visit
to his cousin Hjalmars’ house and heard pigs under the bed. He asks Hjalmar,
"What about the smell?" Hjalmar says, "The pigs will have to get
used to it the same as us!" So the folks in Minnesota caused Harry to change his act and
that is why he is pictured on his "Great Comedy Hits," album not as a
"Yogi" rather, as wearing a straw hat, dressed in "country”
clothing and chewing on a straw.
On one promotional trip after his final performance in Ely,
Nevada, he decided to do some fishing before
returning home to L.A.
Upon continuing his trip, about 18 miles north of Tonopah, he was killed when
his automobile left the highway and rolled over on him on Sunday, May 20, 1956.
He had apparently fallen asleep, steering to the left, hitting a culvert
causing the automobile to flip over thus crushing and killing him. Harry and
Gretchen are both resting in Grand View Memorial Park, Glendale California,
Plot; Sect L; Tier B; Grave # 258 (one on top of the other)
After his death, Gretchen gave two of Harry's unpublished works to Stan
Boreson of Everett, Washington, which Stan recorded. They are:
"Neida Nei Takk ", means; “ No way, no thank you,” in Swedish,
("Yust Tinkin' of Yogi", Golden Cress # CRS-31051, 33 1/3 LP) &
"Swanson, Swenson & Jenson ", the flip side of
"Telephone", one of Stan's big hits, (Kapp # K-198 X, 45 RPM). When
you hear the songs you will recognize Harry's style.
Steve Stewart, Harry’s son, a retired lawyer, and his wife Twinkle, lives in
the L.A. area.
He said there were other numbers Harry wrote, but were never published. One he
remembers well was played by Johnny Duffy and called "Hark! Hark! The
Barking Snark." Steve was kind enough to give me a copy of this and ten
others that were never turned into Capitol Records. Harry also wrote numbers
that were performed and recorded by other artists and celebrities, such as The
King's Jesters, Ken Curtis, Larry Vincent (PIRATED), Mel Blanc, and Helen
O'Connell with Gisele MacKenzie, (a duet). Ken Curtis became a friend of
Harry's and was influenced by some of Harry's words as shown on one song he
wrote and sang on Mercury #6083 called; "Rooty Toot Galoot." Two
other songs were released and sung, in the early 50’s, by "Slim Jim",
(real name Ernest Iverson), from Minnesota,
on the FM label, #FM-487-F, but no writing credit was given to Harry Stewart.
The songs were; “I Don’t Give A Hoot” & “Clam Digger’s Sweetheart.”
Harry's widow, Gretchen, later married Jim Jordan (of Fibber McGee fame), in
1962 after Jim had lost his wife, Marian, in 1961. Jim Jordan died sometime in
1988 and Gretchen died on Sunday, July 12, 1998.
According to his cousin on the Stewart side of the family, Isabelle Norby,
(85 years old as of the year 2000, now deceased as of June 26, 2004) of Whidbey
Island, Washington, even in his youth, Harry strummed an instrument while
singing many funny routines that he made up, which kept his relatives in
stitches. So this talent of creating interesting comedic phrases and melodies
was expressed even at an early age! I also had a talk with John Norby, son of
Isabelle. He also lives on the island. Isabelle claimed that her mother, Sally
Clemens, was the person Harry referred to in the song, "Aunt Frieda is
Enjoying Poor Health." She explained that was exactly the way she lived.
We were contacted by the Stewart and Skarbo families and have subsequently
visited with Priscilla Speicher (Skarbo) as well as Anne and Robert Peterson
(Stewart). They were very helpful in updating the biographical information and
we noted that the name 'Frieda' was quite common among all his relatives. This
would explain why it was used so often in Harry's songs. He also mentions the
“Skarbo” name in "I was Santa Claus at the Schoolhouse (for the
P.T.A.)," as well as one of his cousins 'Dagmar.'
Contact Steve Howard at email@example.com or 1 (503) 253-1542
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