Robert Dennis Woodbury was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, February 9, 1924, the only boy of four siblings. He had an early interest in music - he and some neighborhood friends formed a 10-piece orchestra before Robert even reached his teens. A broken leg curtailed his burgeoning interest in hockey, at which point he began studying jazz, swing, and classical piano.
Robert planned to enter the University of Minnesota as a journalism major in January 1942. Those plans abruptly shattered for him when just one month earlier, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Robert enlisted in the military, choosing the U.S. Navy Aviation Cadet Program. With nearly all wartime military jargon reduced to abbreviated names and titles, his name "Robert" swiftly disappeared. He was nicknamed "Woody" by his buddies; the nickname stuck.
His career in aviation sent him to various Navy training schools and air bases. Woody finally chose the Marine Corps, graduating flight school at Pensacola, Florida, earning his wings, and was then ordered to the U.S. Naval Air Station in Daytona Beach to fly fighter aircraft. It was during his stint in Daytona Beach when Woody realized that his comedy and piano playing served as a tremendous morale booster for his squadron mates who would soon be flying into a real, shooting, combat war.
His commanding officers must have also thought that Woody was doing a great job. While his flight mates departed for active duty in the Western Pacific war, Woody was ordered to Flight Instructors School at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, after which he was returned to Daytona Beach to teach new recruits how to fly fighter aircraft. While Woody was happy and proud to be serving his country, he longed to be back with the pilots with whom he had trained. His weekly requests for hazardous flight duty went ignored for another six months. Finally, Woody received orders to report to the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, California. He was overjoyed to think that he would finally see action. Not so. Says Woody: "I wound up being the piano playin' party guy in California, same as Florida. I wasn't getting any closer to overseas duty." Finally, in 1945, he was ordered to the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California, near San Diego. He would be in one of the first invading fighter waves to sweep over Japan. Before that could happen, the A-Bomb was dropped and World War II came to an end, and Woody was released from active duty. He returned home and decided to give show business a try.
His first professional gig was in 1946 at the very exclusive Bath and Tennis Club in Daytona Beach. From there, Woody moved on to the Peacock Club and the Embassy, both gambling clubs in Jacksonville. In November 1948, he moved to South Florida to work at the Clover Club in Miami. Initially hired for two weeks, a year later he had turned down dozens of other job offers. At the Clover Club he began honing the act he became famous for: a friendly, good-natured guy noodling at a piano, gently ribbing his audience, and telling stories about drinking, golf, and human foibles. In addition to his wildly popular lounge act, Woody also served as master of ceremonies for headline performers in the Clover Club's main showroom. After a long engagement at the Clover Club, Woody moved down the street to the Arthur Godfrey Room at the Vagabond.
His stint at the Vagabond was interrupted by the Korean War. Woody was once again called upon to utilize his skills as a fighter pilot, flying over 100 missions in Korea from 1950-1953. After the war, he returned to the Clover Club and remained until May 1955.
As Woody weighed his options, his agent at the time suggested Fort Lauderdale, predicting, correctly, that the entertainment scene down there was ready to blow up. Woody's first Fort Lauderdale engagement was the one that would propel him to local stardom: the Chart Room at the Bahama Hotel. He started there in November 1956. Some of the biggest names in show business dropped in to see Woody's act, making the Chart Room one of the hottest night spots in South Florida.
One night, retired movie special effects producer Fletcher Smith saw Woody perform at the Bahama, and expressed interest in recording Woody's act. Smith's "StereOddities" label released Woody Woodbury Looks at Love and Life in 1958. The liner notes described the record as "Fun, foolosophy and frantic piano for frisky adults only" and "The party record with a built-in blush." The record eventually reached the top 10 on Billboard's LP charts and was awarded a gold record, as was the follow up album, Woody Woodbury's Laughing Room. Woody would eventually release ten albums, all of which met with great success.
On a break from South Florida in June 1962, while Woody was appearing at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, an advertising executive saw him and suggested to television producer Don Fedderson that Woody might be the ideal candidate to take over as host of the ABC game show Who Do You Trust? The previous host had been a young man named Johnny Carson, who was leaving to succeed Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show, a job for which Woody had also been considered. Woody hosted the game show until ABC decided to discontinue their line-up of daytime variety and game shows in favor of soap operas.
Woody's success as a television personality and comedian led to him being cast in the 1964 United Artists beach party film For Those Who Think Young, co-starring alongside James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Paul Lynde, Bob Denver, Nancy Sinatra, Tina Louise, and an unknown actress named Ellen McRae, who would later win an Academy Award under her married name: Ellen Burstyn.
In 1967, Woody began working with producer Ralph Edwards on The Woody Woodbury Show, a syndicated daily 90-minute talk/variety show which was taped in Hollywood. Woody hosted some of the biggest names in entertainment. Unfortunately, recordings of the show no longer exist. Just about all of the tapes of the show were erased and reused, a not uncommon practice at the time. Additionally, Edwards was pressuring Woody to be edgier and more controversial, something that was in direct conflict with Woody's personality and personal vision for the show. Woody and Ralph Edwards parted company in 1969, and Woody returned to South Florida to manage his other financial and entertainment interests.
Back in Fort Lauderdale, Woody returned to his roots as a nightclub performer, playing the piano and telling jokes. He began what would eventually become a ten-year engagement at the LuluBelle Room of the Beach Club Hotel. The quieter summertime off-weeks allowed Woody to do shows all over the United States and even Europe. After his stint at the Beach Club ended, Woody continued to play dates in Fort Lauderdale, and all over the country.
On May 26, 2012, Woody was honored by Fort Lauderdale mayor Jack Seiler with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and a spot on the Fort Lauderdale Walk Of Fame. On February 18, 2014, "Woody Woodbury Day" was proclaimed by Mayor Seiler in a ceremony at the Fort Lauderdale City Hall. On November 12, 2019, "Woody Woodbury Day" was declared once again, this time by Justin Flippen, mayor of Wilton Manors (part of suburban Fort Lauderdale).
Woody continues to entertain and make people laugh, mostly in the Fort Lauderdale area, acting as master of ceremonies for golf tournaments and charity functions, as well as performing at country clubs and private corporate events. After eight decades in show business, Woody Woodbury has proven without a doubt that - to reword his most famous catchphrase - "Laughter Is The Only Answer!"
"Once in a decade, a truly great entertainer comes along...
meanwhile, I recommend me." - Woody Woodbury
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