I once wrote a fairly sketchy article about the burlesque routine "Crazy House." You can find the article here. It embarrassed me that I could find so little on such a significant routine. But I am not one who is easily discouraged. I remained patient and persistent and I have since been able to uncover further information on the subject. Let me share that information with you today.
"Crazy House" casts the Comic as a new night watchman at an insane asylum. The watchman is instructed to watch that patients don't escape. The watchman is determined to do his job well, but the irrational behavior of the patients create unending problems for him. Andrew Davis, author of "Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition," wrote, "The scene is a fast-paced hodgepodge of entrances and exits, as various lunatics enter, interact with the Comic, and exit quickly." It has been difficult to research the routine because it has wound its way through a long and varied history with a variety of names. The "Crazy House" routine was known for a time as "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium."
The name "Dr. Dippy" was a ready comic label for an amiable quack. Dr. Dippy and his dippy sanitarium appeared in various forms of entertainment. Happy Hooligan, Frederick Opper’s lovable comic strip hobo, wandered across Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium in the comic supplement of the Hearst newspapers. In 1906, Biograph produced a 7-minute film called Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium, which was a loose reworking of the stage sketch. David Coleman, author of "The Bipolar Express: Manic Depression and the Movies," provided the following summary of the film:
The four mental patients who constitute the diverse assembly include a bearded man who prefers to crawl like an animal rather than walk erect, another man who wears a ridiculous paper hat and is obsessed with throwing knives at people, a top-hatted patient who attacks anyone within reach with his bare hands, and a nymphomaniac who bats her eyes at the new attendant with evident, invitational lust. The inmates react with jealousy when they perceive her interest in the new man, and a melee between asylum guards and the inmates breaks out. During the fight, the new man flees but is chased down by the now escaped, enraged inmates. They shove him into a huge wooden barrel and roll him with maniacal glee into a lake. After rescuing him, they tie him up and throw knives at him for enjoyment. Just then, the asylum's guards arrive and rescue the new man, distracting the inmates with a pie.While they are preoccupied eating the pie, the guard is able to sneak away to safety.
As meticulous as Coleman’s description is, he left out a few details. At one point, a female somnambulist passes through the scene. She is an ethereal figure. She is, according to Psychiatry historian Richard Noll, "gliding about in a flowing white gown." She has a flickering candle extended before her to light her way. The Moving Picture World furnished additional details about the madcap ending. The patients roll the barrel over a barbed wire fence and, after they remove the watchman from the barrel and tie him up, they situate him as a target for their knife-throwing by fastening him to the side of a building.
Of course, the stage-bound version of the routine did not have the patients rolling a barrel into a lake. Nonetheless, they still were able to wreak havoc on the hapless watchman. At least six theaters in New York City had the routine as part of their program in 1908. The theaters were Pastor's Theatre, Empire Theatre, Columbia Theatre, People's Vaudeville Theatre, Gayety Theatre, and Olympic Theatre. The quality of the performances, according to the critics, varied considerably. The routine was performed at Pastor's by the Cleodora Trio. Variety wrote of the act,
"A Night in a Sanitarium," is much like our old burlesque friend "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium" and several other pieces that have been used under as many different titles. The trio have nothing new to offer between the keeper of the crazy house and the inmates. There is opportunity for fun of a rough order, but for the most part these opportunities have been overlooked. Two men and a woman compose the trio. The keeper does fairly well but receives little aid from his associates. The woman evidently thinks that an insane woman does nothing else but scream.An alternate title like "A Night in a Sanitarium" varied so little from the "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium" that it is hard to understand why the title was changed at all. The routine was billed at one theatre under the title "Dr. Knutt’s Sanitarium." Does changing the doctor’s name from Dr. Dippy to Dr. Knutt make a significant difference? It’s just makes life difficult for diligent researchers like myself.
The Variety critic was upset by the comic who performed the routine at the People's Vaudeville Theatre. He wrote, "The calibre of this number may be understood from the fact that the Irish comedian said ‘hell’ four times and ‘damn’ twice."
Harry Hasting delivered "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium" to the Gayety Theatre and the Olympic Theatre. Variety liked that Hasting transferred the routine to an outdoor location. The critic regarded this as "[Hasting] turning the old piece inside out."
Forget about the screaming lunatic woman, or the comedian shouting "hell" and "damn," or the exterior location. At the time, the prime specialist of the routine was Billy Hart, who had developed his own version of the scene called "Female Sanitarium." The unique aspect of Hart's adaptation was that, just as the title suggested, the attendant found himself accosted exclusively by female patients. Newspaper records show that Hart regularly performed this routine as a member of "The Cracker Jacks," a stock troupe of the Columbia Wheel, between 1907 and 1911. Hart's version of routine remained a staple of the Columbia Wheel long after Hart's departure. Variety published the following review of the Cracker Jacks' show on October 21, 1911:
The burlesque is a rewritten version of "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium." This good old standby is made hilariously funny through the good work of the comedians with some able assistance by the women principals. Mr. [Johnny] Jess gets his innings in the "Dip" piece and he takes advantage of every opportunity. Mr. [Johnny] Williams and Chas. Ascott are his able assistants. The piece must have been new to the Columbia audience. They simply screamed at the familiar business, not surprising either, for it is still funny as Williams, Jess and Ascott handled it.The routine was still on the bill when the Columbia Wheel debuted its "Step On It" revue in September, 1923. Variety was unenthusiastic to see "Old Dr. Dippy's sanitarium. . . dragged out [again]."
The routine continued to flourish after its busy year in 1908. In 1909, the routine was added to the programs of the Grand Street Theatre, Grand Opera House and Orpheum Theater. The Dockstader Minstrels debuted the routine at the Grand Opera House in March. Pat Rooney, Irish dancer and comedian, rolled out the act in the Orpheum’s "Hotel Laughland" revue in April.
In November, 1912, the American Roof Theatre presented a modified version of the routine called "Fun in a Turkish Bath." The funny faces and funny lines were delivered by George Niblo and Marty Semon. Clearly, though, the act was not modified enough. The Variety critic grumbled, "The comedy goes pretty far back in the burlesque field."
In March, 1920, Sliding Billy Watson presented "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium" at the Olympic Theatre. Variety reported, "Watson and his company getting a world of fun out of the ancient burlesque classic." Still, the critic made note of "objectionable business" during a part of the scene in which Watson examined a female patient.
The routine had sexual elements for most of its history. The female patients in Hart's version were likely pretty chorus girls. Other versions of the routine included a shapely nurse who did bumps and grinds. That, my friend, is burlesque.