Harry Stewart Known Biography (incomplete)
Harry Stewart. Revised 10/15/01
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 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 San Francisco, California, 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 Ghandi, a Hindo 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 (1932-1935?).His character for the show was "Yogi Yorgesson,"(the mystic 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 main line, but he also answered questions that were posed to him by listeners. 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 Hindu turban.
In 1946, Stewart was performing as;"Longfellow Larson" on the "Phone Again, Finnegan" program starring Frank McHugh and Stuart Erwin. 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 childrens show. Froggie responded to the comment;"Plunk your magic twanger, Froggie!"
Harry & Gretchen were married in San Fransciso. 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 May 20, 1956 about eighteen miles north of Tonopah, Nevada at the age of 48.
In 1939, Harry and Gretchen relocated in Chicago with a production/announcing job for a company as a script writer that produced articulate sound ads. The best remembered ads were; "Bromo Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer, Bromo Seltzer,"(as the sound of an old steam engine train) and Life Bouy soap's;"B-e-e-e-e-,O-o-o-o-o," (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 maintained this comedy routine throughout the balance of his life. He also performed his comedy routine up and down the Eastern Coast touring with band leader Ben Bernie who had Johnny Duffy as piano and organ player.The tour eventually extended throughout Canada. He has performed in Toronto,Vancouver & Kelowna,(at the annual regetta) Canada; Seattle, Spokane, Puyallup and Tacoma, Washington; Astoria, and Portland, Oregon as well as Ely and Las Vegas, Nevada."
Harry, Gretchen and family moved to Los Angeles, California in 1945. He eventially joined the "Lassie" radio program as director beginning in 1946-47, 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 would stay at his sister's home, Frieda (Skarbo) Lueckenotte. Each summer's visit was mentioned in the Tacona 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 music 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 song we have showing the song's authorship as, "Yogi Yorgesson," all others are as ,"Harry Stewart." Harry and a partner,(name unknown, but suspect,"Garcia") established The S & G Record Company in January 1948. I am surmising that the,"S" stood for Stewart and the "G" stood for his partner's name. 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 song Harry sang, "My Clam Digger's Sweetheart" (#319). It was a big hit first in the Northwest, from Seattle to Portland, and then nationally. It was popular enough to warrant a re-issue by The S & G Record Company later in 1948,(#3009). The Capitol Record Company took note of this, his first hit, and bought Harry's songs and recording rights from The S & G Record Company. Harry, thereafter, continued 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. Harry also recorded one song under the name "Claude Hopper" (Western Comedy) and one song under the name "Klaus Hammerschmidt" (German Comedy). This is his last known song that he wrote and sang. Too bad because he was just getting into Rock and Roll himself as noticed on this record!!
Harry and Gretchen had a beautiful home at 9210 Hazen Drive, Beverly Hills, California. While living and working in Los Angeles, he was singing his songs and also performing his comedy routine in other parts of the 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 his songs and performing his "Yogi" act. His songs were well received but his "Yogi" act, wearing the turban on his head while gazing into his Crystal Ball,(a fishbowl turned upside down), while answering questions people had submitted to him, bombed! Upon his return to L.A. he pondered the reception in Duluth, Minnesota and changed his routine to a country "HICK" wearing a STRAW hat, dressed in RUBE clothes and CHEWING on a straw. He made a return engagement in late June 1950 when his "HAYSEED" act was accepted while still singing his songs. He said that jokes about chickens and pigs seemed to go over best. He told one story of his visit to his cousin Hjalmar's 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 rolled over on him on May 20, 1956. He had apparently fallen asleep, steering to the left, hitting a culvert causing the automoble 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 songs 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).Upon hearing the songs you will recognize Harry's style.
Harry's son, Steve Stewart, still lives in the L.A. area, now a retired lawyer. I recently was contacted by him, who said there were many other songs Harry wrote, but were never published. One he remembers well was played by Johnny Duffy and called "Hark! Hark! The Barking Snark." Steven Stewart gave us more in depth information about his Father & Mother. Harry also wrote songs 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).Another PIRATED song was sung by "Slim Jim", real name Ernest Iverson (country-western) but the song title, label and date (probably 1949) are unknown at this time.
Harry's widow, Gretchen, later married Jim Jordan (of Fibber McGee fame), in 1962 after he had lost his wife, Marian in 1961. Jim Jordan died sometime in 1988 and Gretchen died on July 12, 1998.
According to his cousin on the Stewart side of the family, Isabelle Norby, (85 years old as of the year 2000) of Whidbey Island, Washington, even in his youth, Harry strummed an instrument while singing many funny songs that he made up, which kept his relatives in stitches. So this talent of creating interesting comedic phrases in song was expressed even at an early age! I tried getting more information about Harry, but her memory was vague and she could only help with some minor anecdotal tidbits. I gave her a tape of everything I had of Harry's works, so at least it is in the Stewart family now. I also had a talk with John Norby, son of Isabelle. He also lives on the island. Isabelle mentioned 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 Skarbo family and have subsequently visited with Priscilla Speicher as well as Anne and Robert Peterson. 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.' In addition, I gave Anne 3 CD's of Harry Stewart's songs. So now the Skarbo family also has a complete set of Harry's songs.
The library's information is quite sketchy stating only that Harry was a script writer, radio announcer, directed the first radio series of "Lassie," wrote and recorded 23 songs; and performed behind the scenes on radio and television. Washington State has no adoption records prior to 1948 so there are no records of that transaction.
The Stewart's remained close friends with the Boresons up until Harry's death. Stan Boreson (born on May 25, 1925) continues to perform today and has celebrated fifty years in show business as of year 2000. He was a Seattle celebrity on local "KING" Television for eighteen years, made many individual records, teamed up with Doug Setterberg and made many more records. He was performing in many local clubs as well as national and international organizations. He has entertained live at the "Hostfest" in Minot, ND and is still in demand to this day. Check out his web site at www.stanboreson.com. Stan just completed a new CD #6000, in September, which includes a song called, "Ichiro At Bat," (Patterned after Harry Stewart's, "Nishimoto at the Bat.")
We have restored into the Capitol Records archives the 32 songs, (Which I have on CD format). They now have all 55 songs, as of June 26, 2001. Hopefully in the future they will release some songs on CD.
Return to Harry Stewart Home Page