Jonathan Winters, the Dayton-born improvisational comic best known for unique sound effects, quirky characters and unpredictable comedy sketches, died Thursday at age 87.
Winters died from natural causes at his home in Montecito, Calif., long-time family friend Joe Petro III said.
The comedian’s son, Jay, and daughter, Lucinda, were with their father, Petro said. He was preceded in death in 2009 by his wife, Eileen, a Dayton native. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Winters was born in Dayton on Nov. 11, 1925. He spent most of his childhood in Springfield, studied art in Dayton after high school and started the broadcasting career that led him into show business in Dayton, first becoming a DJ on WING in 1946. From there, he went to WBNS-TV in Columbus.
He departed for the clubs of New York City in 1953.
Winters maintained connections to this region long after his career took off.
Winters burst onto the comedy scene in the late 1950s and created memorable characters. He also appeared on many late-night TV and television comedies.
The characters Winters brought to life in his act — everyday folks with names like Maude Frickert and Elwood P. Suggins — were inspired by the people he encountered growing up in Ohio. During an interview that appeared in the Dayton Daily News in 2011, Winters explained where those people could be found.
“There were a number of characters growing up that were like this,” he said. “People that were from Enon or Urbana. Not so much Springfield. But the minute you went to Bellefontaine …”
He remained proud to be from Ohio, saying he carried a buckeye in his pocket wherever he went.
“I thought many times I wanted to come back, especially after my wife died. I mean, outside of the weather, that’s about all you’ve got here. I would come back in a minute. But (with) my luck, I’d come out of some condominium or apartment and fall on the snow and never get up.”
The early years in the Dayton area
Winters’ family was in the banking business and owned Winters National Bank (which had several branches). He moved from Dayton to Springfield to live with his mother and grandmother following his parents’ 1932 divorce. His mother, Alice Bahman, was a well-known Springfield radio personality on WIZE.
Winters enlisted in the Marines before finishing high school and served during World War II, according to his obituary in the New York Times. He later completed high school in Springfield and pursued studies in art in Dayton.
Winters studied briefly at Kenyon College. His interest in drawing and cartooning led him to The Dayton Art Institute in 1947, where he studied for 2½ years, according to the art museum’s records. The School of The Dayton Art Institute was an important part of the museum from 1919 until it closed in the mid-70s.
Museum Director Michael R. Roediger said the Dayton Art Institute family was saddened to learn of his passing.
“Mr. Winters attended the DAI’s art school in the late 1940s, and, in fact, met his wife of six decades, Eileen Ann Schauder, while studying here,” Roediger said.
“Art remained important to him throughout his life. He attended art school alumni reunions and also donated one of his works to the museum in 1993,” Roediger said.
The oil-on-canvas painting by Winters, not currently on view at the museum, is titled “The First and Last Day of Spring,” and was painted in 1983. The painting also appears on the cover of the book “Hang-Ups: Paintings by Jonathan Winters.”
In 1969, while visiting Dayton for the first DAI reunion, Winters told a newspaper reporter that he was about to experience the thrill of a lifetime — the following week he had been invited to attend a banquet in Los Angeles for the Apollo 11 astronauts hosted by President Nixon.
“Y’ know the whole space thing is fantastic,” Winters said. “When Frank Borman completed the Apollo 8 mission, I wrote him a letter. Told him that I met — and shook hands with Orville Wright when I was a kid… in Dayton.”
The famous comedian maintained strong ties to the community of Bellbrook, and the community is named after the Winters family. Winters’ grandfather had a summer home in Bellbrook and purchased the West Franklin Street bank in 1906. According to a book titled “A History of the Winters Library,” when Winters’ grandfather decided after a month that he no longer wanted the bank, he sold it for $1 to the trustees of Sugarcreek Twp. and stipulated that it could only be used as a library.
Mr. Winters paid a surprise visit to the Winters Bellbrook Community Library in 1995, where he posed with schoolchildren in front of the building named for his grandfather.
“We recognized him right away when he came into the library,” said retired head librarian Judy Brucken. “He just buzzed in and walked down the aisle to see the library and by the time he got back to the front desk, people had already heard he was there and the neighbors were gathering. I was able to grab his book from the shelves and he autographed that for us.”
Mr. Winters was inducted into the Walk of Fame in 1997 in Dayton. Installed in the sidewalk of the historic Wright Dunbar District, the Walk of Fame recognizes and celebrates the lives and accomplishments of individuals from the Miami Valley.
Winters’ appearances on the late-night TV shows of Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and others in the 1950s and ’60s became the stuff of legend, and his 12 comedy records for Verve each received Grammy nominations.
He hosted TV shows of his own in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and made appearances on a litany of other shows, including “Laugh-In,” “The Muppet Show,” “Hee Haw” and “Hollywood Squares.” Winters even appeared in cartoon form as himself in a 1972 episode of “The New Scooby-Doo Movies.”
He endeared himself to a younger generation in 1981 when he hatched from an egg on TV’s “Mork and Mindy” as Mearth, the son of Mork, an alien from the planet Ork played by his protege, Williams. (Orkans aged backwards, thus explaining the logic of Winters as Mork’s son.)
Winters also was part of the all-star cast of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges that made the 1963 movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
In the 1990s, Winters finally won a Best Comedy Album Grammy for “Crank Calls” and received an Emmy as well for his role as Randy Quaid’s dad on the sitcom “Davis Rules.”
In 1999, he became only the second person to receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and the award since has been bestowed on such legends as Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, George Carlin and Bill Cosby.
Winters also struggled with bipolar disorder.
At an early age, Winters showcased a talent for making people laugh.
Addison “Skip” Beckley, of Springfield, recalled Winters’ classroom antics at Elmwood School on Springfield’s east side.
While their teacher would turn to the blackboard, “Johnny would instantly turn around and do this pantomime of Al Capone,” Beckley said Friday. “Of course, the class would erupt in laughter, she’d wheel around, and he would wheel around at the same time and look innocent.”
Beckley later shared an apartment with Winters in New York when Beckley was working for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and Winters was appearing in night clubs.
He said that “while we got along fine” — something Winters did with most people — “sometimes people could get a little too much of it. He was always on. He couldn’t stop performing. Almost anything (that came up) would remind him of something else, and he might go into a little act, leaving most of us in stitches.”