Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Imogene Coca Recovered From a Car Crash to Get Tony Nod for “On the Twentieth Century”

This early television star survived a car crash to appear on Broadway in a hit musical.
by Rich Watson 

Imogene Coca achieved her fame as an early television star. As a cast member of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of  Shows, she earned five of her six Emmy nominations and helped pave the way for future TV comediennes such as Mary Tyler Moore, Bea Arthur, and Carol Burnett.

Coca also had a prosperous career in vaudeville and theater. Later in life she came back from a car crash to score a Tony-nominated role in a Broadway musical.

Imogene Coca on stage 

Coca, from Philadelphia, was the daughter of an orchestra conductor and a dancer. She studied ballet as a child and performed in vaudeville as an acrobat

Her first job, at sixteen, was in the chorus of a 1925 Broadway musical, When You Smile. Her first husband arranged gigs for her in Manhattan nightclubs. 

During a rehearsal of New Faces of 1934, the choreographer lent her an overcoat because the theater was cold. Coca, to keep warm, improvised comic dance steps with her co-stars (including a young Henry Fonda). The choreographer encouraged her to keep the routine, overcoat and all. The audience loved it.

Coca’s comedy career thrived. She alternated between stage and film roles, performing with stars such as Danny Kaye and Carol Channing. She continued appearing in revues.

Then came television.

Coca in early television

After a brief solo TV series in 1948, she first teamed up with Caesar. A musician turned comic, Caesar’s TV career launched around the same time. He appeared with Milton Berle in 1948 and then starred in a variety show, Admiral Broadway Revue, with Coca the next year. Shows came the year after that.

Characterized by sketch comedy, Shows was one of the first big hits of television’s golden age. In 1952 Coca won the Emmy for Best Actress for her work on Shows. In 1954 she gained a Peabody Award.

Also in 1954, she starred in another solo series, The Imogene Coca Show. It only lasted one season.

Coca’s first husband died in 1955. Her second husband was actor King Donovan. They married in 1960. 

She continued on stage and in TV during the fifties and sixties, including an Emmy-winning reunion with Caesar and her Shows co-stars in 1967. She and Caesar would reunite again in 1990 for a long-running stage show in New York.

Car crash 

In 1973, Coca and Donovan, after a live New Year’s Eve performance, got into a car crash near St. Petersburg, Florida. According to the New York Times, Donovan struck another car at an intersection when he ran a red light. He injured his leg. No one in the other car was hurt.

Coca ruptured her right eyeball. She flew to the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital in New York, where they repaired the rupture. A cosmetic lens covered her blind eye.

She resumed her career. Then in 1978, she returned to Broadway in a new musical.

On the Twentieth Century

Betty Comden & Adolph Green provided the book and lyrics to On the Twentieth Century, based on the play and film from the early thirties. Cy Coleman composed the music.

The comedy revolves around a theater producer who travels aboard the famous passenger train to talk a Hollywood star (his ex) into acting in his new drama. The original production starred John Cullum and Madeline Kahn. A young Kevin Kline also starred.

Coca played Letitia Primrose, a religious zealot also on the Twentieth who offers to finance the drama.

In previous versions of Century, the character is a man. Comden & Green changed the role specifically for Coca.

Century ran for 449 performances at the St. James Theatre. The New York Times said “[i]t has rough spots… but the elegance is there.” Coca, despite “a thin voice,” was “jerkily hilarious.”

Century won five Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical. Coca was nominated for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. She lost to Nell Carter for Ain’t Misbehavin’.

In 1980 Century opened in London. In 2015 it returned to Broadway.

Coca’s revival

Coca continued performing on stage, screen and TV, including a memorable part in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation. In 1988 she appeared on an episode of Moonlighting and received her sixth Emmy nomination.

She died in 2001 at ninety-two.



Did you see Imogene Coca in On the Twentieth Century?


  1. I saw IMOGENE COCA guest star on an episode of THE BRADY BUNCH. She played AUNT JENNY (Carol's aunt). Jan saw a picture of Aunt Jenny when she was around her age and wrote to her asking for a current picture. Jan was upset later because she was worried she would grow up to look like Jenny! The Brady Bunch is one of my favorite shows. I grew up watching the reruns. P.S. ANN B. DAVIS was delightful as the housekeeper ALICE NELSON. CLASSIC TV FAN

  2. I could imagine her on THE BRADY BUNCH. Maybe I’ll look for it.