Beneath the Phony Tinsel of Hollywood You’ll Find the Real Tinsel

Oscar Levant? Ed Gardner? Henry Morgan?

Dear Quote Investigator: Every time I hear Hollywood referred to as Tinseltown it reminds me of the following quote:

Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you find the real tinsel underneath.

I have read this phrase in several places but was unsure who first created it. The internet quotation databases I consulted all point to the pianist, actor, and wit Oscar Levant as the originator, but I decided to do a deeper search emulating the QI-style! Now, I think the joke was created by Henry Morgan who was a radio comedian in the 1940s. What do you think? Will you investigate this clever remark?

Quote Investigator: Congratulations on your diligence in discovering the name Henry Morgan as a possible originator. There are citations in 1949 and the 1950s that credit Henry Morgan with a version of the joke. So, he may be the inventor; however, the earliest cite QI has discovered attributes the witticism to another individual, namely Ed Gardner who was a radio show writer and actor in the 1940s. The joke is ascribed to Gardner by the famous Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper in 1947 [EGLA].

The Brainy Quote website has a collection of quotes on the theme “Phony” and a version of the quip under investigation is credited to Oscar Levant [BQOL]. The Quotations Page website also attributes the quip to Oscar Levant [QPOL]. Levant’s 1965 book “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac” uses the chapter title “The Real Tinsel” for a segment about his experiences in Hollywood. This is a knowing nod toward the aphorism [MOA]. Levant uses the phrase a few years earlier as shown further below, but the first instance found by QI occurs many years before the 1960s.

Hedda Hopper’s column about Hollywood was widely syndicated, so the quote was circulated to a large audience when it appeared November 27th, 1947. Here is the text from the Los Angeles Times [EGLA]:

Ed Gardner claims Hollywood is not as bad as it is often painted. “Scratch beneath the phony tinsel,” says Archie, “and you will find the real tinsel.”

Gardner was best known for voicing the character of Archie the bartender in the hit radio program “Duffy’s Tavern” in the 1940s. The next person linked to the quote is another humorist on the radio dial in the 1940s, Henry Morgan (born Henry Lerner Van Ost, Jr).

The Spiced Tongue section of Reader’s Digest presents a rapid-fire series of jokes that are submitted by readers. The contributor instructions state: The source must be given and the contribution dated. The gag is attributed to Henry Morgan when it appears in the June issue of 1949 [HMRD]. Here is an excerpt with three sample japes to give the flavor:

No wonder I was awake last night – this coffee’s so strong it’s retroactive (Victoria Wallace Ferguson) … In Hollywood, beneath all that phony tinsel you find the real tinsel (Henry Morgan)  … If she told her real age, her birthday cake would be a fire hazard (Alex B. Darais)

The attributions to Gardner do not stop but continue in parallel with the attributions to Morgan. Here is an example in a comment about Bob Hope by another columnist named Art Diggle in 1949 [EGLB]:

Hope comes down here, he says, to escape the hurly-burly of the Hollywood neon jungles … Just like ED (DUFFY’S TAVERN) GARDNER says: “Ya scratch the tinsel on Hollywood and ya find the real tinsel beneath.”

Henry Morgan’s relationship with advertising sponsors and broadcasting networks in the 1940s and 1950s is often problematic. The following comment indicates that Morgan is returning to the radio dial in 1952 [HMOS]:

Henry Morgan’s return to the radio sparks a recollection of one of his best quips. It was about Hollywood. “Beneath all that phony tinsel, you’ll find the real tinsel.”

The first attribution to Oscar Levant located by QI occurs in the Los Angeles Times in 1961 [OLLT]:

The last word is Oscar Levant’s; “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you find the real tinsel underneath.”

In conclusion, the saying is attributed to Ed Gardner in 1947, Henry Morgan in 1949, and Oscar Levant in 1961. These dates may change as databases grow and more extensive searches are possible. Also, a new candidate may emerge. Nevertheless, for now QI believes that Ed Gardner has won the crown of laurels made of tinsel. Thanks for your glittering question.

[EGLA] 1947 November 27, Los Angeles Times, Hedda Hopper: Looking at Hollywood, Page A10, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[QPOL] QuotationsPage website, Quote attributed to Oscar Levant, “Behind the phony tinsel”, Accessed 2010 September. link

[BQOL] BrainyQuote website, Quote attributed to Oscar Levant, “Behind the phony tinsel”, Accessed 2010 September. link

[MOA] 1965, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac by Oscar Levant, Chapter 8: The Real Tinsel, Page 180, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper in 1965 edition)

[HMRD] 1949 June, Reader’s Digest, Spiced Tongue, Page 115, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, N.Y. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper)

[EGLB] 1949 December 31, The (Long Beach) Independent, Touring The Town by Art Diggle, Page 12, Column 3, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive)

[HMOS] 1952 October 14, The Oneonta Star, New York by John Cameron Swayze, Page 4, Column 3, Oneonta, New York. (NewspaperArchive)

[OLLT] 1961 September 17, Los Angeles Times, Books: Stars in Eyes but Acid in His Pen by Robert R. Kirsch, Page A16, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)