Cue Card King
Barney McNulty was born in Philadelphia on June 15, 1923. His family moved to California in 1939 after his older sister, Penny Singleton, began performing as "Blondie Bumstead" in the Dagwood movies. (She was later the voice of television cartoon Jane Jetson.)
He attended North Hollywood High School, and during World War II, served in Army Air Corps communications, where he perfected a skill that foretold his future... swiftly transcribing Morse code into block letters. In 1947 he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in political science.
He became a page at CBS and by 1949 was working on The Ed Wynn Show. When Ed Wynn became ill, the veteran entertainer feared that his medication would interfere with his memory on the live show, so Barney was asked to put the entire script on large sheets of cardboard. He stayed up until 4 a.m. to complete the task and then flipped the cards for Wynn during the show, launching his own career. Shortly after this, satirist Stan Freberg told him: "I can see it now... Barney McNulty, president of the Cue Card Corporation of America!" Barney named his freelance cue card business Ad-Libs.
He flipped the cards to cue Bob Hope on his television shows (some produced by Stefan Hatos), Lucille Ball for the pilot of I Love Lucy, and Groucho Marx for the pilot of You Bet Your Life. He was personally requested by Orson Welles for what would be the final performance by the great actor and producer – an appearance on the Cybill Shepherd-Bruce Willis series Moonlighting. He cued Hubert Humphrey, the former vice president, at a political convention. He also flipped the cards for Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Jack Benny, Dinah Shore, Fred Astaire, the Smothers Brothers, and even the poet Carl Sandburg who asked to keep his cue cards as a memento of an appearance on television. One of Barney's greatest challenges came when he was holding the cards for actors during filming of a John Ford western. John Wayne summoned Barney during a break and insisted he join a poker game with the challenge: "Now we'll see how good you really are with cards."
Barney said that Hope, Sinatra and Berle had always remained his three most important clients, in that order, adding with showmanship of his own: "I hated it when they all wanted me on the same day."
McNulty's travels with Hope highlighted his life with celebrities, all of whom he seemed to admire. Globe-trotting for Hope to entertain military personnel meant transporting from 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of cue (or "idiot") cards, putting the right ones aboard helicopters for specific shows, and then flipping them in proper sequence with proper timing. The cue-card man became a backstage fixture in Hope's entourage, busy with his marking pens and cards as he quickly printed up new cards to accommodate any sudden script changes. Equally familiar were Hope's impatient microphone asides, "All right, Barney, get those cards up, get 'em up."
Gen. William C. Westmoreland later said the bomb in the Saigon hotel was meant to kill Bob Hope and his entertain-the-troops troupe. But the Hope motorcade arrived 10 minutes after the bomb exploded, killing or injuring more than 100 people. Members of the group credited their tardiness to the cue-card man, who was delayed in moving Hope's 5,000 pounds of cardboard cheat sheets. When the comedian learned about his narrow escape, Mr. Hope told Barney, "Saved by the idiot cards again."
Some of Barney's most vivid memories included trying to keep cue cards dry by placing them under airplanes in rainy tour sites, coping with frozen marker ink in Korea and having cards blow into the Pacific during a Hope performance on an aircraft carrier.
Hope clearly appreciated Barney's efforts and at the end of one tour gave the cue card king a gold watch inscribed, "To Barney, from the idiot."
The ever-jovial Barney, who would show up at church sing-alongs with cue cards, tailored his lettering to each performer – large letters for nearsighted George Burns, Jimmy Durante and Dorothy Lamour, and especially Bob Hope toward the end of the comedian's active career.
Even after the development of the teleprompter, Barney still preferred cardboard and fast-drying ink. He was crowned king of his unusual business by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in a 1990 cover article for its Emmy magazine.
He was something of a walking history of entertainment and accumulated more than 100,000 of his cue cards, noting in 1983, "I want to keep them because it's a continuing history of show business."
On December 17, 2000, at the age of 77, Barney died in his sleep at his Studio City, California home. Though he was semi-retired, shortly before his death he worked on a television movie called "These Old Broads," featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds.
Bob Hope, whose lines Barney held for 43 years, said in a statement, "Barney was my right-hand man, my ad libs." Milton Berle, who worked with Barney for decades, said, "I guess he's up there writing cue cards for God. He was a great help to many people. He saved a lot of people's lives who were actors who couldn't remember their lines. He is the Cue Card King."
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