Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Another Stroll Down Flugel Street


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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