Saturday, June 6, 2015

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).


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