John Lee Morgan Beauregard “Rags” Ragland (August 23, 1905 – August 20, 1946) was an American comedian and character actor. Ragland made his show business reputation in burlesque, where he was one of the house comics for the famed Minsky burlesque shows. Minsky striptease star Georgia Sothern remembered him fondly in her 1971 memoir, saying she considered Ragland a close friend and the funniest comedian the Minskys had ever produced. His longtime performing partner Phil Silvers referred to Ragland in his autobiography as “my favorite comic”.
Life and career
Ragland was born on August 23, 1905, in Louisville, Kentucky. As a youth, he worked as a truck driver, boxer, and movie projectionist in Kentucky before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 22. There, he found work as a comedian in various burlesque houses, and quickly became known for his wild ad-libs, unpredictable intrusions into other comics’ acts, and a “healthy off-stage libido”. Eventually he worked his way up to “top banana” at Minsky’s, the dominant burlesque house.
After burlesque in its classic style died, Ragland made his way to films, usually playing good-natured oafs with a knack for fracturing the English language. He was strictly an MGM player, beginning with 1942’s Panama Hattie, in which he repeated a role he played on Broadway, with Ann Sothern taking to film the stage role played by Ethel Merman. Ragland appeared in about two dozen MGM light comedies and musicals with Abbott and Costello, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly, among others. He gained popularity as Red Skelton’s cohort in the “Whistling” movies (Whistling in the Dark, Whistling in Dixie, and Whistling in Brooklyn). His final film, The Hoodlum Saint (1946), starred William Powell, Esther Williams and Angela Lansbury.
After returning from an alcoholic bender with Orson Welles in Mexico in 1946, Ragland was scheduled to revive his nightclub act with Phil Silvers at the Copacabana when he began experiencing pain in his abdomen. He was hospitalized. Sinatra called in a specialist, but the doctors determined that Ragland’s liver and kidneys were destroyed from years of alcohol abuse. After falling into a coma, he died, three days before his 41st birthday, of uremia. Silvers and Sinatra were by his bedside. Many Hollywood celebrities attended Ragland’s funeral, including Sinatra, who sang at the service. Silvers delivered the eulogy.
In a gesture of friendship and respect, Sinatra walked off the set of his movie It Happened In Brooklyn, flew to New York, and unexpectedly showed up for Silvers’ Copacabana debut (he had signed a contract and “the show must go on”). Sinatra and Silvers had done the same routines during their USO tour. The show brought down the house. It ended with Silvers saying in tears, “May I take a bow for Rags.” The audience was silent, crying in tribute to Ragland.