Saturday, July 4, 2015

Critics Sing Praises of Moss and Frye

Arthur G. Moss and Edward Frye, an African-American comedy team billed as "A Couple of Blackbirds," were a popular, original and influential act for more than two decades.  As early as 1910, the men started to receive enthusiastic notices for their efforts.  The team became well-known for their clever, quick-paced dialogue.  Variety called them "colored conversationalists."

Their acclaim came at first from a skit called "Sense and Nonsense."  This bit of fast-paced banter established an engaging longstanding premise for the team.  Frye made it his duty to bombard Moss with impossible questions in an effort to prove to him how dumb he was.  "How high is up?  How long is a piece of string?  What color is red?  Suppose I came along and gave you a handful of nickels.  How many nickels would you have?"  After seeing one of their shows in May of 1918, a Variety critic wrote, "Their skit is simply a volley of questions and answers, and it is a lot of 'nut' stuff." 

Early in his stage career, Moe Howard adapted a Moss and Frye sketch to be performed by him and brother Shemp.  He would, as Frye did with Moss, confuse Shemp with a maddeningly preposterous series of questions.  Among the questions that Moe later remembered were:
What is the size of a grey suit?

Do you think it's as warm in the summer as it is in the country?

If you went to a railroad station and bought a ticket for three dollars, where are you going?
This was to one critic "rambling nonsense," but audiences loved it.

A surprisingly sparse amount of information is available on these comedians. But we can gain some insight on their career by examining their frequent newspaper notices.  

Variety, September 1913.  Review of appearance at the Union Square Theater:
[Moss and Frye] put over some corking good dialogue beside doing some fine songs, which pleased, and they retired while the applause was coming from all parts of the house.
Variety, July 1915.  Review of appearance at McVickers Theatre, Chicago:
Moss and Frye deservedly pulled down the hit of the show.  These two comedy fellows have a good string of patter.
Variety, July, 1917.  Review of appearance at the American Roof theatre:
Moss and Frye, colored, started off with lots of laughs, with their nonsensical, ridiculous crossfire, which is artistically delivered through the idea of the two men talking at the same time, which is as it occurs in actual life.  This strips it of theatricalism and makes it more natural.  Then they spoil things by rendering a couple of songs totally foreign to their characterizations.  The men should either get a song that fits the characters or extend their talk and quit on that.
The New York Clipper, March 19, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
Moss and Frye, with their "How High Is Up?" and "How Come?" nonsense, scored the laughing hit of the bill.
Variety, March 1919.  Review of appearance at Colonial Theatre:
Moss and Frye won the honors of the afternoon with some nonsensical kidding that caused uproarious laughter.  "How Wide Is Narrow" is one of the new expressions.
Variety, March, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
It's most unusual for a colored team to grace the Palace show.  There isn't another colored team that can deliver as Moss and Frye did in the next to closing spot.  The series of impossible questions so drolly delivered and calling for no answers, brought forth hearty laughter.  Then to make it doubly sure the boys showed something in harmony singing, something too, that is rarely heard these days, even from real colored minstrels.  For a finish they sang "Some Day I'll Make You Glad" and the house insisted on a repeat, even though it was eleven o'clock.
The New York Clipper, April 2, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Orpheum Theatre:
Moss and Frye registered one of the big hits of the bin with a series of nonsensical remarks and a few ballads, sung in pleasing fashion.  The talking, delivered with a sort of mock solemnity, and not possessing a semblance of sense, was a riot of laughter.  They are one of the funniest pairs in vaudeville.
The New York Clipper, April 30, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
Moss and Frye have added some new nonsensical bits to their comedy talk and the new material hit the mark with unfailing regularity.  In its present shape the Moss and Frye act is one of the biggest laugh producing offerings in vaudeville.  A new song was also heard in the act, but it needs more rehearsing, as the men stumbled in the words and made one or two mistakes in the harmony as well.
Variety, May 1919.  Review of appearance at the Harlem Opera House:
Moss and Frye, with their nonsensical questions, scored their usual hit.  This clever pair always puts in a lot of extempore stuff and uses a few of the old stand-bys.
Variety, August 6, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Bushwick Theatre:
Moss and Frye had no trouble in keeping the stream of merriment aflowing and got their full quota of laughs despite all the comedy that had preceded.  These lads keep adding new gags to their act all the time, for they had about six new ones in it on Monday night.  The foolish questions put by Frye to his partner would move even a deaf and dumb man to laughter.  Their singing was also very good.
The New York Clipper, August 20, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
Moss and Frye are not telling about "How High Is Up?" but they have a score or more of clever nonsensical sayings, the greater part of which aroused all sorts of laughter and applause.
The New York Clipper, September 3, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Colonial Theatre:
Moss and Frye are a colored team of that comedy caliber which will always fetch laughter, no matter how often they have been seen before.  They know the value of fresh material and with the exception of a few old stand-bys, the two are always putting over new gags.  It has been said that, as an extempore colored comedian, Frye is in a class with Bert Williams.
Variety, April, 1921.  Review of appearance at San Francisco Orpheum Theatre:
Moss and Frye went over exceptionally big.  They have talk entirely new here, and with good harmony singing scored a hit next to closing.
Variety, May, 1921.  Review of appearance at Chicago’s Majestic Theatre:
Moss and Frye now interrupt their routine for a little harmony, then back to their talk, and then a big harmony number.  They have also added several new daffy dills that measure up to "How High Is Up?" They proved good showmen, making it short but sweet doing 12 minutes to big applause.
Variety, June, 1922.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
At entrance the comedian took exception to his tan colored partner calling him ‘the Sheik,’ the team then going into their inverted dialog.  The billing uses "How high is up" and "How come," but neither expression was expression was present in the chatter.  The colored team's harmony warbling without orchestral aid was an excellent contribution, and as ever one of the strong bits.
Variety, October 1922.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre:
"[Moss and Frye] are back in vaudeville after an unsuccessful try with their "Dumb Luck" colored revue.  The comedian's nonsensical hypothetical questions are as laugh productive as ever, the straight foiling faithfully and sincerely."
In October, 1923, a black-owned company named Seminole Films cast the team as airplane pilots in a short comedy called How High is Up?.  The film was directed by Chatty Graham at the Lincoln Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Variety, July, 1925.  Review of appearance at the 5th Avenue Theatre:
Moss and Frye, colored comedians, woke them up in succeeding spot with a line of complicated chatter that was delivered in an excruciatingly humorous manner and some acceptable harmonizing.  The comedy in this turn is gleaned through the ebony-hued comic bewildering the straight with nonsensical queries and answering them before the other chap can reply.  The act finished to big returns.
Variety, November, 1925.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
Moss and Frye scored consistently with their seemingly ad lib routine.  An obvious gag is inserted in the talk here and there, but the body of the crossover sounds unstudied, the secret of the turn.  Close harmony sent them away safely and also demanded an encore.
Variety, January, 1927.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre:
Of the standard stand-bys, there were Moss and Frye — always good and always welcome, with their own style and manner still new but with a lot of material that could stand replacing.  With them just changing gags doesn't refurnish their stuff — they have to hit off on a new line of talk if not a new kind of talk to seem different than they have been through these many years.  They got their encore bid just the same, and amused enough to call for it.
Moss and Frye produced several recordings for Pathé Records in 1927.  Take a listen.

Motion Picture News, March 12, 1928.  Review of appearance at the Capitol Theatre:
Exceptionally big crowds were enjoyed at the Capitol Theatre, the main feature apparently being Moss and Frye, ‘The original blackbirds,’ in the stage presentation 'How High Is Up?', a Fanchon & Marco offering, which caused a great deal of merriment.
In 1928, the team sued Film Booking Office for using their expression "How High Is Up?" as the title of a “Three Fatties” comedy.

Moss and Frye starred in a short film, What Do I Care?, in 1929.

Billboard, February 20, 1930.  Review of appearance at the Eighty-Sixth Street Theatre:
These veteran colored comedians, well known for their 'How High is Up?,' have dispensed with a new stock of droll buffoonery that even greater entertainment value.  It is more than mere clowning, possessing that quaint and subtle humor that get them laughs in wholesale jolts.  They have tagged their present vehicle, "A Mixture of New and Old Things."
They still adhere to the question and answer antics; Frye's ludicrous philosophy and Moss 'wisdom' make for hilarious comedy.  At no time is the fun forced.  It flows like water from the lips of these talented comedians.  The audience ate up every bit of their rib-tickling nonsense.
Variety, October 1931.  Review of appearance at the Lyric Music Hall:
"Moss and Frye goaled them here with the same line of patter they have been using for years.  Team hasn't anything new to offer, but what they have was liked."
The team of Moss and Frye ended with Moss’ death in 1932.  Frye quickly teamed with Hamtree Harrington for a night club revue called "The Tree of Hope."  But, unfortunately, the new partnership didn’t last long.    

Frye was featured in the musical comedy "Swing It," which opened at the Adelphi Theatre on July 22, 1937.  Variety reported, "At one point the chief comic, captain of a Mississippi boat, is played by Edward Frye, uses some of his former vaudeville material.  More of it might have been more effective.  There is one mention of 'How High Is Up' (Moss and Frye).  Frye, by the way, does well with [the song] 'Blah, Blah, Blah.'''

It is troubling to me as a comedy fan that these funny entertainers were so easily forgotten by the general public.  Their act came to be appropriated by others.  Moran and Mack, a popular blackface comedy team, copied a few of their bits.  Moss and Frye routines later turned up with some regularity on the Amos and Andy radio show.  Joey Faye admitted to developing his own version of Moss and Frye’s "Handful of Nickels" routine.  A number of Abbott and Costello routines, including "You're forty, she's ten," are based on old Moss and Frye routines.

I present this article in the hope that it will provide at least a slight acknowledgement of Moss and Frye’s contribution to comedy.

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