Click Print on your browser to print the article.
Close this window to return to the ANB Online.


 

Shriner, Herb (29 May 1918-23 Apr. 1970), humorist, was born Herbert Schriner in Toledo, Ohio, the son of Edith Rockwell Schriner and her husband, whose name is variously given as Peter or Herbert Schriner and whom some sources list as a tombstone engraver. When Herbert was still a toddler, his mother left Schriner and moved with her son to Fort Wayne, Indiana. There she supported the two of them as a department store detective. As he grew older, Herbert contributed to the family income by working as a newspaper carrier. Young Herbert attended a local Catholic grade school, where he learned to play the harmonica, an instrument then popular in the American heartland, and performed with the school band. While attending Central High School, he joined a harmonica quintet that made guest appearances at civic gatherings, and he earned additional income as a harmonica teacher. By 1935, during his junior year, the octet was making regular paid appearances on local radio stations, and he dropped out of school to pursue a full-time career as a performer.

In 1938, after several years of touring the midwestern vaudeville circuit, the quintet disbanded, and "Harmonica Herb" Shriner, as he now called himself, put together a solo act that combined harmonica with humorous storytelling. Soon he was touring the country, recounting anecdotes about life in small-town Indiana interspersed with harmonica solos. The act was a hit with Great Depression era audiences, many of whom were still mourning the sudden loss only a few years earlier of the internationally celebrated American vaudeville humorist Will Rogers. In Shriner's aw-shucks, low-key, self-effacing manner and nasal twang they undoubtedly saw and heard an evocation of Rogers. Like Rogers, Shriner drew knowing laughs with a deadpan, half-apologetic delivery.

In 1940 NBC radio hired Shriner for occasional network appearances on various shows. Two years later he joined the regular cast of The Camel Caravan, a weekly NBC variety show sponsored by Camel cigarettes; the show also featured the popular vocalists Connie Haines and Lanny Ross and the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. In the spring of 1943, with the United States well into its second year of World War II, Shriner joined a special services unit of the army. For more than two years he performed in shows sponsored by the United Service Organizations (USO) to entertain troops in Europe. Realizing how eagerly homesick soldiers responded to evocations of American life, Shriner created what became his stock-in-trade: humorous monologues about a fictionalized and unspecified Hoosier "hometown." Shriner's homespun humor was often embodied in one- or two-liners that came to be known as "Shrinerisms." Typical examples include: "The town was full of live wires--trouble was, they weren't hooked up to anything." "Back home, we had a beauty contest once, and nobody won." "Hoosiers are congenitally inquisitive. That means nosy, in a nice sort of way."

Returning to the United States at war's end in late 1945, Shriner began a new career as a nightclub performer, making appearances throughout the country. He also returned to radio with a new NBC program, The Philip Morris Follies of 1946, a variety show in which he costarred with the popular singers Johnny Desmond and Margaret Whiting. Shriner's big break came in 1947, when he was hired by the producer Howard Dietz to appear in a new Broadway musical review, Inside U.S.A., starring the noted British comic actress Bea Lillie and the American actor Jack Haley, who had played the Tin Man in the hit movie The Wizard of Oz. Audiences and critics alike showed little enthusiasm for the song and dance numbers when the show opened in April 1948, but Shriner's monologues were a huge hit and were credited with keeping the show afloat for a year.

In the fall of 1948, while Shriner was still appearing on Broadway, CBS hired him for a weekly fifteen-minute radio show, Herb Shriner Time. In November 1949, following the end of his Broadway run, The Herb Shriner Show, a television version of his radio program, debuted on CBS television. The five-minute daily show was only long enough for Shriner to tell a few brief stories and play a single tune on his harmonica, and it was canceled by the network after three months. During the next few years Shriner continued to appear in nightclubs while making guest appearances on other television shows, including The Kate Smith Evening Hour. In 1950 he married Eileen McDermott, a vaudeville dancer. They had three children.

In October 1951 Shriner returned to television with his own network show when Herb Shriner Time premiered on ABC. The show was canceled the following spring, but in the fall of 1952 Shriner was back on television as the host of a low-key quiz show, Two for the Money, on the NBC network. The show, which featured Shriner in an opening monologue, moved to CBS in the fall of 1953 and ran on that network for three years. Two for the Money made Shriner a household name in the United States during the 1950s, and he was profiled in leading picture magazines of the day, including Life and Look. He became a frequent guest on other TV shows, including Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and What's My Line? and he appeared in Las Vegas nightclubs and made an album for Columbia Records. He was also featured in a 1953 Hollywood movie, Main Street to Broadway.

In the late 1950s, however, Shriner's national popularity seemed to wane as quickly as it had risen, perhaps because folksy humor that evoked a bygone era did not appeal to increasingly younger and forward-thinking postwar audiences or to sponsors of programs aimed at them. In the fall of 1956 CBS canceled Shriner's new weekly television program, The Herb Shriner Show, after only two months, and his guest appearances on other shows now dwindled. To earn a living, Shriner began making frequent personal appearances at fairs, conventions, awards banquets, and similar local events in small cities and towns across the nation, delivering reworked material in his trademark style. In 1960 he moved his family from New York City, where he had lived for many years, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he invested in real estate. In the mid-1960s the Shriners lived for several years in southern California before returning to Florida.

During the last decade of his life, Shriner became a collector and restorer of vintage automobiles, eventually owning about two dozen. He was driving one of them, a Studebaker Avanti, on the night of 23 April 1970, returning from an appearance in West Palm Beach, when the car went out of control in Delray Beach and crashed into a palm tree; brake failure was given as the cause. Shriner and his wife were killed instantly.

 



Bibliography

For biographical information, see Nelson Price, "Harmonicas and Homespun Humor: The Life of Indiana Funnyman Herb Shriner," Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Winter 2004, pp. 16-27. See also Gene Cook, "Fine Fresh Corn," Life, 15 Oct. 1951, pp. 29-30; "Herb Shriner Branches Out," Look, 15 Nov. 1955, pp. 89-92; and R. H. Major Jr., "The Herb Shriner Story," Coronet, Mar. 1955, pp. 157-61. An obituary is in the New York Times, 25 Apr. 1970.



Ann T. Keene




Back to the top

Citation:
Ann T. Keene. "Shriner, Herb";
http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-03768.html;
American National Biography Online Sept. 2005 Update.
Access Date:
Copyright © 2005 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy.