Monday, June 1, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: A Trip Down Floogle Street

Billy K. Wells, a former comedian, wrote, produced and directed "Maids of America," a revue show that was presented in different annual editions from 1915 to 1920.  Bobby Barry was the principal comedian in the revue from 1916 to 1919.  The night that he debuted in the show, he reportedly got his biggest laughs from a scene in which he surreptitiously drank beer at a prohibition lecture.

Bobby Barry is ready to fight it out with a showgirl.
The show was changed from year to year.  Routines were added, routines were removed, routines were rewritten.  In 1918, Wells added a routine to the show called "Flugel Street."  Little did he know that, nearly one hundred years later, people would be still laughing at and studying this boisterous scene.  The simple premise of the routine is that a man is hired to return a container of hats to The Susquehanna Hat Company, but the workers at the hat company have gone on strike and the delivery man doesn't realize that he is acting as a strikebreaker.  So, everyone he meets and asks for directions to Flugel Street beat him up and break his hats.  The hapless sap who is tormented mercilessly in the scene was of course played by Barry.  The slicker to Barry's sap was Al K. Hall.  The actors physically contrasted one another as comedy teams usually do.  Barry was short and Hall was lanky.  Hall was abusive to Barry, repeatedly slapping him on the head with a bladder.  The routine was still part of the show in its last season, although Wells had removed the hats from scenario.  Nonetheless, a critic with the New York Clipper praised the scene for being as funny as ever.

Joey Faye revived the routine to great acclaim at Minsky's Gaiety Theatre in the 1930s.  He kept the hats but got rid of the strike.  Screenwriter Edmund L. Hartman said, "As the comics went on, they dropped [the strike part of the routine] and anything that didn't get a laugh."  Hartman explained that, without the strike to explain the hostility of passersby, the scene became sheer lunacy.  Faye claimed at the time that he wrote the routine on his own.  He applied for and received a copyright to protect his claim of ownership.

Universal Pictures' In Society, which was released on August 18, 1944, featured a scene in which Abbott and Costello recreated the "Flugle Street" routine.

In February, 1945, Joey Faye threatened to sue Universal for illegal use of his copyrighted work.  Within days, Billy K. Wells came forward with his own accusations.  He sued Universal Pictures Company, Universal Film Exchanges, Big U Film Exchange, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Loew's Incorporated (a Universal exhibitor) and Joey Faye for using his old sketch without his permission.  Wells accused Faye of disguising the authorship of the sketch by changing the spelling of the title from "Flugel Street" to "Floogle Street."  Not that it mattered much, but Abbott and Costello had gone even further by changing the street name to Bagel Street.  An obstacle in Wells' case came from the fact that the writer had failed to copyright the routine, but the courts generally allow writers the option to assert common law rights of a literary property.

Despite the legitimacy of Wells' claims, the matter did not turn out in the writer's favor.  On March 16, 1948, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the case on a legal technicality that prevented the court from sustaining jurisdiction.  Wells' attorney had an option to correct the errors of their complaint and start over again.  But, after more than two years, Wells was fed up with the matter and had no interest dragging it out further.  Faye knew that, if he tried to exercise his copyright, it would likely be challenged and declared null and void.  Without either Wells or Faye willing to assert ownership, the routine fell into public domain.

Tom Poston is attacked on Floogle Street.

Tom Poston performed the "Floogle Street" routine in a 1957 stage show called "The Best of Burlesque."  Tom Prideaux, a theatre critic who saw the show, found deep meaning in the routine's antics.  He wrote at length about the routine in a 1961 Life Magazine article titled "They All Keep on Looking for Floogle Street."  Prideaux examined the symbolism to be found in the sap character's "senseless mistreatment."  He recognized torment in even seemingly pleasant details.  He wrote, "[A] shameless beauty wiggles up to the Sap, unnerves him by her bumps and grinds . . ."   No one in this hostile world has good intentions for the delivery man. 

The routine remained a beloved standard.  In 1975, Buddy Ebsen used his down time from his Barnaby Jones television series to assemble a variety troupe with his children.  The group entertained audiences throughout California with dances, songs and comedy.  The comedy parts of the show included a bit with Ebsen as "Jed Clampett" from The Beverly Hillbillies and the old burlesque routine "Floogle Street." 

A 1964 New York Times obituary for Bobby Barry emphasized the comedian's success as the boob character at the center of the original "Flugle Street" routine.   It is good that Mr. Barry's valuable contribution to this legendary routine was not forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so happy to have read this! I heard a throwaway reference to "the Flugle Street sketch" on a 1955 ep of The (Lost) Honeymooners, and immediately googled it. GREAT resource.