|Lou Costello in Who Done It? (1942)|
All evidence points to the fact that the routine was introduced by Harry Watson, Jr., as part of the Broadway show "Odds and Ends," which ran for 112 performances from November 19, 1917 to January 18, 1918.
Watson continued to perform his "Odds and Ends" routines, which also included his "Battling Dugan" boxing bit, on the vaudeville circuit from 1918 to 1921. Reports in Variety show that Watson played the act extensively in New York theatres (Palace, Colonial, Riverside) as well as San Francisco's Orpheum theatre. Reviews were consistently good. In June, 1919, a Variety critic reported that Watson was "laughing hit" with his "funny telephone bit" at the Riverside theatre. The critic added, "The present chaotic condition of the telephone service has made Watson's act funnier than ever."
Other comedians began to perform variations of the routine in other venues. Joe Bennett performed the routine under the title "Telephone Tangle" at Chicago's Kedzie theatre in September, 1919. But no vaudeville observer had any doubt as to the source of the material. The Variety critic specifically praised Bennett for "elaborat[ing] on the idea carried out by Harry Watson in his specialty in 'Odds and Ends.'" For years, Watson maintained his status as the originator of the routine. The routine was duplicated in "Big Wonder Show," which debuted at New York's Columbia Theatre in September, 1921. Variety noted that, by performing "a verbatim lift of Harry Watson, Jr.'s vaudeville act," George P. Murphy furnished "the funniest scene in the show." Burlesque comics Benny Platt and Frank "Rags" Murphy struggled futilely to impress audiences with familiar routines in "Steppin' Out," a show that debuted at the Mutual theatre in January, 1925. Variety reported, "Platt and Murphy. . . [get] the most with a telephone booth idea probably inspired by Harry Watson's." Elements of Watson's act could also be found in Harold Lloyd's struggles to make a call on a public phone in Number Please (1920).
Watson set aside the routine while he performed in other Broadway shows, including "The Passing Show of 1921" and "Tip-Toes." He later revived the routine in 1925, showcasing his telephone booth antics in grand style at the Hippodrome theatre. A Variety wrote, "Watson with little change from the now hardy perennial, the telephone and 'Battling Kid' skits, got plenty of laughs. The audience didn't seem to have been surfeited with his stuff. He now has a pair of banjoing boys between scenes, a welcome relief and a vivid surprise that Watson would change his act at all."
The routine remained durable. Watson returned to the Hippodrome with the act, now called "In a Telephone Booth," in December, 1928. A report in Variety dated August 22, 1928 indicated that Fox had engaged Watson to film the sketch for a sound short. Unfortunately, the short was never made. As it turned out, Watson retired soon after his Hippodrome appearance.
The routine was forgotten until it appeared again in the Abbott and Costello feature Who Done It? (1942).
A variation of the routine titled "Number Please" (the same title as the Harold Lloyd film) was performed by Keenan Wynn in The Ziegfeld Follies (1946).
A Motion Picture Daily critic reported, "This is the old gag about getting long distance calls through in two seconds but failing to reach a friend in the next block." This certainly was a funny basis for a routine, which has allowed this comic business to remain as funny today as it was in 1918. Thank you, Harry.
Let me now take this opportunity to give a rundown of other entertaining uses of the telephone booth.
The first telephone booth was installed in a Connecticut bank in 1889. By 1902, telephone booths could be found throughout the United States. Vaudeville entertainers soon recognized the comic potential of this device. Rieny Craig and James A. Welch's 1907 act "Hello" was, according to Variety, built around a "burlesque telephone booth." The same year, Euson's Theatre in Chicago introduced comedian Harry Bryant performing what Variety described as a "threadbare telephone booth episode." In 1916, Tom Coyne performed at New York's Olympic Theater in a comedy act called "The Telephone Booth." The routine had Coyne hiding inside a telephone booth to avoid an irate man. The irate man, determined to harm Coyne, resorted to energetically rocking the booth. If there was more to the act than that, it was not revealed in Variety's write up of the act.
A stock gag in early silent films had a fat comedian getting wedged inside a telephone booth. In Losing Weight (1916), big-bellied Hughie Mack struggles to extract himself from a telephone booth, finally freeing himself when the strain of his great bulk causes the structure to burst apart.
In 1921, the Six Juggling Bernsteins used a telephone booth at the center of an act called "Fun in a Telephone Booth." According to Variety, the act was well-received. The Variety critic wrote, "[T]heir quick passing of telephone books [was] loudly applauded."
Shipwrecked Among Animals, a 1922 short comedy produced for Universal's Century series, opens with the sinking of a steamship, the S. S. Sadness. As he struggles to stay afloat in the ocean, sailor Harry Sweet sees a telephone booth floating among the ship's debris. Sweet climbs inside the telephone booth and attempts to phone up a rescue party. The Film Daily critic wrote, "In the middle of the sea he calls for a number but gets the busy reply."
In Three Ages (1923), Buster Keaton is able to escape from a police station when he unwittingly steps inside a telephone booth that is being moved out of the building.
In Out of Order (1923), Neely Edwards and Bert Roach have come up with a movable dummy telephone booth. They simply need to set up their telephone booth on a busy street corner and wait for an unsuspecting patron to enter to make a call. According to Exhibitor's Trade Review, "[T]he usual nickel is deposited and falls into a tube that sends it speeding into [a] waiting hat outside."
Eddie Cantor performs a comic monologue in a phone booth in the Paramount short That Party in Person (1928).
In Red-Headed Woman (1932), Jean Harlow corners Chester Morris in a telephone booth for some torrid smooching.
Laurel and Hardy get stuck in a telephone booth with a drunken Arthur Housman in Our Relations (1936). Blogger Movie Mag described the scene as "Laurel and Hardy’s answer to the stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera."
Felix Adler, one of the film's writers, had scripted a similar scene for the Fox short The Complete Life (1926). The earlier routine started out with a tipsy man stumbling into a phone booth, which he has mistaken for a cab.
Kent Taylor locks feisty rival Irene Hervey in a phone booth in The Lady Fights Back (1937).
"Busy Line, 4142" (1938) was a radio drama that unfolded within the confines of a phone booth. Essentially the same idea was behind Joel Schumacher's 2002 feature Phone Booth.
According to The Film Daily, a telephone booth helped to provide a "swell gag" to The Cavalcade of Stuff (1938). The narrator, F. Chase Taylor (radio's Colonel Stoopnagle), explains that the telephone booth is too cramped and hot to be comfortable. Footage shows a sweaty fat man squeezing inside a telephone booth and a dithery woman with packages trying to settle herself inside a booth.
The pay phone became a source of laughs in a number of television sitcoms, including Gomer Pyle ("Gomer and the Phone Company," 1966), The Bill Cosby Show ("The Fatal Phone Call," 1969), Love, American Style ("Love and the Phone Booth," 1969) and The Brady Bunch ("Sorry, Right Number," 1969). My favorite of these episodes, though, is the 1951 Amos 'n' Andy episode "The Rare Coin." When Kingfish accidentally deposits Andy's valuable rare nickel into a pay phone, Andy tears apart the phone booth in a desperate effort to retrieve the coin.
Slacker buddies Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter travel through time in a telephone booth in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).