Monday, June 8, 2015

"That's What They Call The Old Nightmare!"

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 you 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 the Comic, 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.  Or, he might simply be a man in a long white sheet.

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.

These funny haunted house doings were among the first type of comic situations that transferred from stage to screen.  The above image shows Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan encountering a ghost in a 1915 comedy, The Spook Raisers.

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 summarizing 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.

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?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

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.

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 nor 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.

Comedy's Most Devoted Partners: Fox and Ward

Joseph Fox and William H. Ward were a steadfast comedy team for at least 64 years.  They first 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 further 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.

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: The Rest Cure and Others

"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's 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.


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 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?"


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.

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: "The Lemon Bit"

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).


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: "Who's On First?" part 3

No baseball cross-talk routine is referenced in newspapers before Abbott and Costello's "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 the 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 an 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."  It was a pretense of the act 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).