Thursday, August 27, 2015
Flugel Street Revisited
I have been looking at old burlesque scripts lately. Often, it seems, these scripts were typed out hurriedly with no attempt by the author to conceive a title. It didn't matter, though, because a comedian didn't need a title to make a sketch funny. Over the years, these routines were called by a variety of names. For instance, "Flugel Street" was better known by burlesque performers as "The Union Bit" or "The Straw Hat Bit."
Flugel Street?! Oh, why did you have to remind me of Flugel Street?
I have written about the "Flugel Street" routine before. Check here and here. But I am a persistent researcher and I have continued to explore various backstreets in my efforts to reach the notorious Susquehanna Hat Company.
An early version of "Flugel Street" was published in Bert Lahr's biography, "Notes on a Cowardly Lion" (p. 361-365). The sketch has the Comic come out on stage to sing an Irish dance song and find his efforts thwarted by a pair of disagreeable union musicians. Apart from the union theme and a couple of straw hats getting destroyed, this is far different than the "Flugel Street" routine as we know it today. Not one line of dialogue or one stage direction references a hard-to-locate hat company on Flugel Street. Even more apparent, the scene takes place on a bare stage as opposed to the sidewalk setting that appeared in later versions. It is puzzling that the routine appears in the book under the title "Flugel Street," but there is a simple explanation for this. After my experience with a number of untitled scripts, I believe that an actual title was never typed across the heading of Lahr's script. This was, in all likelihood, a classic case of retroactive nomenclature on part of the book's author, John Lahr. After all, "Flugel Street" was the ultimate title of the routine and it is the only title with which the readers of the book would have been familiar.
The routine was the creation of producer and sketch writer Billy K. Wells, who featured the routine in his revue "Maids of America." A Billboard review of "Maids of America" that was published on March 15, 1919 made reference to a scene played "Somewhere Near Fleugel Street" and noted that the action principally involved the Sweatband Hat Company. The reviewer wrote, "[The] hats came in for the usual comedy destruction" (Billboard, March 15, 1919, p. 10). We now have the street, we have the hat company, and we have the broken hats. Here, in 1919, we have "Flugel Street."
Within months after the routine was introduced, other burlesque companies were hurrying to find room for the popular skit in their programs. On February 19, 1919, the New York Clipper published a review of the Star Theatre’s "Paris by Night" revue, which presented a potpourri of proven burlesque routines. The paper noted, "A few of the bits seen were 'The Kiss,' 'Women Haters' Union,’ 'Buzzing the Bee,' 'I Don't Know,' 'Give It To Me,' 'Union Bit,' 'Something Nice,' and a dish breaking bit."
On October 15, 1919, the New York Clipper reported some traditional burlesque shtick in effect at Kahn's Union Square Theatre. The paper noted, "The 'Union' bit got many a laugh the way it was offered by [Harry] Bernard, [Jack] Gibson, [Roy] Sears and the orchestra." The fact that the orchestra played a role in this comic business suggests that this may have been the version of the routine that was published in Lahr’s biography.
Will Howard and Inez De Verdier were touring with the "Flugle Street" routine in 1922. According to Variety, the pair performed "the ‘union’ bit entailing the use of a ‘plant’ and the wrecking of two straw hats." The routine was so well-established by this time that the paper referred to it as a "burlesque tidbit of yesteryear."
Sid Rankin, a critic with Zit's Review, was introduced to the Minsky update of the "Flugel Street" routine when he attended a show at Brooklyn's Werba Theatre in 1934. He regarded the skit, as performed by Joey Faye and Jack Diamond, as the big hit of the show. Rankin acknowledged that this was the old Billy K. Wells routine, although he noted that the scene "had been changed around somewhat from the original script."
Return here tomorrow to learn about the 1920s straw hat armageddon that was unleashed by the success of "Flugel Street."
Other reviews of "Paris by Night" included mention of the "Imaginary Dog" and "Lighting a Cigar" bits. I wish that I could tell you more about every routine mentioned in these reviews. Unfortunately, some of this material has been lost to time. The "Give It to Me" and "Lighting a Cigar" bits must have been a favorite of patrons because this material had been held over from the theatre's previous revue, "World Beaters." "Women Haters' Union" was a simple little sketch that became popular with burlesque audiences. The Comic and Straight Man form a women hater's union as a way to save on dating expenses, but an attractive woman crosses the stage and drops a handkerchief and this simple act quickly puts an end to the union. George Ward and Charles L. Sherman toured internationally with an extended version of this sketch. The "Imaginary Dog" bit was originally a circus clown act. Red Skelton made it part of his stage show in the 1930s. No one could do better than Skelton in creating pantomime business with an imaginary pooch. Three different versions of this skit are included in Skelton’s papers at the Indiana Historical Society.
Selected Reference Source
The quotes from Billboard and Zit’s Review come from Andrew Davis' excellently researched book "Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Traditions." You can buy the book here.