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    Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine can be traced back to an old vaudeville routine called "Watt Street," which was also known as "Who's the Boss?" and "The Baker Scene." Theatre critics of the day credited Weber and Fields as the originators of the routine.

    Joe Weber and Lew Fields
      
    The sort of act in which a play on words caused the comic to misunderstand what the straight man was saying came to be commonly known as a crosstalk or a cross-fire routine.  Much of the humor of the routine came from the rapid-fire delivery of the comedians.  The faster the delivery, the more the audience laughed.

    Clarence Kolb and Max Dill

    Weber and Fields' principal rivals, Clarence Kolb and Max Dill, also used the "Watt Street" routine as part of their act.  In January, 1908, Variety's Sime Silverman admitted to being bored to hear Kolb and Dill perform the "Watt Street" routine in their "Lonesome Town" show.  He suggested that it was time to do away with the routine because, since its debut years earlier, "hundreds did the same thing until it became so well known and monotonous ushers had to wake the audience up."

    But Silverman was tired of lots of vaudeville comedy.  He complained bitterly of the "passé dialogue and obsolete knockabout."  He wrote, "Some years ago before Weber and Fields made New York believe they were funny Mr. Fields had a playful habit of kicking Mr. Weber in the stomach - or where his stomach would have been not Weber inserted a pillow.  With every kick came a roar, and if Mr. Weber was being propelled a sufficiently long distance backwards before falling it brought a couple of roars.  It was known as 'knockabout,' an obsolete form of amusement, adopted by many in the days of long ago and now left only to the entertainment at the customary 'concert' after a circus performance."  From today's perspective, the idea of knockabout humor being declared obsolete in 1908 is ludicrous.  No matter how often Silverman and other theatre critics expressed boredom with the overly familiar "Watt Street" routine, it had no effect at all on the general public.  The complaints of theatre critics was not about to make this well-liked routine go away.  The "Watt Street" routine, with little or no change, would maintain a dominant presence in vaudeville and burlesque shows for another thirty years.

    Weber wears his padded stomach proudly.

    Al Raymond and Frank Caverly performed a popular rendition of the "Watt Street" routine for many years.  Their performance of the routine was singled out in reviews of their act from 1908 to 1913.

     

    George M. Carson and Jacob Willard, German comedians who dressed in standard frock coats and high hats, performed the "Watt Street" routine at the Columbia theatre in March, 1914.  A Variety critic found that they brought a "new twist" to the routine that prevented the audience from being "bored to death."

    Other funny names and expressions caused wordplay confusion in comedy acts.  In April, 1912, Ted and Clara Steele introduced their own variation on the "Watt Street" routine.  A Variety critic wrote, "A portion of the cross-fire is built around the phrase 'Is it?' similar to Watt street."  In September, 1915, George Richards and William Armstrong initiated a play on words talking about a man named "Goodbye."  The critic described the routine as being "something a little worse than 'Watt street.'"  Jack Mundy introduced a variation of the "Watt Street" routine in his act "The Speeders" in January, 1923.  This time, the funny name was "Hugo Tugh," which was repeatedly mistaken for the phrase "You go, too." 

    In February, 1924, Bert Bertrand and Jimmy Walters essayed the "Watt Street" routine as part of a show called "Wine, Women and Song," which was staged for the Columbia circuit.

    In April, 1925, Weber and Fields performed the "Watt Street" routine at the Palace Theater as part of "Reminiscences" show.  A Variety critic wrote, "[A]fter having seen the Weber and Fields material butchered, beaten and bruised by hundreds during 25 years or more, from turkey burlesque shows to Broadway productions, it still is fresh and new and as funny as ever as these two incomparables do it."  The critic believed that, when it came to other renditions of the routine, the "lifters. . . died before they [even] started."

    Harry Lang and Bernice Haley were successful with a version of the "Watt Street" routine.
    Haley: "What's his name?"

    Lang: "That's it."

    Haley: "Well, what is it?"

    Lang: "That's it. . .Watt."
    Their rendition received such an enthusiastic reaction from crowds that Warner Brothers recorded the team performing the routine for the Vitaphone short Who's Who? (1930).  Lang later performed the routine opposite Billy Gilbert for a highly publicized show at the Paramount theatre in May, 1939.

    Jack Mather as The Cisco Kid and Harry Lang as Pancho record The Cisco Kid Radio Show.

    Additional notes

    The aforementioned Raymond and Caverly headlined vaudeville bills for more than 30 years.  The team was never able to establish themselves in the film industry despite repeated attempts.  Powers Picture Plays featured the team in a 1914 short Adventures of Limburger and Schweitzer and Paramount featured the team in a 1930 short Confounded Interest.


    Not everyone today sees humor in the old cross-talk routines.  Here is a sketch in which Kids and Hall emphasize the illogic of routines like "Who's On First?" and "Two Tens for a Five."


    In closing, let us get a glimpse at Weber and Fields in action.



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    Harry Steppe, billed as "Harry Steppe, That Hebrew Gent," was active in vaudeville from 1911 to his death in 1934.  Steppe wrote, starred in and produced a number of popular revue shows, including "Girls from the Follies,""Razzle Dazzle" and "Harry Steppe and His Big Show."  In 1929, Steppe hired Bud Abbott for his "Big Show" revue.  Together, Steppe and Abbott performed the "Who's the Boss?" routine, which as stated earlier was a variation on the "Watt Street" routine..


    Abbott and Costello performed the "Who's the Boss?" routine in their early days together in 1936.  The team continued to develop the dialogue as they worked in theaters, night clubs and music halls.  Abbott and Costello eventually revamped "Who's the Boss?' into "Who's on First?," which they introduced while touring in the "Hollywood Band Wagon" revue in 1937.  This is confirmed by a Variety review of a performance at Loew's Montreal.  The review, dated October 13, 1937, reads, "Another act that takes with the fans is a repeat of Abbott and Costello in baseball skit for big reception of the show."  In March, 1938, Abbott and Costello set out to further refine the routine for an appearance on the Kate Smith radio show.  It was then (likely with the help of writers John Grant and Will Glickman) that the team introduced the routine in the state as we know it today. 

    The routine, which went far beyond the scope of the "Watt Street" routine, should without question be regarded as an original work.  Even more important, credit for this work should in all fairness be attributed to Abbott and Costello.  I maintain this position no matter what anyone says.  And, by "anyone," I specifically mean comedian Peter Marshall.

    Marshall said in a recent interview, "I mentioned that one of my favorite comedy teams were Phil Silvers and Rags Ragland.  They did 'Who's on First?' long before Abbott and Costello.   Phil Silvers was just amazing - he was a comic too - but he was really the greatest straight man.  He was really brilliant.  They were doing 'Who's On First?' and some other stuff.  'How to Pick Up a Girl' and all of those old burlesque things. They were booked on The Kate Smith Show, which was a big shot for them.  So they said, 'Hell, we're not going to do the old crap.'  So they bought all new material and they went out on the show and just bombed.  Then Abbott and Costello went on the show and did 'Who's on First?' and became the biggest comedy team around." 

    Phil Silvers, Betty Grable and Rags Ragland
    Marshall's story is not true.  As I already noted, Abbott and Costello introduced the routine into their stage act in 1937 and they debuted it to a national audience on radio in March, 1938.  Silvers and Ragland had yet to meet up during this period.  In March, 1938, Silvers had a job hosting a variety series, "Illusions of 1938," for the local New York City radio station WHN.  He teamed up with Ragland at Minsky's Gaiety theatre several months later.  The union of Silvers and Ragland was mentioned in a Variety review dated September 21, 1938.  The critic extolled the Gaiety because now, with their new team, the theatre was "housing much stronger comedy."  By this time, "Who's On First?" was well-established as an Abbott and Costello routine.  But these are not the only facts that disprove Marshall's claim.  I could find no record of Silvers and Ragland making an appearance on the Kate Smith radio show.  Silvers' first documented national radio appearance was on The Rudy Vallee Program on June 16, 1941.


    Abbott and Costello copyrighted "Who's on First?" under the name "Abbott and Costello Baseball Routine" in 1944.  Only Milton Berle, the notorious "Thief of Bad Gags," dared to make use of the routine after it had become inexorably associated with and legally bound to Abbott and Costello.  He performed it opposite Jack Albertson on his radio show in the late 1940s.

    In their later years, Abbott and Costello were willing to tinker with the popular, longstanding routine.  In 1953, the team reworked the routine for an all-star episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour.  It was essentially the same banter except the baseball theme was replaced by a boxing theme.  Costello played a boxer and Abbott played his trainer.  The following year, Screenland magazine reported that Abbott and Costello had again revamped the "Who's on First?" routine for a visit to England.  Abbott told the magazine, "Instead of baseball, we made it an orchestra.  Who is the leader, What's the piano player, and I don't know is the drummer."  Unfortunately, Lou collapsed at the London International Airport and the show had to be cancelled. 



    Selected Reference Source

    Nesteroff, Kliph.  "An Interview with Peter Marshall - Part Three."  Classic Television Showbiz (May 8, 2015).  http://classicshowbiz.blogspot.com/2015/05/an-interview-with-peter-marshall-part.html.


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    No baseball cross-talk routine is referenced in newspapers before the "Who's on First?" routine.  Plenty of comedy and musical routines made use of a baseball theme.  Reportedly, these bits were a treat for the baseball fans in the audience.  But nothing described by theatre critics related to a bunch of baseball players with funny names.  Much was said of a street named "Watt," but nothing was said about a second baseman named "Watt."  It was the St. Louis Cardinals'"Gashouse Gang," which included Dizzy Dean, Daffy Dean, Dazzy Vance and Ducky Medwick, that may have inspired routine, but these sports figures didn't become nationally known until 1934. 

    I assure you that I investigated this matter extensively.  I am more than happy to share with you what I found.

    There was small baseball bits that left little impression.  At a benefit show in 1919, Broadway actor Leo Carillo came out on stage posing as an Italian immigrant and he proceeded to describe in broken English his experience attending his first American baseball game.  I am sure that it was a cute routine that got a few laughs, but it was not something that was going to end up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  In 1912, comedy team Eddie Gerard and Jesslo Gardner performed a baseball skit called "Dooley of the Diamond" at Chicago's Linden Theatre.  The routine was unremarkable and never blew out of the Windy City. 

    Let me now list the Top Ten notable baseball routines that preceded Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.


    1. The One-Man Baseball Game


    In the early 1900s, Slivers Oakley did a famous one-man pantomime baseball routine.  I described the legacy of this exquisitely funny routine in my book, The Funny Parts.



    2. Stealing Home


    New York Giants outfielder Mike Donlin had a flamboyant personality that always drew him to actors and the acting profession.  It surprised no one when, in 1908, he accepted an offer to join his actress wife Mabel Hite in a vaudeville act.

    Mike Donlin and Mabel Hite
    The couple made their debut at the prestigious Hammerstein's Theatre with a comedy sketch called "Stealing Home."  The reviews were favorable.  The Variety critic wrote, "Mike Donlin as a polite comedian is quite the most delightful vaudeville surprise you ever enjoyed, and if you miss him you do yourself an injustice.  Public idols of the athletic field and fistic arena we have had without number.  They are usually to be identified by a certain hang-dog sullenness mixed with a curious attitude of defiance toward their unaccustomed surroundings.  Perhaps Mrs. Donlin (Mabel Hite), finished performer that she is, has had something to do with the coaching process that has made a first-class light comedian out of a crack league batter and fielder."  The act ended four years later upon Hite's death from intestinal cancer.  A Variety critic still remembered the couple's act fondly years later.  He wrote in 1921, "Sports stars have been invading vaudeville from time to time for the past decade with very, very few ever qualifying from an entertainment angle.  One of the notable exceptions was Mike Donlin, who broke in with his wife, the late Mabel Hite.  Mike and Mabel did a vaudeville turn in which Mike good naturedly was the butt of the fun making.  Donlin elected to follow the stage as a career and developed into a first-class actor."



    3. The Baseball Girl


    In 1909, Miss Ray Cox, who billed herself as a "southern comedienne," toured vaudeville houses throughout the country with a baseball sketch called "The Baseball Girl."  Cox played a ebullient college girl who adores her school's baseball team and provides a running commentary as she watches their latest game.  The sketch became so popular that Edison Record contracted Cox to record it.  You can listen to the recording below.


    The baseball bit became a featured act at a revered show palace, Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre, in 1910.  Of course, the imitators followed.  In 1912, Mrs. Curtis Burnley toured with a knockoff routine called "The Society Girl at the Races." 


    4. Swat Milligan

    Bozeman Bulger, a columnist for the New York World, wrote a popular series of far-fetched yarns about an awesomely powerful, supersized baseball player named Swat Milligan.  Swat was part Paul Bunyan and part Baron Munchausen.  Bulger granted his consent when he was approached by a theatre producer to lend the Milligan character to a vaudeville sketch.  The opportunity to see a flesh-and-blood Milligan excited fans of Bulger's stories.  The "Swat Milligan" sketch debuted to enthusiastic reviews in June, 1909.  The following review was published in Variety: "This little slang baseball skit was light and breezy enough to restore one to an almost human frame of mind."  In the sketch, the baseball giant meets up with a tiny mite of a girl (4' 7" actress Viena Bolton) who tells him that she is his greatest fan and proves to him that she knows baseball slang better than him.  A Pittsburgh Press critic wrote, "The dialogue between [Swat] and the little girl is intensely funny. . . [Bolton's] handling of the slang lines was a revelation to theatre-goers."  The pretense of the act was that this burly man was the actual Swat Milligan, which meant the actor in the role could never receive billing.  The skit successfully toured on vaudeville circuits for the next two years. 


    5. The Squeeze Play

    In 1910, Sadie Sherman was featured opposite Chicago Cubs second baseman Joe Tinker in a baseball skit called "The Squeeze Play."  Reportedly, Tinker had become a better actor since he had stepped before the footlights in a previous sketch called "A Home Run."  The ball player was adeptly aided by the multi-talented Sherman.  Sherman, who was billed as a "singing comedienne," was a singer, mimic and monologist.  A Variety critic described the act as follows: "The act is laid in a fourth story apartment overlooking the Cub ball park.  The rising of the curtain discloses Sadie Sherman describing to a friend by telephone a finish fight between the Cubs and Giants.  Mike Donlin hits the ball and it goes through the window of the apartment house.  Tinker bursts up four flights of stairs for it. . . He takes the young woman to an imaginary baseball game, which leads up to a song which he does nicely.  It was written especially for him.  The sketch made a tremendous hit at the Haymarket.  The players were laden with flowers and Tinker was forced to take half a dozen bows and then make a speech.  Merry."  This act was sufficiently successful to inspire imitators.  In 1911, sisters Kathryn and Violet Pearl lent beauty and talent to an act that featured stars of the world champion Athletics, Chief Bender, Jack Coombs and Cy Morgan.  In 1912, fair comedian May Tilly and New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson teamed up on the vaudeville circuit to perform a romantic comedy sketch called "Curves."

    The bravest of ballplayers went on stage on their own.  In 1911, Chicago Cub pitcher Leslie "King" Cole and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Marty O'Toole engaged in comedy banter in a sketch written by fabled sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.  In 1912, a quartette of professional baseball luminaries got together in an act simply called The Four Ball Players. 

    By 1921, the novelty of these acts had worn thin.  A Variety critic wrote, "The average vaudeville fan doesn't crave a Ruth or a Dempsey on a vaudeville bill.  After watching the efforts of the 'stars' to stagger through a 14-minute routine the vaudeville fan feels he has in some measure been a contributor toward a benefit to tide the athlete over the winter months."


    6. Baseballitis


    The 1910 sketch "Baseballitis" centered on a wife (Eleanor Wisdom) who can no longer tolerate her husband (Arthur Evers) being an inveterate baseball fan.  The woman decides that, if she flirts with another man, it will make her husband jealous and cure him of his infatuation with the sport. 


    7. Slow-Motion Baseball 

    An umpire warily scrutinizes the antics of Al Schacht and Nick Altrock.

    Nick Altrock was a star pitcher with the Chicago White Sox until an arm injury in 1906 diminished his pitching ability.  Altrock remained on the team as a pinch-hitter for the next six years.  In 1912, Altrock accepted a coaching job with the Washington Senators.  During these years, the sportsman spent much of his time entertaining players in the coaching box.  Washington Post columnist John Kelly wrote, "Altrock engaged in broad physical comedy on the sidelines: pretending to golf, imitating the pitcher’s windup, wrestling with himself, reenacting Jack Dempsey’s prizefights."  Altrock soon became known in newspapers as the "Clown Prince of Baseball" and was offered a deal to star in a vaudeville act.  Altrock was originally paired with another baseball prankster, Germany Schaefer, but the two men fought constantly and Schaefer was replaced by Al Schacht.  A Variety critic was a big fan of the Altrock-Schacht team.  He wrote in 1921, "This pair have more entertainment crammed into their 16 minutes of hokum than all the rest of the sporting and freak acts combined. . ."  Altrock was praised for his pantomime abilities.  A highlight of his act was his "slow-motion baseball" bit.  Altrock reportedly earned more as a comic than Babe Ruth did as a ballplayer.  The act had a long run, playing on vaudeville circuits from 1912 to 1929.

     

    8. The Bull Pen 


    In 1922, Will Rogers created the baseball sketch "The Bullpen" with sportswriter Ring Lardner.  According to Rogers, the objective of the sketch was to depict the familiar characters of our national pastime.  Rogers played a veteran pitcher who trades quips with a cocky rookie player. 


    9. The Umpire

    In 1905, Cecil Lean starred in a big-budget baseball musical called "The Umpire."  The show ran for more than 300 performances at Chicago's LaSalle Theatre.  For years, Lean toured in vaudeville with a sketch that employed dialogue, situations and songs from the show.  The act was included in a benefit show staged by The National Vaudeville Artists' Club in June, 1919.  The New York Clipper reported, "Cecil Lean and Cleo Mayfield presented a little patter and song sketch, and drew their quota of appreciation from the pleasure-surfeited throng."  The team brought the act to the 44th Street Theatre in October, 1921.  Variety reported, "Lean and Mayfield were the hit of the show.  The baseball song from one of the musical shows Cecil Lean appeared in several years ago came in particularly appropriate.  He worked it up perfectly, with some local stuff about one of the current series umpires, hitting a popular chord.  Miss Mayfield never looked better and made a corking feeder for the travesty numbers.  The team received a reception when they started and a noisy reward when they finished."
     
    M-G-M adapted the sketch for a short film called His Lucky Day (1929).  The plot was possibly more poignant than funny.  Cecil is on his way home to his wife with tickets to the opening game of the baseball season, but he meets up with friends from his office and loses the tickets in a poker game.  Back home, he consoles his disappointed wife with an imaginary description of the game.  It was Lean's acting in this scene that always drew an enthusiastic response from vaudeville audiences. 
     

    10.  Lane and Harper Baseball Sketch

    Joe Lane and Pearl Harper, a good-looking young couple, quickly established themselves in vaudeville with a baseball skit in 1919.  Variety reported, "The girl is a 'looker' with a figure that attracts in a close fitting dress. . . A bit of dancing by her also helped.  [The audience] liked the act muchly."  A miniature baseball field was set up on the stage.  The baseball game's runs, errors and outs were paralleled with Lane's efforts to score a kiss with the lovely Harper.  In September, 1927, the pair issued the following warning in Variety:


    "WARNING: Anyone caught infringing on our Vaudeville Baseball bit, written for us by Florenz Ames, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  This bit is fully protected by copyright of the United States, and is the property of Joe Lane and Pearl Harper." 

    Lane and Harper performed the skit in revue shows for 17 years.


    Selected Reference Source

    Kelly, John.  "Nick Altrock: A life rich in the stuff of baseball lore." The Washington Post (September 20, 2011).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/nick-altrock-a-life-rich-in-the-stuff-of-baseball-lore/2011/09/20/gIQAv1f0iK_story.html.


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    Harry Steppe's name will inevitably come up whenever there is a discussion of classic burlesque routines.  Vaudeville historian Trav S.D. wrote, "[Steppe] was credited by Phil Silvers for originating the phrase 'top banana', and he also introduced his old comedy partner Bud Abbott to Lou Costello in 1934.  Some claim that he wrote the 'Slowly I Turned' sketch, as well as the old reliable Lemon Bit." 

     
    It is generally believed that Steppe created the "Lemon Bit," also known as "The Lemon Game," but this is not true.  The "Lemon Bit" can be traced as far back as 1919, at which time the skit was performed in the burlesque revue "Sweet Sweetie Girls" by Jewish comedian Max Field.  Field continued to perform the routine after the show closed.  In June, 1920, the Burlesque Club closed a benefit show with Field and Frank Anderson doing the skit.  In October, 1920, Field, Anderson and Harry O' Neal performed the skit in I. H. Herk's "Jingle Jingle" revue.

    In December, 1922, a New York Clipper critic found himself amused by an "egg game" performed during a show called "Talk of the Town."  But the egg game, he promptly noted, was "really the old lemon bit." He wrote, "[It] proved a great comedy scene, particularly the way it was done by Arthur Laning, Frank 'Rags' Murphy, George Hart and Jessie McDonald.  They sure knew how to do it and it went over."

    At the same time, Columbia burlesque's "Keep Smiling" revue presented a version of the "Lemon Game" skit that also used eggs in place of lemons.  A young comedian named Bert Lahr played the sap in this rendering of the routine. 

    As the routine proliferated in the 1920s, theatre critics usually credited Field as the comedian who originated the routine.  But Steppe and Harry O'Neal, a well-liked team that added the skit to their act as early as 1922, became popular purveyors of the lemon business and were occasionally credited by contemporary sources as the routine's originators.  O'Neal, as I noted earlier, had previously played the lemon game with Field.  Likely it was O'Neal who had introduced the routine to Steppe.  

    The following is from a Variety review of the Columbia circuit's "Dancing Around" revue dated December 20, 1923:
    The book contains such veteran bits as "flirtation,""lemon three-shell game," etc.  But how they do them!  This bunch make them all sound new.  Steppe and [Arthur] Putnam do the "racehorse routine" which Steppe formerly did in vaudeville with Harry O'Neal, and which is now being done by Lang and O'Neal.  A very funny bit was the duel between Steppe and [Vic] Casmore, the "powder in the drink" bit (which is also showing at the Hippodrome, where Al K. Hall is using it), and "the hypnotist" bit with Steppe and Putnam interrupting the "hypnotist" from stage boxes.
    This review is the earliest known record of Steppe staging the lemon bit.  Steppe was in fact putting on a burlesque greatest hits act, which is something that Abbott and Costello wisely did years later.  Comedy fans immediately know the "powder in the drink" routine is the drink-switching routine that Abbott and Costello often performed in later years.  Could the racetrack routine be the "mudder/fodder" routine?  We will get back to that in tomorrow's article. 

    In January, 1924, the Mutual Wheel's "French Models" revue presented a version of the "Lemon Game" skit using apples in place of lemons.

    In May, 1925, a reunited Steppe and O'Neal performed the lemon bit in the Columbia burlesque wheel's "O. K." revue.

    On April 7, 1926, Variety reported that the lemon bit was "having a busy season."  Steppe continued the use the routine in his show for Columbia.  Steppe's straight man, O'Neal, had recently left the show due to a dispute with the producers and he now brought the lemon bit to the Shuberts'"Night in Paris" musical at the Century Roof (also known as Casino de Paris).  At first, the sap in the new routine was Owen Martin, but Martin was soon replaced by the incomparable Jack Pearl.  Others took the routine as their own during this year.  Lola Pierce and Joe Yule, who were featured players in a Columbia burlesque attraction called "Mutt and Jeff's Honeymoon," were performing a blackout sketch called "Forbidden Fruit," which was a condensed version of the lemon bit.  Pierce had become familiar with the routine from a previous engagement with Steppe's burlesque company.  It seemed that, no matter where a person went, they encountered comedians playing the lemon game - Eddie Heff was performing the scene at the American theatre, the scene was being used by an Orpheum road show, Danny Davenport was using the scene for a show that he was producing for the Loew's circuit, and Max Field was enacting the scene for the Mutual circuit's "Kuddling Kuties" revue.
     
    With so many lemons around, the situation was bound to turn sour.  A copyright dispute arose when, according to Variety, one of the Shuberts'"office scouts" saw Steppe performing the routine.  Variety reported, "Not knowing it has been a standard bit in burlesque since the day of Sam T. Jack's [the late 1800s], he informed the office it was an infringement."  Shubert promptly filed a lawsuit against "The Harry Steppe Show." 

    This was a problematic situation for writers, comedians and other producers.  Variety noted, "The Shuberts delivered a similar ultimatum to Fred Clarke this season regarding a piece of business equally ancient.  Burlesque producers are thinking seriously of copyrighting all of their old bits as protection against the ridiculous claims of musical comedy producers.  According to the producers, authors have been gypping musical comedy producers for years with scenes that have a burlesque genesis.  'Irish Justice' which was thinly disguised in Ziegfeld's Follies one season is an illustration.  Most of the controversial scenes are so old the producers themselves have forgotten who originated them.  The musical comedy stunt of lifting such an old scene and then copyrighting it with dialogue will force the burlesque producers to take similar action if continued. "

    The routine kept turning up in the next decade.  In 1927, James Coughlan performed it at the 5th Avenue Theatre.  A Variety critic noted in 1928 that Cliff Bragdon and Coo-Coo Morrisey, resident comedians at New York's Roxy Theatre, "landed nicely with the lemon bit."  In 1933, Bud Gilbert performed the bit in Los Angeles.  In 1935, Cliff Hall and Sidney Marion performed the bit at the State theatre.  Marty Collins and Harry Peterson performed the bit at the Capitol Theatre in Washington D. C. in 1938. 

    This, now, is where our story ends.  Abbott and Costello took final possession of the lemon bit, for a Broadway revue, "The Streets of Paris," in 1939.  The team had a talent for getting the best out of an old routine, making it funnier than it had ever been before.  Once they showed people how a routine should be done, no one else could perform the same business again without looking sadly inadequate by comparison.  And that is what made Abbott and Costello so great.

    Here, Abbott and Costello perform the routine in In the Navy (1941).

     
     
     


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    "The Rest Cure" (aka "Crazy House")


    I once heard that Willie and Eugene Howard originated the "Rest Cure" sketch (also known as "Crazy House").  Though their authorship is conceivable, I could find no evidence to confirm it.  In 1904, Dutch comedy duo Davey and Everson debuted an act called "A Crazy House," but there is no way to determine if this was the same routine.  In March, 1913, Gus Fay was featured in the "Rest Cure" routine at New York' Gayety theatre.  This is the earliest confirmed record of the routine.  At least three versions of the "Rest Cure" routine were being performed in New York theaters in 1927.  Versions were being presented by the Columbia and Mutual burlesque wheels and James Coughlan performed a third version at the 5th Avenue Theatre. 


    "What makes a balloon go up?"
    Costello: "What makes a balloon go up?"
    Abbott: "Hot air."
    Costello: "So what's holding you down?"
    Abbott and Costello used this joke in a film (Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, 1945) and a television episode (The Abbott and Costello Show's "Getting a Job," 1953).  It was a simple, time-tested joke that had been popularized in vaudeville many years earlier by blackface comedians John Swor and Charles Mack. 


    "Two Tens for a Five"



    Abbott and Costello used the "two tens for a five" routine in their debut film, One Night in the Tropics (1940).  It was known at the time to be a vaudeville standard.  Unfortunately, though, I could find no clue as to its origins.  No newspaper record that I investigated contained the slightest suggestion of this delightfully silly business.  A joke that appeared in a 1895 edition of the San Jose Letter had to do with an old colonel being conned by a young man with this bit of fast talk.  We at least know that the routine had previously turned up in two early sound shorts, The Lunkhead (1929) and Hot Spot (1932).



    "7 x 13 = 28"


    African American comedians Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles introduced the "7 x 13 = 28" math routine on the vaudeville circuit and later showcased the routine in a grocery store sketch in their 1921 Broadway play "Stumble Around."  They called it their "mulsifying and revision" bit.  M-G-M recorded the team performing the routine for the 1928 short film Jimtown Speakeasy

    White actors Ches Davis and Emmett Miller donned blackface to recreate the routine for the minstrel show tribute Yes, Sir, Mr. Bones (1951).


    The slow pace of the scene ruins the humor.  Percy Kilbride's drawl didn't help matters when the routine turned up again that same year in Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.


    It took Costello's nimble delivery to make this routine as funny as it could be.  

    Miller and Lyles were true originals.  Let us take a look at the actual Flournoy Miller recreating one of his other popular routines, "Indefinite Talk," with Scatman Crothers.



    "Mudder/Fodder"

    The reviews of several burlesque revues refer to a stock cross-talk routine known as the "racetrack" routine.  In all likelihood, this is the "mudder/fodder" routine that became a favorite of Abbott and Costello fans.  A Variety critic credited Owen Martin and Ed Lee Wroethe as the originators of this comic banter.  The most extensive description of the "racetrack" routine was published in the New York Clipper on December 21, 1921.  It read as follows,
    Ed Lee Wrothe and Owen Martin came next with a new act billed as 'Now.'  The story revolved around a race track and consisted of mostly track chatter.  The act all the way through was funny to a lot of the audience who understood it, and occasionally here and there a laugh was registered.  The act opened in front of a New York tenement.  Ed Wrothe, as a janitor whose wife had saved considerable money, put over some very good lines that registered strong on laughs.  Following this, the act goes into 'three' with a race track setting and Martin keeps up a rapid fire of talk in the language of the track.

    "Buzzing the Bee"



    Here is an excerpt from a Variety review dated November 9, 1917:
    "The French Burlesquers" is the ostensible name of the current troupe, but Billy Grogan Spencer is featured over the title.  He is teamed with Nat Young, the latter doing a Hebrew.  They get laughs with rough stuff.  One of their stunts was called "buzzing the bee."  It consisted of one circling around the other, who when he says 'give it to me,' receives over his countenance a mouthful of water from the "buzzer."
    A version of "Buzzin' the Bee" was included on Pigmeat Markham's 1968 album "Backstage."



    "Who Dyed?"


    Surprisingly, no newspaper record could be found of the "Who dyed" routine, which is now regarded as a burlesque classic.  The routine goes as follows:
    Straight Man: "Where you working?"

    Comic: "Market street cleaner and dyes."

    Straight Man: "What do you do there?"

    Comic: "I dye."

    Straight Man: "You what?"

    Comic: "I dye for a living.  If I don’t dye I can’t live."

    Straight Man: "Are you sick?"

    Comic: "No. You don’t have to be sick to dye."

    "Silver or what?" and "Tell who?" 



    The burlesque team Carson and Willard, who I mentioned earlier in this article series, specialized in wordplay routines.  They received an enthusiastic write up from the New York Clipper for delivering this type of patter in a 16-minute skit performed at the American Theatre in June, 1919.  What patter they originated and what patter they simply copied cannot be said.  All that I can say is that the comic business that was mentioned in this particular review later became enshrined in the formidable gag catalog of Abbott and Costello, whose exceptional talents allowed them to corner the market on this type of humor.


    Carson and Willard's exchange about silver ore later turned up in Abbott and Costello's Mexican Hayride (1948).  The scene starts out with Abbott admiring a piece of jewelry.
    Abbott: "Just think when it comes out of the ground, it is nothing but crude hunks of silver ore." 

    Costello: "Silver or what?"

    Abbott: "Silver ore!  It's been lying in the ground for thousands of years.  When they dig it up, they smelt it." 

    Costello: "If it's a thousand years old, no wonder they smelt it."
    Another of Carson and Willard's favored wordplay routines turned up later in Abbott and Costello's Hit the Ice (1943).
    Abbott: "Teller!"

    Costello: "Tell who?"

    Abbott: "Teller in the bank."

    Costello: "Tell who in the bank?"

    Abbott:  "Listen, stupid, I want a teller in the bank!"

    Costello: "Well, go ahead and tell her!  Who's stopping you?"

    Pick-a-Number

    A Variety critic came across a "pick-a-number" routine at the Olympic Theatre in February, 1922.  He wrote, "[Clyde] Bates and [Harry] Jines as the two come-ons try and pick a number which the straight man bets he can discover.  It's an old bit but was well handled and registered."


    Additional note

    I did follow one false lead in my research on "The Rest Cure."  A lunatic asylum was the setting of a popular sketch called "Pompey's Patients," which was performed in minstrel shows in the 1800s.  The sketch had reportedly changed little when it was later transferred to vaudeville under the name "Lunatic Asylum."  Someone dug the old script out of an attic for a show at San Francisco's National Theatre in August, 1907.  Variety reported, "The Lunatic Asylum is old enough to be new, and was strange to a major portion of the audience." 

    I have a vague idea of the skit's premise based on assorted comments that I picked up here and there in newspaper accounts.  Though I was unable to confirm the exact and complete content of the act, I do not believe that it is the same act as "The Rest Cure."  If I understand it correctly, this act had to do with a young man visiting an insane asylum to obtain the director's consent to marry his daughter.  Through a series of misunderstandings, the asylum director mistakes the young man for a patient and the young man mistakes the asylum director for a patient.


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    Joseph Fox and William H. Ward were a steadfast comedy team for at least 64 years.  They combined their talents in 1868 and were still playing engagements in 1932.  According to a 1932 news item, the duo was signed to a two-year contract by the Keith theatre chain.  For years, the men boasted of being the longest running comedy team of minstrel shows and vaudeville.  Unfortunately, no record of their act can be found beyond the news of the contract signing.  Ward died in 1934 and Fox died in 1937. 



    To this day, Fox and Ward's record for longevity remains unbroken.  The comedy team that has come closest to their record is the Three Stooges, who worked together for a total of 44 years.  Stooges Moe Howard and Larry Fine were consistently active as a team from 1925 to 1969.


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  • 06/06/15--22:51: Hotel Topsy Turvy

  • "Hotel Topsy Turvy," a burlesque farce, opened at the Lafayette Theater in Washington, D. C., on September 19, 1898.  It was an American remake of the French musical farce "L'Auberge du Tohu-Bohu."  The show, which proved to be immensely popular, did much to elevate the status of its stars, Marie Dressler and Eddie Foy. 


    The play was essentially a romantic comedy.  A young man, Louis, is heartbroken because the woman that he loves is to be married off by her father to a pompous count.  It doesn't matter to the father that neither he or his daughter has ever met the count.  The father and the count arrange to finalize the wedding plans at the White House Inn.  In the meantime, Louis encounters Cluny's Colossal Combination, an impoverished troupe of acrobats that has stopped off in town.  Louis takes a liking to Mme. Flora (Marie Dressler), the manager of the troupe, and takes pity on her and her acrobats.  He figures out a way that he can help her.  His aunt and uncle are out of town and, while their home is unoccupied, he can let the troupe stay there.  Mme. Flora is grateful and proposes that she help Louis with his own problems.  She has two of her men take down the inn's sign and put it up across the street at his aunt and uncle's home.  Her plan is to have a clown acrobat (Eddie Foy) masquerade as the count and act so terribly that the father will cancel his plans for the wedding.


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  • 06/06/15--23:10: A Slapstick Judge

  • The most popular and most frequently staged burlesque sketch was "Irish Justice."  It went by many other names, including "A Day in Court" and "Police Court."  A judge sat atop his bench and listened unhappily to the pleadings of various miscreants.  He invariably delivered his judgment by leaning over the bench and striking the miscreant with an inflated bladder.  Variety approved of the way the skit was staged for Progressive wheel's "Dolly Dimple Girls" revue.  This variation of the sketch, billed as "Trial of the Underworld," debuted in November, 1913.  The critic wrote, "It's J. Theo. Murphy's old stand-by and he went right to it, bladder, hammer, mallet, everything — he missed nothing as the judge.  The nance cop, the district attorney, the lawyer for the defense and the actress who stripped to tights in the court room — well, it was 'Irish Justice,' as rough as it can be made, and the skit got the laughs." 



    Many comedians essayed the role of the judge during the decades in which this routine remained popular.  The indefatigable Bobby Clark made an excellent judge, freely dispensing the essential hit-'em-on-the-head comebacks to the unfortunates who approached his bench.  Pigmeat Markham became popular with a variation of the routine known as "Here Comes Da Judge."  Markham claimed to use a real animal bladder in the act.  He said, "I can't tell you where I get them, but someone at the slaughterhouse picks them up for me.  I tried many things, but this is the only thing that gives me that real good sound when it crashes on someone's head."


    The trial scene in Warner Brothers'We're in the Money (1935) was identified by a critic as "good old Irish Justice."  The critic added, "It's all done in fast tempo with Hugh Herbert getting most of the laughs as a nit-wit lawyer.  Blondell and Farrell are their usual bright and aggressive selves, adding to the fun and excitement."  But a truly faithful version of "Irish Justice" was not recorded on film until the routine was revived for the Laugh-In show in 1968.


    Additional note


    "Irish Justice" should not be confused with a comedy sketch called "Virginia Judge," which was performed for many years by Walter Kelly.  The routines had similar elements, but they were for the most part distinct and different acts.

    Court adjourned.



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  • 06/08/15--10:49: The Rehash Blues

  • Variety's critics hated comedy shows that were nothing more than a patchwork of old routines.  A Variety critic flatly dismissed a 1921 revue with the line, "All of the hoke and standards were present."  Another Variety critic, George M. Young, provided a more specific complaint in an opinion piece published on December 12, 1908.  Young wrote, "Season after season hackneyed material is offered by managers who pretend to have a good show.  The rehashing of old time afterpieces which have been doing duty since the days when they were always a part of a variety show is what they offer as up-to-date entertainment.  Such old time pieces as 'A Crowded Hotel,''Forbidden Fruit,''First Night's Record,''Irish Justice,''Blow the Horn,''Pink Dominoes,''Pompey's Patients,''Two Married Men,' and a hundred other skits popular in variety when William J. Carroll, Harry G. Richmond, George Murphy, Louise Robie and others of their class put them on weekly, have been twisted and made over until it is a question just where the origin of any belongs."

    This issue was again raised in a review of a show at the Eltinge Theatre on August 4, 1937.  The critic wrote, "Comedy bits have nearly everything they'd been doing for years in burlesque save 'Ghost in the Pawn Shop' and 'Irish Justice,' which just couldn't be crowded in.  And maybe they'll be in next week.  McAllister and Fields are rowdy throughout, especially in the 'Crystal Gazer' and 'Tailor Shop' bits.  [Harry] Evanson and [Chick] Hunter struggle valiantly with 'Life Saver' and 'Telegraph Office,' both venerable and refusing to be resuscitated."

    I have written before about "Ghost in the Pawn Shop,""Irish Justice" and "Pompey's Patients."  A script for "Pink Dominoes" is available online here.  The "Big Foot Wallace" routine has left behind no clear written record that I can find.  It was presumably a spoof of the daring exploits of real-life Texas ranger William "Big Foot" Wallace.  I do know that, at some point in the scene, the comic hero is startled by the sudden appearance of a lion (an actor in a laughable costume).

    William "Big Foot" Wallace

    I was particularly curious about the "Blow the Horn" routine.  What exactly was this routine?  A Variety critic came across the team Willard and Williamson performing the bit at the 23rd Street Theatre in July, 1919.  He wrote, "For a finish the team uses 'Blow the Horn,' evidently new to the 23rd Street bunch, judging by the way they ate it up."

    A Variety critic found that the routine was used favorably in "Pat White and His Gaiety Girls" revue, which debuted at the Trocadero in September, 1909.  He wrote, "White had the house from the very instant he stepped on the stage, and he never lost them.  Even when the time-worn 'Blow the Horn' bit was introduced near the finish of the first part, the audience didn't stop laughing, and if anyone ever got more out of this old bit of comedy than White did, it must have held up a show somewhere."
    Pat White generated enthusiastic reviews wherever he went.

    Variety's critics frequently referenced the "Blow the Horn" routine, but they never bothered to explain the specific antics that comprised the routine.  But, then, a critic mentioned comics engaging in the "Blow the Horn" business during an encounter with Indians in a routine called "On the Frontier."  It was now that I was able to tentatively identify the routine.  It was, apparently, the "Blow the Whistle" routine from Abbott and Costello's Pardon My Sarong (1942).  Abbott and Costello think that they have the perfect idea for dealing with any tropical island cannibal that crosses their path.  Abbott will blow a whistle to distract the cannibal and this will give Costello the opportunity to come up behind the cannibal and whack him over the head with his club.  The problem is that, at the exact moment that a cannibal springs out of the brush, Abbott realizes that he has carelessly misplaced the whistle. 


    The same routine was done with the appropriate horn and Indians in an earlier film, Ham Among the Redskins (1915).

    The revivals of old routines did not always dissatisfy critics.  A Variety critic was pleased when a couple of young fellows, Jimmy Cole and Dan Collins, did the "water in the hat" trick in a new way.  He joked, "You can't stop this wave of progressiveness which is permeating the nation at present."


    I need to head out now to a doctor's appointment.  Can anyone give me a ride?



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    Laughs and scares were promoted by a number of Commedia dell'arte routines, including "Lazzi of the Ghost,""Lazzi of Fear,""Lazzi of the Nightfall," and "Lazzo of the Living Corpse."  Similar routines later turned up in minstrel shows and medicine shows.  The most popular of these routines were "The Ghost in a Pawnshop,""What Happened in Room 44?,""The Three O'Clock Train,""Over the River, Charlie!," and "Razor Jim."  These sketches started out as distinct works, but elements of the works merged together in time and no one could remember which parts came from which sketches.  The haunted house comedy as we know it today is derived from these frightfully amusing playlets. 
     
    I will tell you what I can about each of these routines.  I will skip "The Ghost in a Pawnshop" because I discussed this routine in a prior post.  Let us move on, instead, to "What Happened in Room 44?"  The premise of this routine is not particularly funny.  A hotel guest is put into a room where a man was murdered and is startled by repeated appearances of the murdered man's ghost.  The minstrel version of the skit had an extra plot detail.  The hotel proprietor purposely puts the black (blackface) comic in the room because having a black man sleep overnight in the room is supposed to remove the room of its murder-scene bedevilment.

    "The Three O'Clock Train," which was written by minstrel performer Geo. H. Coes, cast the Comic in the role of a traveler passing through town.  He has to catch the three o'clock train the next day and he needs to find a place where he can spend the night.  He meets a man (The Straight Man), who offers him a place to stay.  Unfortunately, the Comic soon learns that the offer has a dire catch.
    Straight: I've had the greatest time trying to find a nice house to live in.  I've hunted this city all over, and the only place I could find to suit me is this place; and now I've come here, the landlord tells me that the house is haunted; says there are ghosts walking around here at midnight; says the house hasn't been occupied for the last six years on account of it.  Now it's just the house I want.  I don't believe in ghosts.  I don't believe there was ever such a thing as a ghost.  So he told me I could stay here until twelve o'clock to-night, and if there was no ghost come, I could have the house for nothing for six months.  So I'll just sit down here and amuse myself with my banjo until that time, and if nothing comes along, why I've got a good thing as I want.
    Coes, a talented musician, included the banjo into the routine so that a song could be introduced to further enliven the proceedings.  The title of this article is a lyric from that song. 

    The Comic believes that the banjo-strumming Straight Man is being too nonchalant about the situation.  "Don't understand?" he asks. "There's ghosts — spirits — hobgoblins — Beelzebubs  —  demons — and everything floating around here every night at midnight."  The Straight Man offers to give the Comic half of the house for nothing if he stays there with him until twelve o'clock.
    Comic: Well, if these ghosts come, will you tackle them first?

    Straight: Certainly, I will.

    Comic: I'll take one hack at 'em anyway.
    While the Straight Man plays his song, a horrible noise comes from the next room.  The Comic jumps, kicks his chair back, and trembles violently.
    Straight: Say, what's the matter with you?

    Comic: Did you hear that noise ?

    Straight: What noise?

    Comic: Something went boo — oo — oo — that way.

    Straight: Nonsense ! How can anybody make any noise when the house is empty?

    Comic: I wish it was empty; I wish I was out of it.

    Straight: Come on, sit down.

    Comic (pulling back): What time did you say the three o'clock train went out?

    Straight (pulls him in the chair): I never see a fellow get as scared as you.

    Comic: I know, I got ears.  I heard him sure.

    Straight: Now I'll sing the second verse.

    Comic: Yes, it will be worse for us if we stay here.

    (The Straight Man sings.  Gong sounds outside.)

    Comic: Oh, don't.  Let's git out of here.  Come on.

    (The Straight Man goes on singing.  While he is singing the chorus, the Ghost comes from left hand side and stands.  When the Comic sees him he jumps up, this time very much frightened, with one hand pointed left and the other up, shaking very violently.)

    Straight: Say, what is the matter with you ?

    Comic: I seen him!

    Straight: See what?

    Comic: Ghost!

    Straight: Nonsense!

    Comic: Sixteen foot high!

    Straight: Why, you're crazy!

    Comic: All dressed up in white!

    Straight: I tell you, you don't know what you are talking about.

    Comic: Had horns on his head.

    Straight: Oh, get out; you're frightened at nothing.

    Comic: Went out through the keyhole.

    Straight: Come on, don't be so foolish.

    Comic: Don't you smell the brimstone?

    Straight: Nothing of the kind.  Come on and sit down.

    Comic: Don't you s'pose I know when I see him — great big fellow, blue fire coming out of his eyes, nose, and ears, and mouth.  I know I saw him easy enough.

    Straight: Oh, you think you saw a ghost.  Now 'twas only imagination.

    Comic: I don't know whether it was him or not, but I see him.

    (The Ghost enters the room and taps the Straight Man on the shoulder; he sees him and runs off; then it goes right of Tenant, who sees him; then his hat flies off, wig goes up, general fright, noise, gong, etc.)
    Coes added the following note at the end of the script: "The business of this act must be as natural as possible, and the actors must govern themselves accordingly.  It is a good act, and when done well, never fails to convulse the audience.  It should be rehearsed well before putting it on the stage, as the business is very particular."


    It is probably best to start our discussion of "Over the River, Charlie!" with a explanation of the scene's title.  The two lead characters, Jake and Charlie, have gotten trapped in a haunted house.  Jake is a blubbering coward.  He becomes helplessly terrified after seeing a knife-wielding ghost.  He is sure that, at any moment, the ghost is going to return to "scalp" him.  He refuses to be left alone, but his friend Charlie needs to step out of the room.
    Jake: What if something goes wrong? 

    Charlie: I won't be far away.  You just yell out "Over the river, Charlie" and I'll be RIGHT HERE.
    So, whenever something frightens him, Jake screams, "Over the River, Charlie!"  The routine was at one time committed to paper by a writer named O. E. Young.  Excerpts can be found online.  In time, the title and the catchphrase was shortened to "Oh, Charlie!" 

    The highlight of "Over the River, Charlie!" was a scene in which Jake observes a candle, untouched by human hand, move back and forth across a table.  In another key scene, the ghost creeps up unnoticed behind Jake and Charlie.  The ghost taps Charlie on the shoulder.  Charlie turns and, terrified by what he sees, he silently exits the stage.  Jake, unaware of the situation, continues an argument that he was having with Charlie.  The ghost speaks up in a somber tone that Jake fails to recognize. 

    Jake: You got a cold or sumpin, Boss?  Your voice sure changed sudden-like.  (Jake slowly looks around at the ghost, then runs offstage with the ghost riding on his back.)
         
    The ghost was not at all scary by today's standards.  He was usually a man wearing pale make-up and a fright wig. 

    The Gorilla (1927)

    The stalking ghost scene became the most popular setpiece in haunted house comedies.  It evolved decade after decade until it reached perfect absurdity.  The comedian is being trailed by a fiendish figure, but he thinks that it's his friend behind him.  He doesn't want the two of them to get separated in the dark so he suggests that his friend take hold of his hand.  The fiend obligingly takes hold of his hand and is now able to follow the comedian even more closely than before.  This bit of business was a highlight of Ralph Spence's 1925 Broadway play "The Gorilla."  Two years later, the film version of the play established this as a stock situation in funny haunted house films.  But the routine undoubtedly goes back to "Over the River, Charlie!" and "Razor Jim."  Razor Jim distinguished himself from Jake and Charlie's ghost by the fact that he crept up on unsuspecting house guests with a ready straight razor.


    This was one of the earliest routines to was make the transition to films.  The above image shows an early version of the routine performed by Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan in The Spook Raisers (1915).

    Harry Ritz and Poe the Gorilla (Art Miles) in The Gorilla (1939)

    One of my favorite versions of this routine was performed by the wonderful Harry Ritz in the 1939 remake of The Gorilla.


    The Three Stooges did several versions of this routine.


    At the end of "Charlie," Jake is captured by a mad scientist who assumes that he is a corpse and is prepared to dissect him.  This is the way that the scene is described in the script:
    Dr. Kelly: Aha - alone at last!  (He lifts the cover from the face and jumps back in surprise.)  I do believe half the proof is right here, right now, that I was right.  The corpse is turning black already!  Dear me!  This means that I can't wait till tomorrow.  Let's see, I guess I'll start at this end.  (Indicates the head.  The doctor turns around and bends over to pick up a tool.  As he does, Jake hastily switches ends.  The doctor raises up cover and sees the feet where the head had been seconds before.)  Dear me!  I've worried so much over this I'm afraid I'm losing my mind.  I could have sworn the head was here moments ago.  Oh, well, I can work on his feet first, it really doesn't matter.  (He turns, bends over to exchange a tool, and Jake switches ends again.  Doctor sees that the feet are gone and the head is back.  He walks towards the footlights.)  Something is very strange here."

    The critics remembered the old routines and they frequently mentioned them in their reviews.  A connection between "Over the River Charlie!" and Bebe Daniels' 1928 feature comedy Feel My Pulse (1928) was made by Exhibitors Herald.  The critic wrote of Feel My Pulse, "It proceeds to place [Daniels] in a supposed sanitarium that is really operated as a base for rum-runners.  It continues by modernizing 'Over the River Charlie' and a lot of other good old medicine show acts and finishes in a hand-to-hand battle by the entire company a la Sennett, Chaplin and the rest of the slapstickers."  Feel My Pulse has no moving candles or stalking ghosts.  But it is similar to at least one variation of "Over the River, Charlie" in which the haunted house turns out to be a base of operation for criminals, who have only been pretending to be ghosts to scare off interlopers.


    A critic with Motion Picture Herald pointed out similarities between "Over the River, Charlie" and RKO's whodunit spoof Super-Sleuth (1937).  The similarities were obvious.  Mark Waltz, an Imdb critic, had no trouble identifying the various stock gags.  He wrote, "There's really little amusement in this. . . until the ending confrontation in a haunted house where trapped doors and secret entrances keep the characters disappearing and reappearing."


    An Oakland Tribune critic, Wood Soanes, discussed this matter at length in an article dated June 16, 1939.  He wrote: "Gracie Allen is matching her nitwits against those of the Ritz Brothers on the screen of the Fox Oakland this week, and while there is more suavity to Miss Allen's The Gracie Allen Murder Case, there is certainly more guffawing in the Ritz Brothers'The Gorilla.  The two productions even have one gag in common, a ghost-trailing sequence that first came to life back in the days of the 'box acts' when comedians didn't bother, because of complete unacquaintance with their A-B-C's to commit gags to paper.  It stems either from 'Razor Jim' or 'Over the River, Charlie,' pretty hilarious in the [1880s]."

    Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940)

    Roscoe Williams wrote of Columbia's 1940 comedy Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940) in Motion Picture Daily, "Dipping deeply into the 'haunted house' reservoir of comedy resources, reliable since the 'Over the River Charlie' of medicine show days, this sixth release in the 'Blondie' series hits a new high in entertainment value."  The Bumsteads find themselves in a spooky house with revolving walls and hidden passages.  A body falls out of a closet.  A maniac with a knife stalks the blundering Dagwood (Arthur Lake) through dark corridors.


    The haunted house comedy reached a high point with Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost (1941).  Roscoe Williams (again) wrote in Motion Picture Daily, "Hold That Ghost is, with few modernizations and no trimmings, the classic skit of the medicine-show era, known variously as 'Over the River Charlie,''Oh Charlie,' etc., which had ghosts shuttling in and out of a haunted house or hotel to the consternation of the comedians and, of course, the onlookers.  Hold That Ghost has more ghosts, all phoney, and more shuttlings, all timed to a nicety, than your grandpappy ever dreamed of."


    Hold That Ghost, with its "Oh, Chuck!" cries, its moving candles, its shadowy gangsters and its trailing ghost, relied on those old routines to a large extent.  The working title of the film was, in fact, Oh, Charlie!  But, in all likelihood, no one before had ever done this material better.



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    The visually surreal world of silent film comedy enthusiastically welcomed irregularly proportioned actors.  The people who cast these films kept a sharp lookout for actors who were very tall, or very short, or very fat, or very thin.  The big girls in the casting pool were especially useful.  For proof of this, look no further than the extensive filmographies of outsized funny ladies like Babe London and Blanche Payson.

    Babe London

    This world got even more surreal and more exaggerated when filmmakers produced adaptations of comic strips, which were meant to provide a larger-than-life representation of the real world. 

    Universal Pictures adapted Sidney Smith's "The Gumps" comic strip into a film series in 1923.

    Fontaine Fox's “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip provided a distorted funhouse mirror version of the small suburban town of Pelham, which was located 19 miles outside of Manhattan in Westchester County.  The comic strip, which was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country, produced extensive merchandise, including wind-up toys and a board game.


     

    In 1920, the Betzwood film studio (formerly Lubin) set out to adapt the comic strip into a series of live-action shorts.  The comic strip had a large cast of characters, including The Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang, Mickey (Himself) McGuire, Taeny Thompkins (the World's Smallest Football Player), Cynthia Snoop, Aunt Eppie Hogg (The Fattest Woman in Three Counties) and Little Woo-Woo Wortle, but the series was specifically designed to focus on two characters.

     
    John Weber, blogger and comics enthusiast, wrote, “By far, the most prominent of Toonerville's denizens was The Skipper, possibly the most hair-raising driver in all toondom.  What he drove, The Toonerville Trolley. . ., was perhaps toondom's most hair-raising conveyance. . .”   The trolley had to be fierce to travel the treacherously steep path up and down Mount Misery.


    Hired to play the grizzled motorman of the valiant old trolley was a veteran vaudeville comic named Dan Mason.


    The second character to play a prominent role in the series was the Powerful Katrinka.  Eckhardt identified the character as follows: “Katrinka. . . was a hefty and innocent creature who seemed oblivious to the extent of her own physical strength.”


    Wilna Hervey was certainly a big girl.  She was as tall as Payson and as heavy as London.  When she showed up at her agent’s office to meet Fox, the clever cartoonist who had created the eccentric population of Toonerville had no doubt that Wilna would be perfect for the role of Katrinka.


    The series went into production accompanied by a fair amount of excitement and fanfare.  In their determination to attract an audience to the new series, the film company invested a considerable sum of money to staging a train wreck, the details of which were widely distributed to newspapers.  Vehicular mayhem remained a prominent element of the series.  In the films, as in the comic strips, the Skipper drove in a frenzy to get his rickety trolley to the train station in time to pick up arriving commuters.


    Hervey was still fairly new to acting, but Mason became her mentor.  As it turned out, the actress got the biggest laughs in the series.  Sight gags were designed to emphasize her character's superhuman strength.  She could toss a telephone pole, twist metal pipes with her bare hands, and rip trolley tracks out of the ground.  Hervey brought her own childish innocence, boundless enthusiasm and captivating charm to the role.


    When the Betzwood studio abruptly closed, the series continued under a new name at a new studio.  Toonerville became Plum Center.  Skipper became Pop Tuttle.  Katrinka became Tillie.  The old trolley became an old bus.  Tillie was made the depot agent, which gave Wilna a larger role in the films.  Tillie was always acting as Pop's savior whenever the bus operator got into trouble.  Take, for instance, Pop Tuttle's Polecat Plot.  Pop is preparing for a race against a rival bus owner, Nosey Nichols, when Nosey loosens a nut on a wheel of Pop's bus.  When the wheel falls off, Tillie keeps Pop in the race by using a wheelbarrow to support the broken wheel.  Let’s look, too, at Pop Tuttle, Detekative.  After earning a degree from a correspondence detective school, Pop is confident that he can track down a thief responsible for a crime epidemic in the community. But the thief proves to be more than Pop can handle and, in the end, Pop must rely on Tillie breaking him free of his own handcuffs and using her brute force to overpower and capture the criminal.



    While working on the series, Wilna developed a close relationship with Mason's daughter Nan.  After the series ended, Wilna moved with Nan to a vibrant art community in Woodstock.  The couple established a farm called Treasure Farm, where they worked hard to develop themselves as artists.  Their winning charm, charitable activities and outgoing personalities made them local celebrities.  The women became best known for the flamboyant parties they arranged to raise money for local causes.  People loved being around the couple because the love and enthusiasm that they conveyed was contagious.


    It could not be said that life was always simple and easy for Wilna and Nan.  An ebullient approach to life does not always have the best outcome.  Their lives were, as one book critic aptly described it, haphazard.  But, besides being resourceful, they had friends and family who were always willing to help them through rough patches. 

    Their story is inspirational because, as Eckhardt has said, these were two people who "followed their bliss." They led full and happy lives.  The couple devoted themselves to art, travel, the occasional enterprise and, most of all, each other.  The book is mainly a story of love and friendship between two unconventional women.


    The passion and devotion that Eckhardt feels toward his subjects is evident from the first page to the last.  The author provides a tender and vivid portrait of Wilna and Nan.  The beautifully designed book enriches this portrait with many illustrations that showcase the women's paintings and photographs. 


    The comedy fans that frequent this site will probably be interested to know that Wilna got into a tussle on screen with the Three Stooges.  Wilna was more than a match for the Stooges, who soon found themselves being lifted and tossed through the air by the Amazonian young woman.  The rowdy encounter occurred in Pain in the Pullman (1936).  The team’s rough style of comedy was not to the actress' liking.


     Click here to order.


    Additional notes


    Other film adaptions of the “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip were produced.  McGuire, the town bully, was a favorite of the comic strip’s fans.  Weber wrote, “Mickey was the terror of the town, a bully who fought the local boys, teachers and truant officers.  He could show up most anywhere, but never seemed to have a home to go to.”  Beginning in 1927, the character was featured in a popular long-running series starring Mickey Rooney.


    The Van Beuren animation studio was clearly influenced by the Betzwood films when they turned out "Toonerville Trolley" cartoons in the late 1930s.


     


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    The long lost second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century (1927) has been rediscovered by film historian Jon Mirsalis.  The film is well-known among comedy fans for the sloppily epic pie fight that serves as its climax.  Most of the pie fight had been preserved earlier as part of Robert Youngson’s 1957 compilation film The Golden Age of Comedy, but now we have the pie fight in its entirety along with an additional eight or nine minutes of footage.  Rejoice, lovers of pie comedy!  

    Stage entertainers came to realize early on that an actor getting hit in the face with a pie was guaranteed to amuse an audience.  Harry Bernard was required as part of his vaudeville act to routinely smash a custard pie into his partner's face.  According to Variety, the gag drew big laughs when Bernard appeared at San Francisco’s Lyceum Theatre in 1907.

    Harry Bernard in Any Old Port! (1932).  Courtesy of http://www.lordheath.com/.

    It has been made clear in my examination of comedy history that this type of humor has not always been favored by everyone.  In 1910, a vaudeville comedian named J. A. Murphy wrote a series of satirical articles for Variety about the trials and tribulations of a small town theater manager.  Murphy's fictitious theatre manager, Adam Sowerguy, expressed his grievances in letters to a booking agent, who he addressed only as "Mike."  Adam informed Mike that he was issuing a ban on pie-throwing comedians.  He pleaded, "Don't send me no more pie actors, they mess up the place too much."

    The rest of us maintain our love for a good pie fight, which is a fun way to release aggression.  Broadway producer Abe Erlanger was ruthless in the way that he conducted business.  In 1905, he made bitter enemies of the Shubert brothers by refusing to abide by a contract that he had negotiated with middle brother Sam, who had recently died in a train wreck.  Erlanger stated, plainly, that he was under no obligation to keep to an agreement "with a dead man."  The surviving brothers, Lee and Jacob, were appalled.  The Shuberts devoted much of the next six years to breaking the vise-like grip that Erlanger's booking monopoly had on theatre operators.  This level of hate and annihilation can lead to bloodshed and mayhem.  But how did Erlanger react in the end?  In 1911, Erlanger's friends and business associates gathered to celebrate the producer's birthday.  A Variety reporter wrote, "After the cigars, it is said, the pictures of the Messrs. Shubert were tacked upon the wall, when the diners took turns in winning a prize offered to the one who could hit them by a straight throw with a lemon pie."  This story depicts pie-throwing as a gentlemanly form of aggression.

    This outtake from Dr. Strangelove (1964) suggests that a pie fight is far less aggressive than a nuclear war.

    The pie-in-the-face gag was adopted by film comedians in the early years of film.  In my book FunnyParts, I was able to trace the gag back to a film made in 1905.  More pies were employed in the execution of film comedy within the next few years.  A Moving Picture World critic wrote in his description of Biograph's Love Microbe (1907), "[T]he querulous husband kicks about the food placed before him, criticising vehemently his wife's cooking.  Patient, amiable wifey retaliates by pushing a blackberry pie into his anger-distorted countenance."  Kalem’s 1907 short Woman, Cruel Woman featured another early example of pie-in-the-face comedy.  A cook is exhausted with the pranks of the baker's son.  In a fit of anger, she dumps a bucket of water over the boy’s head.  The boy is enraged.  The Moving Picture World reported that the boy gathers "a goodly share of pumpkin pie in one hand" and smears the gooey mess into the cook's face.  The magazine concluded, "[W]hile she is getting the luscious pie out of eyes and mouth, Baker-boy vanishes, filled with the joy of revenge for the cook's former cruelty.”

    The lowly servants were always hurling food at each other in bourgeois domestic comedies.  In Keep Quiet (1912), the master of house deigns to enter the kitchen to break up a fight that has broken out among the help.  He arrives just in time to cross the path of a pie that the cook has sent hurling across the room at her adversary.  On cue, the pie hits the master squarely and messily in his face.  In Topsy-Turvy Sweedie (1914), Sweedie (Wallace Beery) has no sooner started a new job as a domestic cook then she gets into a free-for-all battle with other members of the kitchen staff.  According to Moving Picture World, Sweedie engages in “pie throwing and rolling-pin combats.”

    As we learned from Keep Quiet, a steady aim is required to be a pie-thrower.  The 1914 Crystal comedy Getting Vivian Married involved a young man, Charley (Charles De Forrest), who is having a hard time making a good impression on his girlfriend’s father.  During a shopping outing, he becomes infuriated to see another man flirting with his girlfriend.  He attempts to throw a pie at the man, but he misses and splatters his girlfriend's father with the pie instead.

    Pie-throwing became a staple in the Keystone comedies.  At first, the critics were amused.  They debated which was the funniest pie - custard pie, blackberry pie or lemon meringue pie.  But, after three years of this, critics had all they could take of the pies and went on a campaign to rid the motion picture industry of this gooey scourge.  Custard pies came to be in their minds part of a maelstrom of low comedy.  Exhibitors Herald wrote of the Ben Turpin comedy Is Any Waitress Safe? (1917), "Another typical Sennett comedy, full of slap-stick antics, pie throwing, vulgarity, and the various other elements which go to make up these comedies."  Critics rallied behind comedian Eddie Foy when the celebrated entertainer walked out on a contract with Keystone because he refused to take a pie in the face.  Many producers were willing to appease the critics.  A Variety editor wrote in 1915, "Nowadays the bigger the mess in comedy scenes the bigger the laughs, yet the days of custard pie throwing, hose drenching, whitewash soaking, chases through mud and the like are numbered, the film makers say."

    It had become an overdone formula and the public didn't want to see it anymore.  This was at a time that the movie house manager sat with the audience to get their reaction and listened patiently to what his patrons had to say before they left the theatre.  The time of the pie comedy had passed.  The message was clear from the paying public: no more pies.

         
    Look at this ad for Harold Lloyd’s series.  The copy reads, "A custard pie and a pretty girl or two in a bathing suit do not make a comedy." 


    This ad for Larry Semon’s The Bakery reads, “Real fun in a real bakery – and not a custard pie thrown!”


    In welcoming Max Linder to America, the Moving Picture World noted that Linder’s "art as a comedian" did not depend on "his aim as a twirler of custard pies."

    Al Christie, a prominent producer of comedy films, was glad to see Hollywood moving away from pie fights.  He told Moving Picture World in 1917, "The unexpected propulsion of a custard pie may provoke a shout of laughter, but the tribulations of sane, human characters, and the humorous exposition of their frailties are the basis of true comedy."

    The frailties of human nature was of no interest to another prominent producer, Henry Lehrman.  Lehrman was determined to outdo his former boss, Mack Sennett, when he established the L-KO comedy series.  The L-KO comedy Surf Scandal (1917) reflected Lehrman’s ambitions.  L-KO's publicist promised that this comedy was “full of thrills and speedy comedy sensations."  Moving Picture World wrote of "special excitement being created by a rock-blast that required two hundred pounds of dynamite to accomplish."  The film, which Motion Picture News called a "timely hot-weather feature," provided a big finish in the form of an extravagant pie fight at a beach.  As could be expected, not everyone was thrilled to see a pie fight elevated to a grand scale.  It was too much of a bad thing.  Moving Picture World grumpily described the "pie-throwing episode" as "somewhat overdone." 

    So, what could this critic and critics like him have thought of The Battle of the Century?  It is important to understand that The Battle of the Century was unlike any other pie comedy that had come before.


    Stan Laurel initially resisted the idea of including a pie fight in the film.  Film historian John McCabe wrote, "Pies, after all, were pies.  That was early Sennett, mid-Chaplin, and late everybody.  This was 1927, an enlightened age.  Despite this general reaction, Stan pondered the idea and brought forth what he hoped would be a variation good enough for consideration."

    "Look," said Laurel, "if we make a pie picture – let’s make a pie picture to end all pie pictures.  Let’s give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies."


    Laurel was determined to redefine and resolve the pie comedy.  He said, "We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically.  We made every one of the pies count.  A well-dressed man strolling casually down the avenue, struck squarely in the face by a large pastry, would not proceed at once to gnash his teeth, wave his arms in the air and leap up and down.  His first reaction, it is reasonable to suppose, would be one of numb disbelief.  Then embarrassment, and a quick survey of the damage done to his person.  Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him; if he saw another pie close at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it and let it fly."

    This was no longer about the mere propulsion of a pie.  We now saw what Christie spoke about - "the tribulations of sane, human characters."  Time was made to show the reaction of the custard-splattered victim.  The audience senses their embarrassment and their indignation.  Film historian Richard Bann identified this as a new type of slapstick – a "slow slapstick." 

    The scene starts with Laurel and Hardy getting into a pie fight with a pie vendor (Charlie Hall).  Laurel said, "Gradually, one by one, other people get into the argument until finally the entire street, a full block, is pie-crazy.  Everybody is pie-throwing happy.  The camera goes up to take a panorama view of all these people throwing, throwing, throwing.  There are pies thrown into a dentist’s office, in windows, out of them.  Nothing but pies – thousands of them."

     
    Novelist Henry Miller, a fan of The Battle of the Century, called this scene "the ultimate in burlesque."  Pamela Hutchinson, a Guardian editor, aptly identified the scene as an "all-out epic splatterfest."


    Additional note

    The Battle of the Century was not the pie picture to end all pie pictures because, immediately afterwards, there came at least one weak imitation.  The film, which stars Jimmy Aubrey, is called Keep Smiling (1928).


    That same year, Marion Davies threw a pie in Show People.


    It must be noted that Laurel and Hardy, themselves, returned to the pie fight within months after the release of The Battle of the Century.  Here are Stan and Ollie in Their Purple Moment (1928).


    Of course, the Three Stooges later became the undisputed masters of the pie fight.

     


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    Billy Gilbert spent the 1930s making memorably funny appearances in nearly 200 films, but the actor missed his vaudeville days and he felt the urge to return to performing before a live audience.  Gilbert was featured in a theatre revue called "America, I Love You," which debuted in Pittsburgh in April, 1942.  Billboard reported,
    "[Gilbert] earns his pay.  Garbed as a cook, with his wife [Ella] as a deft foil, Gilbert dialogs for 15 minutes to plenty of laughs.  His plays on words, and his gestural recipes for making beans and Boston cream pie are classic.  His finale, naturally, is big traditional sneezing turn and the house loved it.  For encore, he sings 'Sheik of Araby' as he did in the film Tin Pan Alley, and if you weren't looking at him and saw his huge bulk, you'd swear he was a sylph-shaped, dreamy-eyed, dusky band crooner."
    Gilbert must have enjoyed his comeback to the stage because he made stage roles his priority after 1945.


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    Arthur G. Moss and Edward Frye, an African American comedy team billed as "A Couple of Blackbirds," were a popular, original and influential act for more than two decades.  As early as 1910, the men started to receive enthusiastic notices for their efforts.  The team became well-known for their clever, quick-paced dialogue.  Variety called them "colored conversationalists."

    Their acclaim came at first from a skit called “Sense and Nonsense,” an act that got underway with Frye asking Moss an absurd and impossible question.  This premise persisted in their subsequent routines.  After seeing one of their shows in May of 1918, a Variety critic wrote, "Their skit is simply a volley of questions and answers, and it is a lot of 'nut' stuff." 

    Early in his stage career, Moe Howard adapted a Moss and Frye sketch to be performed by him and brother Shemp.  He would, as Frye did with Moss, confuse Shemp with a maddeningly preposterous series of questions.  Among the questions that Moe later remembered were:
    What is the size of a grey suit?

    Do you think it's as warm in the summer as it is in the country?

    If three dimes is thirty cents, how much is a bunch of nickels?

    If you went to a railroad station and bought a ticket for three dollars, where are you going?
    This was to one critic “rambling nonsense,” but audiences loved it.

    A surprisingly sparse amount of information is available on these comedians. But we can gain some insight on their career by examining their frequent newspaper notices.  

    Variety, September 1913.  Review of appearance at the Union Square Theater:
    "[Moss and Frye] put over some corking good dialogue beside doing some fine songs, which pleased, and they retired while the applause was coming from all parts of the house."
    Variety, July 1915.  Review of appearance at McVickers Theatre, Chicago:
    "Moss and Frye deservedly pulled down the hit of the show.  These two comedy fellows have a good string of patter."
     
     
    Variety, July, 1917.  Review of appearance at the American Roof theatre:
    "Moss and Frye, colored, started off with lots of laughs, with their nonsensical, ridiculous crossfire, which is artistically delivered through the idea of the two men talking at the same time, which is as it occurs in actual life.  This strips it of theatricalism and makes it more natural.  Then they spoil things by rendering a couple of songs totally foreign to their characterizations.  The men should either get a song that fits the characters or extend their talk and quit on that."
    The New York Clipper, March 19, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye, with their 'How High Is Up?' and 'How Come?' nonsense, scored the laughing hit of the bill."
    Variety, March 1919.  Review of appearance at Colonial Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye won the honors of the afternoon with some nonsensical kidding that caused uproarious laughter.  'How Wide Is Narrow' is one of the new expressions."
    Variety, March, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
    "It's most unusual for a colored team to grace the Palace show.  There isn't another colored team that can deliver as Moss and Frye did in the next to closing spot.  The series of impossible questions so drolly delivered and calling for no answers, brought forth hearty laughter.  Then to make it doubly sure the boys showed something in harmony singing, something too, that is rarely heard these days, even from real colored minstrels.  For a finish they sang 'Some Day I'll Make You Glad' and the house insisted on a repeat, even though it was eleven o'clock."
    The New York Clipper, April 2, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Orpheum Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye registered one of the big hits of the bin with a series of nonsensical remarks and a few ballads, sung in pleasing fashion.  The talking, delivered with a sort of mock solemnity, and not possessing a semblance of sense, was a riot of laughter.  They are one of the funniest pairs in vaudeville."
    The New York Clipper, April 30, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye have added some new nonsensical bits to their comedy talk and the new material hit the mark with unfailing regularity.  In its present shape the Moss and Frye act is one of the biggest laugh producing offerings in vaudeville.  A new song was also heard in the act, but it needs more rehearsing, as the men stumbled in the words and made one or two mistakes in the harmony as well."
    Variety, May 1919.  Review of appearance at the Harlem Opera House:
    "Moss and Frye, with their nonsensical questions, scored their usual hit.  This clever pair always puts in a lot of extempore stuff and uses a few of the old stand-bys."
    Variety, August 6, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Bushwick Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye had no trouble in keeping the stream of merriment aflowing and got their full quota of laughs despite all the comedy that had preceded.  These lads keep adding new gags to their act all the time, for they had about six new ones in it on Monday night.  The foolish questions put by Frye to his partner would move even a deaf and dumb man to laughter.  Their singing was also very good."
    The New York Clipper, August 20, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye are not telling about 'How High Is Up?' but they have a score or more of clever nonsensical sayings, the greater part of which aroused all sorts of laughter and applause."
    The New York Clipper, September 3, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Colonial Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye are a colored team of that comedy caliber which will always fetch laughter, no matter how often they have been seen before.  They know the value of fresh material and with the exception of a few old stand-bys, the two are always putting over new gags.  It has been said that, as an extempore colored comedian, Frye is in a class with Bert Williams."
    Variety, April, 1921.  Review of appearance at San Francisco Orpheum Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye went over exceptionally big.  They have talk entirely new here, and with good harmony singing scored a hit next to closing."
    Variety, May, 1921.  Review of appearance at Chicago’s Majestic Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye now interrupt their routine for a little harmony, then back to their talk, and then a big harmony number.  They have also added several new daffy dills that measure up to 'How High Is Up?' They proved good showmen, making it short but sweet doing 12 minutes to big applause."
    Variety, June, 1922.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
    "At entrance the comedian took exception to his tan colored partner calling him ‘the Sheik,’ the team then going into their inverted dialog.  The billing uses 'How high is up' and 'How come,' but neither expression was expression was present in the chatter.  The colored team's harmony warbling without orchestral aid was an excellent contribution, and as ever one of the strong bits."
    Variety, October 1922.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
    "[Moss and Frye] are back in vaudeville after an unsuccessful try with their 'Dumb Luck' colored revue.  The comedian's nonsensical hypothetical questions are as laugh productive as ever, the straight foiling faithfully and sincerely."
    In October, 1923, a black-owned company named Seminole Films cast the team as airplane pilots in a short comedy called How High is Up?.  The film was directed by Chatty Graham at the Lincoln Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

    Variety, July, 1925.  Review of appearance at the 5th Avenue Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye, colored comedians, woke them up in succeeding spot with a line of complicated chatter that was delivered in an excruciatingly humorous manner and some acceptable harmonizing.  The comedy in this turn is gleaned through the ebony-hued comic bewildering the straight with nonsensical queries and answering them before the other chap can reply.  The act finished to big returns."
    Variety, November, 1925.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
    "Moss and Frye scored consistently with their seemingly ad lib routine.  An obvious gag is inserted in the talk here and there, but the body of the crossover sounds unstudied, the secret of the turn.  Close harmony sent them away safely and also demanded an encore."
    Variety, January, 1927.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
    "Of the standard stand-bys, there were Moss and Frye — always good and always welcome, with their own style and manner still new but with a lot of material that could stand replacing.  With them just changing gags doesn't refurnish their stuff — they have to hit off on a new line of talk if not a new kind of talk to seem different than they have been through these many years.  They got their encore bid just the same, and amused enough to call for it."
     
    Moss and Frye produced several recordings for Pathé Records in 1927.


    Motion Picture News, March 12, 1928.  Review of appearance at the Capitol Theatre:
    "Exceptionally big crowds were enjoyed at the Capitol Theatre, the main feature apparently being Moss and Frye, ‘The original blackbirds,’ in the stage presentation 'How High Is Up?', a Fanchon & Marco offering, which caused a great deal of merriment."
    In 1928, the team sued Film Booking Office for using their expression "How High Is Up?" as the title of a “Three Fatties” comedy.

    Moss and Frye starred in a short film, What Do I Care?, in 1929.

    Billboard, February 20, 1930.  Review of appearance at the Eighty-Sixth Street Theatre:
    "These veteran colored comedians, well known for their 'How High is Up?,' have dispensed with a new stock of droll buffoonery that even greater entertainment value.  It is more than mere clowning, possessing that quaint and subtle humor that get them laughs in wholesale jolts.  They have tagged their present vehicle, 'A Mixture of New and Old Things.'
    “They still adhere to the question and answer antics; Frye's ludicrous philosophy and Moss 'wisdom' make for hilarious comedy.  At no time is the fun forced.  It flows like water from the lips of these talented comedians.  The audience ate up every bit of their rib-tickling nonsense.”
    Variety, October 1931.  Review of appearance at the Lyric Music Hall:
    "Moss and Frye goaled them here with the same line of patter they have been using for years.  Team hasn't anything new to offer, but what they have was liked."
    The team of Moss and Frye ended with Moss’ death in 1932.  Frye quickly teamed with Hamtree Harrington for a night club revue called "The Tree of Hope."  But, unfortunately, the new partnership didn’t last long.    

    Frye was featured in the musical comedy "Swing It," which opened at the Adelphi Theatre on July 22, 1937.  Variety reported, "At one point the chief comic, captain of a Mississippi boat, is played by Edward Frye, uses some of his former vaudeville material.  More of it might have been more "effective.  There is one mention of 'How High Is Up' (Moss and Frye).  Frye, by the way, does well with [the song] 'Blah, Blah, Blah.'"

    It is troubling to me as a comedy fan that these funny entertainers were so easily forgotten by the general public.  Their act came to be appropriated by others.  Moran and Mack, a popular blackface comedy team, copied a few of their bits.  Moss and Frye routines later turned up with some regularity on the Amos and Andy radio show.  Joey Faye admitted to developing his own version of Moss and Frye’s "Handful of Nickels" routine.  A number of Abbott and Costello routines, including "You're forty, she's ten," are based on old Moss and Frye routines.

    I present this article in the hope that it will provide at least a slight acknowledgement of Moss and Frye’s contribution to comedy.


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    Seven Bald Pates, a comedy from the Christie Film Company, had a unique and interesting plot.  On his wedding day, Bobby Vernon learns from a friend that he is being sought by a process server.  His friend warns him that the process server is a bald man.  Bobby, who is preoccupied with last-minute wedding details, is unaware that he has dropped his marriage license.  A kindly bald man picks up the license and offers it to Bobby, but Bobby gets one glance of the man's shiny skull and flees as fast as he can.  During the wedding, Bobby's friends repeatedly hustle bald-headed guests into a back room and securely hog-tie them to make sure they keep out of the way.  Motion Picture News reported, "[T]he action is fast and often furious when the real representative of the law arrives and starts his search."


    The film was co-written by Frank R. Conklin, who was one of Christie’s most prolific writers from 1919 to 1932.


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    I came across a few interesting scenes this week.

    The torn trousers bit is ratcheted up to a manic level by director Larry Semon for Vitagraph's Rips and Rushes (1917).  The film’s title is accurate labeling as the film devotes most of its running time to rips and rushes.

     
    Wait, here’s another rip and further rushes.


    It becomes obvious from these clips that the film’s star, Jimmy Aubrey, was a master of excessive mugging.  Perhaps, an even better title for the film would have been Rips, Rushes and Overacting.


     The funhouse mirror scene, which was most memorably performed by Harold Lloyd in Number, Please? (1920) and the Three Stooges in Don't Throw that Knife (1951), turned up in an installment of "The Gumps" series called Oh, What a Day! (1923).


    Monty Banks’ Oil's Well (1923) possibly shows the first wedgie scene in motion picture history.


    Here are a few magazine pages that caught my attention.


    Finally, we have Stan Laurel enacting the "holding up an unconscious woman" bit in The Jitterbugs (1943).


     Happy Fourth of July!


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  • 07/06/15--20:15: Ha, Ha, Boo!

  • Today, we will lift the cobwebs off old news journals and examine by the flickering light of a tapered, bone-white candle a few of Hollywood's little known scare comedies. 

    Funny spooks and strange doings were evident in the earliest days of film.  At first, the film titles could be plain.  Take, for example, a 1907 film in which an old miser wears a sheet and emits hideous noises to convince the townsfolk that a house is haunted.   The film, produced by Independent Moving Pictures Company, was simply called The Haunted House.  But the title of a haunted house comedy became more original and amusing in the coming years.  Possibly the best title belonged to a 1922 short comedy called The House of a Thousand Trembles.  Another amusing title, a play on an old war term, is They Shall Not Pass Out (1929).  An intriguing title was The Unemployed Ghost (1931).  Film Daily reported that Tom Howard starred in this "creepy yarn," which featured "a lot of skeleton and mysterious clutching claw business."  The film’s twist, which was plainly revealed by the title, was that Howard's new ghostly acquaintance bemoans his inability to find work haunting houses.


    The 1909 play "The Ghost Breaker," written by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, had a major influence on the "Dark Old House" horror films that became popular in the 1920s.  Many of the genre's familiar elements were present in the story.  An heiress, Maria Theresa, is aided by a Kentucky gentleman, Jarvis, and his valet, Rusty, as she searches an ancient Spanish castle for a hidden family treasure.  The heiress' cousin Carlos, who has also arrived at the castle in search of riches, has his henchmen pretend to be ghosts to frighten away the heiress and her friends.  A suit of armor seems to be possessed by a ghost as it ambles forward and attacks Jarvis with a sword.  But it is soon revealed that the true occupant of the armor is Carlos' chief henchman, Maximo.  Jarvis pushes Maximo through a trapdoor, causing the man to drop to his death in the water below.  According to the Green Book Magazine, Jarvis discovers Carlos "hiding behind a cobwebbed portrait."

    Frances Raymond, Walter Hiers and Wallace Reid in The Ghost Breaker (1922).  This was the second of four screen adaptations of the 1909 play. 

    Filmmakers never tired of allowing heirs and crooks to be a bigger part of these films than ghosts.  In A Haunted Heiress (1926), a crooked estate lawyer has some shady reason to make an heiress (Edna Marion) believe that her late grandfather's house is haunted.  The Film Daily reported, "The lawyer hires several men to dress up as spooks and scare the girl so she will sell cheap.  But the lawyer's clerk dresses up also as a spook, mingled with the others, and crabs their scheme."


    This is what the Film Daily had to say about The Ghost of Folly (1926): "[A] sick, nervous man. . . refuses to sell his property.  The villains take advantage of his nervous condition, take a portable projector and shoot spooky visions into his room from the apertures in the walls and the ceiling.  Alice Day assumes the role of a nurse and, together with her sweetheart, tries in vain to restore peace to the haunted house.  Her two brothers and a Keaton-faced messenger boy aid immensely to the comedy value."  It may not be a coincidence that Eddie Cline, the co-director of Keaton’s Three Ages (1923), was the director of this film.

    Thelma Todd and Flora Finch in The Haunted House (1928).
      

    Various heirs rummage a dead millionaire's mansion to find his fortune in The Haunted House (1928).  The film's comic highlights were mostly provided by Keystone veteran Chester Conklin.  In Cold Shivers (1929), heirs attend the reading of a will, which just happens to occur at a creepy old mansion on a stormy night.

    Other plots became equally commonplace.  Take, for instance, the plots of The Ghost in the Garret and The Dollar-a-Year Man, both made in 1921.  In The Ghost in the Garret, an amateur detective played by Dorothy Gish tracks thieves to a spooky old house.  In The Dollar-a-Year Man, Roscoe Arbuckle battles shady kidnappers that he has tracked to a spooky house.  The idea of crooks using a spooky house as a hideout was to be found in many haunted house comedies.

    Dorothy Gish flees from Ray Grey in The Ghost in the Garret.
    The ghosts come tall in The Ghost in the Garret.

    Another standard plot had a newlywed couple experience car trouble in the middle of nowhere and have to spend their honeymoon night in a haunted house.  Films in this genre include The Haunted Honeymoon (1925), Bridal Night (1930), Haunted Honeymoon (1940), The Ghost and the Guest (1943), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986).

     
    A cowardly comedian in a scary situation was always good for a laugh.  Raymond Ganly of Motion Picture News liked that Creeps (1926) featured heroes that were "profoundly dumb" and "susceptible to fears."  Ganly concluded, "The numerous sequences of veiled apparitions, of encounters with dead bodies lying strewn about, and with mysterious figures arrayed in black— all these lend an element of uncanniness which, mixed with a generous assortment of gags, tends to elevate this comedy above the ordinary."

    It was bound to happen that many critics would grow weary of scare comedies.  Take, for instance, a Motion Picture News critic who had to review Arthur Lake's 1930 short comedy called Follow Me.  The critic noted, "The plot is stale and Arthur Lake's alleged humorous antics are proving monotonous.  They should persuade him to deviate a little from that long-legged looseness of his, which is no longer funny.  The story concerns the time-worn haunted house gag, so old that it kills whatever angles Director H. Edwards used to put it across."

    Alice Day in In the Next Room (1930).
    Another critic with Motion Picture News was greatly displeased with First National's In the Next Room (1930).  He wrote, "We thought this type of picture had died with the demise of other unlamented films of the 'My God, what was that?' variety."  A Variety critic was upset about an overly provocative crepe nightgown worn by Alice Day in a key scene of the film.  He wrote, "On the film fare menu, cobwebs and scream are a regular dish though In the Next Room tries to disguise its tastelessness."

    A Dangerous Affair (1930)

    Despite the repetition, people still responded well to this type of film when it was done right.  The critics were particularly pleased with a 1931 Columbia feature A Dangerous Affair (aka The Ghost Walks).  Motion Picture Herald reported, "An audience at the Fairfax on the Coast, where this latest Columbia Jack Holt-Ralph Graves effort was screened, was actually convulsed with laughter at some points and chilled by thrills at others, indicating real entertainment in the film, a combination of comedy, drama and mystery.  Murder, laughs, thrills, ghosts and all the rest have their share of time on the screen.  The audience apparently enjoyed hugely the comedy lines throughout the film, and was equally taken by the mysterious moments."  The film’s heroes were a police lieutenant (Holt) and a newspaper reporter (Graves) who have become good friends and have combined forces to investigate a murder case.  According to the Film Daily, much of the film’s humor comes from the pair "scrapping good-naturedly."  Film Daily further reported, "Some big stuff comes their way when a clan of fighting heirs gather in a dreary mansion at midnight to read the will of an eccentric relative.  The rest, except for variation in plot, is pretty much along familiar lines.  It is action and comedy pretty nearly all the way, and at the finish Graves gets the girl who inherited all the dough."

    Filmmakers tried to disguise their lack of novelty.  The Hal Roach studio had the idea to combine a western comedy with a ghost comedy when they made Prairie Chickens in 1943.  But the critics weren't buying it.  The Film Daily reported, "Prairie Chickens is out-and-out slapstick aimed strictly at kids and adults not particular about the entertainment they get.  This sort of stuff has been done to death on the screen.  Only a person whose risibilities are easily touched will be able to work up more than a smile over the doings in the picture. . . Time has worn some of the tricks in Prairie Chickens pretty thin.  It is one of the film's assets that it runs but 46 minutes." 

    Little did these critics know that the haunted house comedy genre was just getting started.  It has never ended and likely never will.


     




     

    The remake of The Ghostbusters stands today as one of the most highly anticipated films on the 2016 release schedule.  Let's see if just one actor in that film can match Don Knotts' scared act from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966).





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    The "Flugel Street" routine, which was discussed in a recent post, was performed for decades by a variety of comedians.

    Bert Lahr's son, John, claimed that his father performed an early version of "Flugel Street" for a Billy K. Wells revue called "The Best Show in Town."  Lahr included the script for the routine in his father's biography.  But this particular skit had nothing in common with "Flugel Street" other than the fact that an angry union supporter destroyed a poor sap's hat. 

    Based on the script, I can describe accurately what the audience saw at the time.  Lahr comes out on stage to sing a song, but a cornet player in the band hits a sour note that approximates a Bronx cheer.  Lahr argues with the cornet player.  The bandleader is quick to intercede.  He tells Lahr that the cornet player is part of their union and they won't stand for Lahr "picking on" a fellow union member.  The Straight Man takes the band's side in the argument.  He checks Lahr's hat for a union label.  When he fails to find a union label, he punches his hand through the hat, throws the hat to the floor, and stomps on the hat until it is battered beyond usefulness.  The Straight man stops Lahr from picking up the hat.  "Don’t touch that!" he barks.  "A union man!  Why you’re nothing but a scab.  A fine union man you are.  You don’t even know where Western Union is."  Lahr tries to subject another man to the same dressing down, but he gets the words all wrong.  When he finds that the man doesn't have a union label in his hat, he crushes the hat over his knee.  "You’re a fine union man," he tells the man.  "Vhy, you don’t even know where the Union Station is!"

    It is hard to believe that John Lahr was correct to call this the "Flugel Street" routine.  No character in the script mentions Flugel Street or any other street.

    The "Flugel Street" routine, as we know it today, takes place on a city street, where the hapless comedian is exposed to a steady stream of hostile passersby.  Rather than the comedian wearing a non-union hat, the comedian is unknowingly violating a union strike by delivering hats to a company in the grip of a work stoppage.  Wells continually revised the routine over several theatre seasons.

    In 1935, Minsky's burlesque shows brought together a strong stock company of comedians, which included Joey Faye, Jack Diamond, Sidney Fields and Murray Leonard.  These entertainers came to be the embodiments of raucous, Depression-era burlesque comedy.  Faye and Fields reworked the “Flugel Street” bit, no doubt making it more aggressive and surreal.  A critic who reviewed the Minsky’s show for the Brooklyn Eagle described "Flugel Street" as "a sketch in which a man asks a passerby how to get to a certain address, and has his questions twisted until he winds up in a fight with the questionee."
     
    Faye and Rags Ragland became Minsky's "Flugel Street" specialists.  In 1938, the routine was filmed with Faye and Ragland for Vitaphone's "Broadway Brevities" series.  The film's title, Hats and Dogs, related to the fact that a dog's destruction of a man's hat necessitates the search for the hat company.  Faye and Ragland were still performing the routine in 1941 when they appeared at the Palace Theatre in Olean, New York.  The following year, Faye, Murray Leonard and Milt Bronson made the routine the highlight of The Lambs Club's "Strip for Action" revue at the National Theatre. 

    In 1942, an early preview of the Broadway hit "Star and Garter" included a version of "Flugel Street" performed by Bobby Clark.  This version of the routine was unique in that it featured a musical number, "Noises in the Street."   

    Faye teamed up with Jack Albertson to perform the "Flugel Street" routine at State Theatre in 1943.  For an unknown reason, the street name was changed from Flugel Street to Libbey Street.

    Film historian Bruce Eder wrote, "Shortly after World War II, [Jack] Diamond worked with comic legend Joey Faye in a short film based on the classic routine 'Floogle Street.'"  No record of this film can be found in news records or Imdb listings.  Film historian Ron Hutchinson suggested that this film might have been a "Soundie," a three-minute film that was produced for coin-operated movie jukeboxes from 1940 to 1946.

    Faye and Diamond were the comedy leads of a Broadway revue called "Tidbits of 1946."  Billboard reported, "Neither Diamond nor Faye get their comedy legs under them until they dust off the old burly standby, ‘Flugle Street,’ as a wind-up."  The routine was billed in the program as "Meet Me on Flugle Street."

    Faye played a furniture dealer in the mystery farce “Three Indelicate Ladies,” which opened at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on April 10, 1947.  The show’s cast, which also included Bela Lugosi, Elaine Stritch and Ray Walston, found an interesting way to gain publicity for the show.  Billboard reported,
    "Joey Faye, assisted by Bela Lugosi and others of the cast of ‘Three Indelicate Ladies’. . . invaded the stage of the Casino during the Friday midnighter and gave an impromptu interpretation of ‘Flugel Street’ bit.  It was a burly debut for all except for Faye."
    It is hard not to laugh imagining Lugosi, with his thick Hungarian accent, asking Faye, "Is that a Susquehanna hat?"

    In 1948, Faye and Diamond played the lead roles in yet another short film based on "Flugel Street."  This film was produced at the WRGB studios in Schnectady, New York. 

    Phil Silvers brought the routine to national television on January 20, 1949.  Columnist Walter Winchell wrote, "On his telesee show Phil Silvers revived the 'Flugel Street' routine.  That's hoary enough to have the hills call it poppa."  Faye was making regular appearances on Silvers’ show at the time and it is more than likely that he played a role in the routine’s television debut.

    Faye in an early television appearance.
    It was reported in a brief news item that Faye, himself, staged the routine for a television show in 1950.  The reporter failed to name the show, but it was likely either Joey Faye's Frolics or The Fifty-Fourth Street Revue.


    In October, 1951, a nostalgic two-hour, all-star burlesque show staged at Boston's historic Howard Athenæum theatre featured a rendition of "Flugel Street."  Billboard reported, "[T]he highlight of a heartwarming show was the great 'Flugel Street' burly classic done amid bursting straw skimmers and shrieks of dismay by Jack Albertson and Herbie Faye."  The show also featured Faye, Phil Silvers and Jack E. Leonard, who likely played parts in the routine.

    Faye looks on warily as Lou Costello is inducted in the Boosters club in The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959)
    Television continued to be a venue for the routine.  Faye returned to the routine yet again for the television game show Life Begins at 80 in January, 1954.  Milton Berle portrayed a burlesque comic on a 1965 episode of The Trials of O'Brien called "Dead End on Flugel Street."  But it is unknown if Berle actually performed any of the famed routine on the show.


    Faye appeared in a number of burlesque revivals in his later years.  He always made sure to include "Flugel Street" in the program.  Faye said that his best revival was “From Street Comedian to Minsky’s Burlesque: The Evolution of Burlesque Comedian Joey Faye,” which was staged at New York University in 1987.

    I am not yet finished with "Flugel Street."  I am obtaining a copy of Faye's "Flugel Street" script from the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts.  In addition, I have requested other burlesque scripts from the University of Chicago.


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    Faye in Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
    In 1937, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia went on a campaign to shut down burlesque theatres, which he regarded as a "corrupting moral influence."  As the campaign heated up, burlesque mogul Abraham Minsky was summoned to a meeting at the office of license commissioner Paul Moss.  The meeting was, according to the Motion Picture Herald, "stormy."  Minsky was angry and didn't want to be there.  He announced plainly to the commissioner, "I have no interest in these proceedings."  Moss was smug and succinct in his response.  "I have an interest in you," he replied.  Minsky, unwilling to cooperate further with the proceedings, grabbed his hat and coat and started for the door.  He stopped suddenly in the doorway to face the commissioner and tell him what he thought of him.  "You, Mr. Moss," he said, "you think you’re running the whole country.  This has been going on for 25 years and you have been in office three years and you haven’t done anything yet.  If you want to close them up, I say, go on and close them up!"


    The mayor shut down the city’s 14 burlesque theatres in quick succession.  In August, 1937, Motion Picture Herald reported that seven of the theatres were being reopened "without the nudity and with the jokes and skits well-cleaned."  The magazine stated, simply, that the shows had been “de-Minskied."  But the new shows were not well-received.  A New York Post critic who visited one of the theatres described the comedy skits as "clean" and "moth-eaten."  The theatres were unable to stay in business.  Minsky’s flagship house, the Gaiety Theatre, was converted into a movie house in September. 

    This prompted the Minsky comedians like Joey Faye to find work elsewhere.  In March, 1938, Faye teamed up with Bert Grant for the "Ann Coro Unit," a burlesque revue which opened at Fay’s in Philadelphia.  Reviews made it clear that the strippers were the dominant feature of the show.  Faye and Grant were briefly given the stage to perform "Slowly I Turned." 

    As his next move, Faye ventured out to Broadway, where he enjoyed immediate success in the farcical "Room Service" and the musical comedy "Sing Out the News."  Unfortunately, this early success proved to be short-lived.  In the coming years, the ex-burlesque comic found it difficult to secure a place in the non-burlesque theatre world.  Throughout the next decade, Faye alternated straight men as he sought to establish himself in nightclubs and Broadways shows.

    In June, 1942, a condensed version of the musical comedy "Meet the People" opened at His Majesty's Theater in Montreal.  The "masters of merriment," according to Billboard, were Faye, Jack Albertson and Ted Arkin.  Albertson proved to be an effortless straight man to Faye.  Billboard reported, "Faye and Albertson bowl them over while doing a series of sketches."  Arkin, the other merriment master, performed solo bits.  Billboard notes, "Arkin is a riot as a one-man court session, dealing with the Dies investigation of Hollywood."  The show arrived at New York’s La Conga nightclub in August.  Billboard noted, "Most amusing scenes were the draft board (corny but still very funny), the lecturer-sneezing bit and the stuttering blackout.  Outstanding specialties were provided by Marian Colby, in comedy singing; Ted Arkin, movie star impersonations, and Joey Faye, stuttering and sneezing bits."

    It wasn't long after "Meet the People" that Faye appeared in two failed Broadway shows - “The Milky Way” (15 performances) and "Boy Meets Girl" (15 performances).

    Billboard reported the following on February 6, 1943:
    "Joey Faye and Murray Leonard, comic and straight man respectively, entertained President Roosevelt in Washington January 27 at the Foreign Correspondents' Dinner.  On their return both opened at Leon & Eddie's for four weeks."
    A month later, Faye reunited with Jack Albertson for an audition at CBS studios.  Faye and Albertson remained together throughout the year.  Under the auspices of the American Theater Wing, the duo visited the Curtiss-Wright plants in New Jersey to entertain war workers.  Their midday show was called "The Lunch Time Follies."

    Faye and Albertson were featured in the burlesque musical "Allah Be Praised!", which opened at the Adelphi Theatre on April 20, 1944.  The unlikely plot involved a U.S. Senator's sister who seeks to join a Persian harem.  The New York Daily News noted, "Little Joey Faye, a good burlesque comedian, works manfully with too little to do."  The show closed after 20 performances.

    Faye and Albertson traveled far and wide with their act.  Albertson said, "Once Joey Faye and I were doing a little revue together and we were up in Three Rivers, Canada.  We really bombed.  That audience was like facing the Nuremberg jury.  So when we left the stage we asked the stage manager what was wrong with them.  He said, 'Those people are French.  They don't speak English.'" 

    In 1946, Faye starred in the Broadway musical "The Duchess Misbehaves."  Broadway historian Dan Dietz wrote in The Complete Book of 1940s Musicals, "With just a five-performance run and a unanimous drubbing by the critics, the production was the shortest-run musical and one of the decade's major flops."


    Faye never slowed down despite his Broadway misfires.  It was at this time that he joined up with Jack Diamond, who had been one of his original straight men at Minsky’s Republic Theatre.  At first, Faye and Diamond performed in the revue "Windy City," which closed during a pre-Broadway try-out.  With no time lost, the duo moved on to a Broadway revue called "Tidbits of 1946."  Their one original sketch in the show was called "Psychiatry in Technicolor," which was a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.  Faye played a psychiatrist and Diamond turned up as the Oedipus Rex.  Dietz wrote, "The revue Tidbits of 1946 was a fast-folding flop which lasted just one week and went down in the record books as the season's shortest running musical."  Later that year, the comedians received more favorable reviews for a performance at the El Morraco Club.

    Irving Benson
    In 1947, Faye formed a double act with Irving Benson for a night club revue called "Fun for Your Money."  The comic was pulled out of the show prematurely because, according to the American Guild of Variety Artists, he owed commissions to the William Morris agency.

    Faye received a significant supporting role in the mystery farce "Three Indelicate Ladies," which opened at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on April 10, 1947.  The titular ladies (Elaine Stritch, Jayn Fortner and Ann Thomas) receive help from a gangster (Bela Lugosi) to solve a murder.  Billboard reported, “Joey Faye, as a highly impressionable furniture dealer, was grand with his short bit, and by use of the mugging technique he has developed got a lot more out of the lines than the author wrote in."  The show, despite generally good reviews, closed little more than a week later.

    Bela Lugosi and Elaine Stritch in "Three Indelicate Ladies."

    Producer Frank Satenstein arranged for Faye and Diamond to appear together in the crime drama Close Up, but only Faye made it into the finished film.


    In 1947, Faye acted as Phil Silvers’ sidekick in the Broadway musical "High Button Shoes."  The show was a major success, garnering Faye his best reviews in years.

    Faye maintained loyal friendships with his old colleagues.  In June, 1948, he made a special appearance at Union City’s Hudson Theatre, where Diamond was appearing as the principal comedian.  The two comedians stopped the show to perform one of their old sketches.  Later that year, Faye took Silvers’ role in "High Button Shoes" and arranged for Diamond to play the sidekick role.  When Diamond left the show to appear in "Kiss Me Kate," Faye got the show’s producers to replace Diamond with another of his old partners, Jack Albertson.

    In 1948, Faye teamed with Zero Mostel for a short-lived WABD television series called Off TheRecord.  No one was the straight man in this combo.


    Faye took on a new partner, Mandy Kaye, for his sketch comedy show Joey Faye’s Frolics, which lasted for two weeks on CBS in 1950.  Faye and Kaye worked together again in a burlesque film, Hurly Burly, which was shot by Cinema Service Corporation in August of 1950.  The team were still together the following year when they appeared together on the game show Guess Again.  During this period, the men also performed a boxing bit at the Palace Theatre.


    For a sizable run (350 performances from November 1, 1951 to October 4, 1952), Faye and Albertson lent support to Phil Silvers in the highly acclaimed musical comedy "Top Banana."  The team took time during the play’s run to make an appearance on the Kate Smith television series in March, 1952.

    Faye kept busy in television in the 1950s.  He had guest star roles in popular series, including TheReal McCoys, 77 Sunset Strip and Perry Mason.  Raymond Burr would have made a great straight man in the "Mustard" bit.


    Also, Faye played lead roles in anthology series.  In the Inner Sanctum episode "Nobody Laughs at Lou" (1954), Faye played a down-and-out ex-vaudeville comedian who has a run-in with a pair of gun men.  Faye was again part of a team in the Armstrong Circle Theatre episode "Ring Twice for Christmas" (1954).  Faye and Nathaniel Frey play a couple of thieves who crash an affluent holiday party by dressing as Santa Claus and Santa’s helper. 

    In 1954, Faye starred opposite Herb Corey in a revival of "The Boys from Syracuse" at the Pitt Stadium in Pittsburgh.

    In 1958, Faye was able to work with Albertson again on three projects.  First, the actors played a pair of wicked princes in an episode of Shirley Temple's Storybook called "The Land of Green Ginger."  Second, they played bumbling lawmen Dogberry and Verges in a Matinee Theatre production of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing."  Finally, they starred in a 1954 Los Angeles production of ''Waiting for Godot"  Faye’s performance as Gogo earned the stage veteran a best actor award from the West Coast Critics Association.



    To many baby boomers, Faye is best known for his pairing with Mickey Deems in the slapstick-heavy Mack & Myer for Hire sitcom.  One-hundred 12-minute episodes were produced from 1963 to 1964.

    Faye appeared opposite Tom Ewell in a 1971 off-Broadway revival of "Waiting for Godot."

    In the 1980s, Faye appeared in burlesque revivals opposite Harry Goz, who was also one of Faye's partners in the classic Fruit of the Loom commercials.  Goz played the exuberant Apple opposite Faye's giggly Grapes.


    In his final years, Fay found an able and enthusiastic sketch partner in Michael Townsend Wright, a young actor who was a fan of the old burlesque skits.  Wright, who was an authority on vaudeville legends Smith and Dale, persuaded Faye to add Smith and Dale’s "Dr. Kronkheit" skit to their repertoire.



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  • 08/27/15--08:29: Tidbits for August, 2015

  • I hope that everyone has been enjoying their summer.  I live in New Port Richey, which the local tourist board has appropriately dubbed "The Gateway to Tropical Florida."  The area's tropical summer storms and tropical summer heat have kept me indoors for much of the last two months.  In my forced seclusion, I have been working on a number of articles.  Here are the articles that you can expect to see in the next week or two: 
    Broadway’s Funny Year: 1948
    Comedy Spotlight: The Lost Bass Drum; or, Where Is That Looie? (1907)
    The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 1: The Demi-Clowns of 1915
    The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 2: Skirts (1921)
    Why I Could Not Watch More than 15 Minutes of Trainwreck
    Comedy Routine of the Day: “Who Died First?"
    Comedy Routine of the Day: "Ghost in a Pawnshop"
    Comedy Routine of the Day: "Jonah and Whale"
    Comedy Routine of the Day: "Go Ahead and Sing"
    Comedy Routine of the Day: "Crazy House"
    Comedy Routine of the Day: "The Dice Bit"
    A Tribute to Armstrong and Ashton
    Flugel Street Revisited
    Straw Hat Armageddon
    Phantasmagoria of Nonsense: Tom Mix's Improbable Iron Horse & Other Film Faults
    Also, I added a film clip from Bert Lahr's Faint Heart (1929) to my handcuffs article and I added a rare audio clip of Moss and Frye to my Moss and Frye tribute.

    As always, my research has brought forth stray bits of business.  I thought that I would take this opportunity to share them with you.

    The "carrying an unconscious woman" routine made it to Broadway as part of the 1941 play "All Men Are Alike."  The routine is enacted in this still by (left to right) Ian Martin, Lillian Bond and Bobby Clark.


    It was interesting to read this Variety review of Babe London's vaudeville act.  She opened with a few jokes, performed a hula dance, and finished off playing an impossibly oversized five-year-old girl.


    Here's Buddy Hackett in a publicity still for Fireman, Save My Child (1954).  You can find an article that I wrote about this film here.


    Mickey Daniels serenades Mary Kornman in an Our Gang comedy.


    Here we have Virginia Fox, Harry Booker and Tom Kennedy in a 1920 Fox Sunshine comedy called Monkey Business.


     Matthew A. Taylor, a Motion Picture News critic, wrote the following description of the film:
    Almost all of the regular Sunshine troupe appear, not forgetting the score or so of girls who romp and dance to their hearts content in cabaret scenes.  This set is quite elaborate and is the center of considerable  action.  The second reel is the better of the two, containing some unique and side-splitting bits of action on the beach, when the supposed baby is stranded on a rock some distance from shore.  The player who dives in ankle-deep water should get a big laugh.
    The film's slight plot has something to do with a shrewish wife who pursues her errant husband to the cabaret.  Kennedy would later appear in the classic 1931 Marx Brothers' film Monkey Business.

    Carefully counting out his money is Harry Evanson, who was Bud Abbott's comic partner before Abbott joined up with Lou Costello.


    Hank Mann and Madge Kirby ride in the back of a moving van in an unidentified 1920 Arrow comedy.


    More baby doll havoc occurred in this scene from Ruby & Quentin (2003).



    I now bring you something very special for the closing of today's article.  I have officially discovered the most obscure comedian of silent films.



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