Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: "Who's On First?" part 2

Harry Steppe, billed as "Harry Steppe, That Hebrew Gent," was active in vaudeville from 1911 to his death in 1934.  Steppe wrote, starred in and produced a number of popular revue shows, including "Girls from the Follies," "Razzle Dazzle" and "Harry Steppe and His Big Show."  In 1929, Steppe hired Bud Abbott for his "Big Show" revue.  Together, Steppe and Abbott performed the "Who's the Boss?" routine, which as stated earlier was a variation on the "Watt Street" routine..

Abbott and Costello performed the "Who's the Boss?" routine in their early days together in 1936.  The team continued to develop the dialogue as they worked in theaters, night clubs and music halls.  Abbott and Costello eventually revamped "Who's the Boss?' into "Who's on First?," which they introduced while touring in the "Hollywood Band Wagon" revue in 1937.  This is confirmed by a Variety review of a performance at Loew's Montreal.  The review, dated October 13, 1937, reads, "Another act that takes with the fans is a repeat of Abbott and Costello in baseball skit for big reception of the show."  In March, 1938, Abbott and Costello set out to further refine the routine for an appearance on the Kate Smith radio show.  It was then (likely with the help of writers John Grant and Will Glickman) that the team introduced the routine in the state as we know it today. 

The routine, which went far beyond the scope of the "Watt Street" routine, should without question be regarded as an original work.  Even more important, credit for this work should in all fairness be attributed to Abbott and Costello.  I maintain this position no matter what anyone says.  And, by "anyone," I specifically mean comedian Peter Marshall.

Marshall said in a recent interview, "I mentioned that one of my favorite comedy teams were Phil Silvers and Rags Ragland.  They did 'Who's on First?' long before Abbott and Costello.   Phil Silvers was just amazing - he was a comic too - but he was really the greatest straight man.  He was really brilliant.  They were doing 'Who's On First?' and some other stuff.  'How to Pick Up a Girl' and all of those old burlesque things. They were booked on The Kate Smith Show, which was a big shot for them.  So they said, 'Hell, we're not going to do the old crap.'  So they bought all new material and they went out on the show and just bombed.  Then Abbott and Costello went on the show and did 'Who's on First?' and became the biggest comedy team around."

Phil Silvers, Betty Grable and Rags Ragland
Marshall's story is not true.  As I already noted, Abbott and Costello introduced the routine into their stage act in 1937 and they debuted it to a national audience on radio in March, 1938.  Silvers and Ragland had yet to meet up during this period.  In March, 1938, Silvers had a job hosting a variety series, "Illusions of 1938," for the local New York City radio station WHN.  He teamed up with Ragland at Minsky's Gaiety theatre several months later.  The union of Silvers and Ragland was mentioned in a Variety review dated September 21, 1938.  The critic extolled the Gaiety because now, with their new team, the theatre was "housing much stronger comedy."  By this time, "Who's On First?" was well-established as an Abbott and Costello routine.  But these are not the only facts that disprove Marshall's claim.  I could find no record of Silvers and Ragland making an appearance on the Kate Smith radio show.  Silvers' first documented national radio appearance was on The Rudy Vallee Program on June 16, 1941.

Abbott and Costello copyrighted "Who's on First?" under the name "Abbott and Costello Baseball Routine" in 1944.  Only Milton Berle, the notorious "Thief of Bad Gags," dared to make use of the routine after it had become inexorably associated with and legally bound to Abbott and Costello.  He performed it opposite Jack Albertson on his radio show in the late 1940s.

In their later years, Abbott and Costello were willing to tinker with the popular, longstanding routine.  In 1953, the team reworked the routine for an all-star episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour.  It was essentially the same banter except the baseball theme was replaced by a boxing theme.  Costello played a boxer and Abbott played his trainer.  The following year, Screenland magazine reported that Abbott and Costello had again revamped the "Who's on First?" routine for a visit to England.  Abbott told the magazine, "Instead of baseball, we made it an orchestra.  Who is the leader, What's the piano player, and I don't know is the drummer."  Unfortunately, Lou collapsed at the London International Airport and the show had to be cancelled.

Selected Reference Source

Nesteroff, Kliph.  "An Interview with Peter Marshall - Part Three."  Classic Television Showbiz (May 8, 2015).

 Correction (August 28, 2015)

A Variety review that I referenced in this article indicated that Phil Silvers and Rags Ragland were a freshly minted team at Minsky's Gaiety Theatre in 1938.  No other news items in Variety, Billboard, The New York Clipper or the Brooklyn Daily Eagle refer to Silvers and Ragland as a team at any time before this date.  However, these publications tended to avoid the controversial Minsky theatres during the 1930s.  This doesn't make them the most reliable sources of information on this subject.  I have recently read oral histories that place Silvers at the Gaiety Theatre from 1934 to 1938 and place Ragland at the Gaiety Theatre during approximately the same period.  These sources do not specifically put together Silvers and Ragland as a team, but it is safe to assume that the comedians paired off on stage.      

Ragland got his big break in burlesque in 1928 as the principal comic in the touring company "Mae Dix and Her Flappers."  Dix was a former Minsky's dancer who has been widely credited with pioneering the striptease.  After his exit from the Dix company, Ragland worked with the American Burlesque Wheel (partnered with Abe Sher) and the Mutual Burlesque Wheel (partnered with Harry Van).  Gypsy Rose Lee, Minsky's best known stripper, placed Ragland at the Gaiety Theatre in 1934.  Lee's memory on this was good because she and Ragland began to date shortly after.   

Alan Alda, whose father Robert worked burlesque clubs with Red Buttons, remembered his father bringing him to the Gaiety when he was six months old and thinking it would be funny to put him in a schoolroom sketch with Silvers and Ragland.  If Alda's memory is accurate, this would place Alda on stage with Silvers and Ragland at the Gaiety Theatre in August, 1936.

So, please, forgive me for my error.

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