Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Many Straight Men of Joey Faye

Faye in Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
In 1937, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia went on a campaign to shut down burlesque theatres, which he regarded as a "corrupting moral influence."  As the campaign heated up, burlesque mogul Abraham Minsky was summoned to a meeting at the office of license commissioner Paul Moss.  The meeting was, according to the Motion Picture Herald, "stormy."  Minsky was angry and didn't want to be there.  He announced plainly to the commissioner, "I have no interest in these proceedings."  Moss was smug and succinct in his response.  "I have an interest in you," he replied.  Minsky, unwilling to cooperate further with the proceedings, grabbed his hat and coat and started for the door.  He stopped suddenly in the doorway to face the commissioner and tell him what he thought of him.  "You, Mr. Moss," he said, "you think you’re running the whole country.  This has been going on for 25 years and you have been in office three years and you haven’t done anything yet.  If you want to close them up, I say, go on and close them up!"

The mayor shut down the city’s 14 burlesque theatres in quick succession.  In August, 1937, Motion Picture Herald reported that seven of the theatres were being reopened "without the nudity and with the jokes and skits well-cleaned."  The magazine stated, simply, that the shows had been “de-Minskied."  But the new shows were not well-received.  A New York Post critic who visited one of the theatres described the comedy skits as "clean" and "moth-eaten."  The theatres were unable to stay in business.  Minsky’s flagship house, the Gaiety Theatre, was converted into a movie house in September. 

This prompted the Minsky comedians like Joey Faye to find work elsewhere.  In March, 1938, Faye teamed up with Bert Grant for the "Ann Coro Unit," a burlesque revue which opened at Fay’s in Philadelphia.  Reviews made it clear that the strippers were the dominant feature of the show.  Faye and Grant were briefly given the stage to perform "Slowly I Turned." 

As his next move, Faye ventured out to Broadway, where he enjoyed immediate success in the farcical "Room Service" and the musical comedy "Sing Out the News."  Unfortunately, this early success proved to be short-lived.  In the coming years, the ex-burlesque comic found it difficult to secure a place in the non-burlesque theatre world.  Throughout the next decade, Faye alternated straight men as he sought to establish himself in nightclubs and Broadways shows.

In June, 1942, a condensed version of the musical comedy "Meet the People" opened at His Majesty's Theater in Montreal.  The "masters of merriment," according to Billboard, were Faye, Jack Albertson and Ted Arkin.  Albertson proved to be an effortless straight man to Faye.  Billboard reported, "Faye and Albertson bowl them over while doing a series of sketches."  Arkin, the other merriment master, performed solo bits.  Billboard notes, "Arkin is a riot as a one-man court session, dealing with the Dies investigation of Hollywood."  The show arrived at New York’s La Conga nightclub in August.  Billboard noted, "Most amusing scenes were the draft board (corny but still very funny), the lecturer-sneezing bit and the stuttering blackout.  Outstanding specialties were provided by Marian Colby, in comedy singing; Ted Arkin, movie star impersonations, and Joey Faye, stuttering and sneezing bits."

It wasn't long after "Meet the People" that Faye appeared in two failed Broadway shows - “The Milky Way” (15 performances) and "Boy Meets Girl" (15 performances).

Billboard reported the following on February 6, 1943:
"Joey Faye and Murray Leonard, comic and straight man respectively, entertained President Roosevelt in Washington January 27 at the Foreign Correspondents' Dinner.  On their return both opened at Leon & Eddie's for four weeks."
A month later, Faye reunited with Jack Albertson for an audition at CBS studios.  Faye and Albertson remained together throughout the year.  Under the auspices of the American Theater Wing, the duo visited the Curtiss-Wright plants in New Jersey to entertain war workers.  Their midday show was called "The Lunch Time Follies."

Faye and Albertson were featured in the burlesque musical "Allah Be Praised!", which opened at the Adelphi Theatre on April 20, 1944.  The unlikely plot involved a U.S. Senator's sister who seeks to join a Persian harem.  The New York Daily News noted, "Little Joey Faye, a good burlesque comedian, works manfully with too little to do."  The show closed after 20 performances.

Faye and Albertson traveled far and wide with their act.  Albertson said, "Once Joey Faye and I were doing a little revue together and we were up in Three Rivers, Canada.  We really bombed.  That audience was like facing the Nuremberg jury.  So when we left the stage we asked the stage manager what was wrong with them.  He said, 'Those people are French.  They don't speak English.'" 

In 1946, Faye starred in the Broadway musical "The Duchess Misbehaves."  Broadway historian Dan Dietz wrote in The Complete Book of 1940s Musicals, "With just a five-performance run and a unanimous drubbing by the critics, the production was the shortest-run musical and one of the decade's major flops."

Faye never slowed down despite his Broadway misfires.  It was at this time that he joined up with Jack Diamond, who had been one of his original straight men at Minsky’s Republic Theatre.  At first, Faye and Diamond performed in the revue "Windy City," which closed during a pre-Broadway try-out.  With no time lost, the duo moved on to a Broadway revue called "Tidbits of 1946."  Their one original sketch in the show was called "Psychiatry in Technicolor," which was a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound.  Faye played a psychiatrist and Diamond turned up as the Oedipus Rex.  Dietz wrote, "The revue Tidbits of 1946 was a fast-folding flop which lasted just one week and went down in the record books as the season's shortest running musical."  Later that year, the comedians received more favorable reviews for a performance at the El Morraco Club.

Irving Benson
In 1947, Faye formed a double act with Irving Benson for a night club revue called "Fun for Your Money."  The comic was pulled out of the show prematurely because, according to the American Guild of Variety Artists, he owed commissions to the William Morris agency.

Faye received a significant supporting role in the mystery farce "Three Indelicate Ladies," which opened at New Haven’s Shubert Theatre on April 10, 1947.  The titular ladies (Elaine Stritch, Jayn Fortner and Ann Thomas) receive help from a gangster (Bela Lugosi) to solve a murder.  Billboard reported, “Joey Faye, as a highly impressionable furniture dealer, was grand with his short bit, and by use of the mugging technique he has developed got a lot more out of the lines than the author wrote in."  The show, despite generally good reviews, closed little more than a week later.

Bela Lugosi and Elaine Stritch in "Three Indelicate Ladies."

Producer Frank Satenstein arranged for Faye and Diamond to appear together in the crime drama Close Up, but only Faye made it into the finished film.

In 1947, Faye acted as Phil Silvers’ sidekick in the Broadway musical "High Button Shoes."  The show was a major success, garnering Faye his best reviews in years.

Faye maintained loyal friendships with his old colleagues.  In June, 1948, he made a special appearance at Union City’s Hudson Theatre, where Diamond was appearing as the principal comedian.  The two comedians stopped the show to perform one of their old sketches.  Later that year, Faye took Silvers’ role in "High Button Shoes" and arranged for Diamond to play the sidekick role.  When Diamond left the show to appear in "Kiss Me Kate," Faye got the show’s producers to replace Diamond with another of his old partners, Jack Albertson.

In 1948, Faye teamed with Zero Mostel for a short-lived WABD television series called Off The Record.  No one was the straight man in this combo.

Faye took on a new partner, Mandy Kaye, for his sketch comedy show Joey Faye’s Frolics, which lasted for two weeks on CBS in 1950.  Faye and Kaye worked together again in a burlesque film, Hurly Burly, which was shot by Cinema Service Corporation in August of 1950.  The team were still together the following year when they appeared together on the game show Guess Again.  During this period, the men also performed a boxing bit at the Palace Theatre.

For a sizable run (350 performances from November 1, 1951 to October 4, 1952), Faye and Albertson lent support to Phil Silvers in the highly acclaimed musical comedy "Top Banana."  The team took time during the play’s run to make an appearance on the Kate Smith television series in March, 1952.

Faye kept busy in television in the 1950s.  He had guest star roles in popular series, including The Real McCoys, 77 Sunset Strip and Perry Mason.  Raymond Burr would have made a great straight man in the "Mustard" bit.

Also, Faye played lead roles in anthology series.  In the Inner Sanctum episode "Nobody Laughs at Lou" (1954), Faye performs as a down-and-out ex-vaudeville comedian who has a run-in with a pair of gun men.  Faye was again part of a team in the Armstrong Circle Theatre episode "Ring Twice for Christmas" (1954).  Faye and Nathaniel Frey play a couple of thieves who crash an affluent holiday party by dressing as Santa Claus and Santa’s helper. 

In 1954, Faye starred opposite Herb Corey in a revival of "The Boys from Syracuse" at the Pitt Stadium in Pittsburgh.

In 1958, Faye was able to work with Albertson again on three projects.  First, the actors played a pair of wicked princes in an episode of Shirley Temple's Storybook called "The Land of Green Ginger."  Second, they played bumbling lawmen Dogberry and Verges in a Matinee Theatre production of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing."  Finally, they starred in a 1954 Los Angeles production of ''Waiting for Godot"  Faye’s performance as Gogo earned the stage veteran a best actor award from the West Coast Critics Association.

To many baby boomers, Faye is best known for his pairing with Mickey Deems in the slapstick-heavy Mack & Myer for Hire sitcom.  One-hundred 12-minute episodes were produced from 1963 to 1964.

Faye appeared opposite Tom Ewell in a 1971 off-Broadway revival of "Waiting for Godot."

In the 1980s, Faye appeared in burlesque revivals opposite Harry Goz, who was also one of Faye's partners in the classic Fruit of the Loom commercials.  Goz played the exuberant Apple opposite Faye's giggly Grapes.

In his final years, Fay found an able and enthusiastic sketch partner in Michael Townsend Wright, a young actor who was a fan of the old burlesque skits.  Wright, who was an authority on vaudeville legends Smith and Dale, persuaded Faye to add Smith and Dale’s "Dr. Kronkheit" skit to their repertoire.


  1. I just put Joey Faye back in Vaudeville on the legendary MainStage at Proctor's Theater this October, 11 2015 in Schenectady, NY. I also have put films of Joey and his band of Bananas on the stages of the Actors Fund, Players Club of Gramercy Park and the Frankfurt and Berlin Filmmuseums in Germany. Joey was one of the greatest comedians of the last century, and his contributions to our culture and the USO after writing such great sketches for the American Vaudeville and Burlesque stages moved our society through many phases of entertainment. We owe him praises.
    Thanks Anthony Balducci for this wonderfully researched and insightful article.

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  3. ne cloudy summer day c. '77 I was crossing 43rd on Broadway
    to get a quick lunch at what was then a Nathan's hot dog\deli
    restaurant. At that very moment who should be approaching me
    in the opposite direction but Mr. Faye-being a callow youth
    back then, I instantly recognized him not from any of his
    copious stage screen or TV appearances but from contemporary
    TV ads for a local paper company,Marcal, that showcased his
    previously-unknown-to-me sneezing shtick on behalf of their
    not-as-good-as-but-cheaper-than-Kleenex facial tissue.

    Very uncharacteristically for me, I implored him to recreate
    that very bit right there on the street, unconcerned of his
    time and needs. He declined with a dour face. I asked again,
    again he haughtily refused. I just had to see him do it...I
    begged and "pretty please"d him. With a playful look he said,
    "Well...OK..." and launched into a fake sneezing fit that had
    me doubled over in the middle of the sidewalk with hundreds
    of passers-by...the more I laughed, the more he kept "sneezing".
    I had to beg him to sides were split.

    How great was that? A comic pro taking a moment to give a kid
    a free show and a hearty laugh. Looking back now I see too how
    ironic it was that our encounter took place at the epicenter of
    his career where he formerly trod the boards at Times Square
    theaters and burlesque houses, many of which had already declined
    by then into multiplex-dom or had a fatal date with a wrecking ball.

    Perhaps more ironic still, my dad was 4 decades older than I and
    often waxed nostalgically of those bygone days of midtown
    burlesque and vaudeville, and later on movies while dating my Mom.
    Before but maybe after a show, which may or may not have featured
    that very same Joey Faye, he\they'd stop and eat at the famed
    Toffenetti's...which became that very same Nathan's...all footsteps
    from where I met Mr. Faye.

    Great article and great to learn how extensive and long-lived his
    career was-I was of the (supposed) target cohort of MACK & MYER
    but I can't recall ever having watched it. I just watched an episode
    I downloaded online called "Jennie" and it's surprisingly comic and

    Note too how the psychiatrist he played in TIDBITS OF 1946 is a dead
    ringer for Peter Sellers' "Dr. Fassbender" in WHAT'S NEW, PUSSYCAT?
    Wonder if Mr. Sellers had any awareness of this portrayal.

    In parting, here's a link to a comic 1965 Nestle's ad featuring Mr.
    Faye and Robert Strauss...

    Alan (V.) Karr