Sunday, November 29, 2015

Charles Kenna: The Street Fakir

Peter Godfrey in The Two Mrs.Carrolls (1947).

Charles Kenna became well-known in vaudeville for his take-off of the sidewalk pitchman.  His pitchman character came out on stage with a sample case and a stand.  Once he mounted the case on the stand, he opened it wide to reveal a collection of potato peelers and all-purpose powders.  He then furnished the audience with a funny, fast-paced sales pitch.  The act was already receiving prominent billing in 1903.  Kenna's act was at first known as "The Fakir," an old slang expression for the carnival shill or the street-corner pitchman.  But the act was later known as "The Street Fakir," "The Faker" and "The Yankee Faker."

Joe Laurie, Jr., the author of "Vaudeville From The Honky Tonks To The Palace," wrote, "[Kenna] was plenty original and a natural funny man. . . And don't let anybody tell you that the expressions, 'It's an old army game,' and 'Go away, boy, you're bothering me,' belonged to W. C. Fields.  It was Charles Kenna who used both these expressions in his act many many years before Fields even talked on the stage."

Kenna, whose real name was Charles McKenna, was born in 1859 in Quidneck, Rhode Island.  Sketchy information on Kenna's early years suggest that that Kenna's parents, James and Mary McKenna, worked in minstrel shows in one capacity or another.  Kenna made his debut on stage when he was only ten years old.  For the next 34 years, he performed as a blackface comedian in a variety of minstrel troupes, including Hi Henry's Minstrel Band, Lucier's Minstrels, Al G. Fields Minstrels, and W. S. Cleveland’s All United Minstrels.  He was also a member of a musical comedy act called The Four Emperors of Music.

In 1897, Kenna briefly teamed with Arthur Deming in a double act.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered the following assessment of the team: "Arthur Deming and Charles Kenna are funny and only a fair proportion of their jokes are old."

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Kenna as a "new monologist" in a notice published on April 11, 1899.  This newspaper was the only media source at the time that took any notice of the performer.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 16, 1900.  Review of appearance at the Novelty Theatre, Brooklyn.
Charles Kenna [is] a blackface monologist in budget of witty sayings, funny songs and recitations.
But then, suddenly, Kenna was receiving prominent billing and widespread notices for an entirely new act.  He had gotten rid of the blackface and transformed himself into a unique and dynamic stage personality.  He had become a fast-talking, self-assured comic pitchman.  It was at this late stage of his life that the veteran entertainer had finally achieved stardom.  He maintained favorable reviews for this act for the next 17 years.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February, 1904.  Review of appearance at Hyde & Behman's Theatre, Brooklyn.
Charles Kenna presented his original one man sketch "The Fakir," and the novelty of the act made a decided hit with the audience.  Mr. Kenna has some new talk that is witty, and his act is a most pleasing one.
Variety, January, 1906.  Review of appearance at Hyde and Behman's Theatre, Brooklyn:
Charles Kenna, "the street fakir," has a first-class monologue when heard for the first time.  For a country boy, the second, third or fourth time isn't too often, but all of us in the Metropolitan District were not born amid green fields and mud.  To hear Kenna start off with "Watch the little ball — the old army game, you can't win where you can't lose," brings back the recollections with a rush.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January, 1906.  Review of performance at Hyde & Behman's Theatre.
As neat a bit of character study as the vaudeville stage has ever produced in a long time is that offered this week at Hyde & Behman's by Charles Kenna.  Much is being said of the popularity of American plays by American authors just now and the bit of Americanism presented by Mr. Kenna must be included in this category.  His is a decidedly American effort, depicting a character not to be found anywhere else in the world, a real "Yankee Street Fakir."  Not the kind that stands on the curb and sells ordinary merchandise, but the clever follower of the trotting and country fair circuit, who is an orator, comedian, merchant and flim-flammer all in one.  Whether Mr. Kenna had personal experience in that line the program does not say, but he has the many idiosyncrasies of the art so pat that many in the great audience last night recognized an old friend.  From the moment Kenna appeared on the scene until the finish, he was close to the hearts of the auditors and his act met with a hearty and unqualified success.  The entire bill is probably the best seen at the house this season, moving along with pleasing rapidity and with every act a hit.
Variety, February, 1906.  Review of appearance at the Imperial Theatre, Brooklyn, New York:
Charles Kenna had an imitation of a shell game man that gave him an opportunity for doing almost anything he wanted, and beyond a few stale jokes he did very well indeed.
Variety, November 1907.  Review of appearance at the New York Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna, "The Fakir," in his impersonation of a slick sharper working country towns by the one-night-stand route, was immediately "caught" by anyone who has inhaled the unsullied breezes in the precincts where electricity entered last.  Mr. Kenna has selected a humorous character, but it has required a long time for it to be recognized.  Broadway, even the non-vaudeville sections which seems to frequent the New York, liked "The Fakir" immensely.  The naturalness of Kenna's type brings the enjoyment, while there are many small bits which, though faultlessly true, escape the average uncountryfied metropolitan.
Kenna toured with his act through Europe in 1908.  On his return to the United States, Broadway producers talked to Kenna about starring in a musical comedy called "The Faker," but the project never materialized.

Variety, March, 1909.  Review of appearance at the Colonial Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna scored a complete success with his carefully drawn character sketch of the western medicine "fakir," and the swift patter of flash talk.  He has a capital story toward the finish in which he illustrates how different members of a family, all afflicted with a peculiar twist of the mouth, try to blow out a candle.  The tale is skillfully worked up to a screaming climax.
Variety, November 1910.  Review of appearance at the American Theatre, Chicago:
The hit of the show fell to Charles Kenna, away down next to closing, at a time when it looked as though the night would pass without much of importance actually happening.  "The Fakir" and his funnyisms kept the audience alternately laughing and roaring.  He made good all over the place.
Variety, February, 1911.  Review of appearance at the American Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna held down "No. 7" and being pestered by a house comedian, one of the "souse" variety, in one of the boxes, he managed to pull a lot of laughs.
San Francisco Call, February, 1910.  Review of appearance at the Orpheum Theatre, Oakland, California:
The funniest monologue which has been heard on the Orpheum stage in many a moon is the street faker sketch presented by Charles Kenna.  Armed with a fly brush which he kept in incessant motion to the detriment of imaginary insects, Kenna has succeeded in keeping his audiences laughing.  He is an admirable mimic, and keeps up a rapid fire harangue which would do credit to the dean of the curbstone medicine orators.
Spokane Daily Chronicle, June, 1913.  Review of appearance at Pantages Theatre, Spokane:
Charles Kenna's street faker monologue that goes on the Pantages program this week is mighty good stuff.  Without any accessories of staging or trick work, Kenna puts over a series of subtle gags, every one of which is in character.
Bill of Pantages Theatre, September, 1913.
Charles Kenna, billed as "the street fakir," is a monologist known wherever theatres are known.  He is one of the happiest, merriest laugh-producers on the stage and his new performance in which he takes the part of a street vendor selling medicine that will cure everything that mortal flesh is heir to, suits him to perfection.
Variety, July, 1917.  Review of appearance at the Majestic Theatre, Chicago:
Following [Charles W. Clark] was another male single, but a very welcome one, in the person of Charles Kenna with his delectable and really enjoyable portrayal of "The Street Fakir." There had been so few laughs ahead of him that Kenna's presence was a life-saver, and though he cleverly filled his next to closing spot, he could hardly be expected to hold up the whole bill.  His assassination and swatting of countless imaginary flies as he extolled the equally numerous qualities of his magic power, which among other things "perfumes the breath, sharpens the teeth and makes the hair grow," wrung many hearty laughs.

Kenna had to endure many imitators through the years.  Clyde Hager, of Hager and Goodwin, appeared on the bill with Kenna at the Majestic.  The very next month, he introduced an act in which he monologued as a tent show barker.  The act was a blatant copy of Kenna's act.  Hager spent most of the next decade working as a radio announcer in various markets, including Cincinnati, Chicago and Los Angeles.  During this time, he regularly performed the pitchman act for his radio listeners.  Here is a write up on Hager that appeared in Radio Age in September, 1925:
Clyde Hager was taken from WQJ, where he entertained with Jerry Sullivan.  His street fakir dialogue, in which he takes the part of a curb vender, selling a genuine rubber garter, and continually warning the crowd: "Keep away from me, boys, you bothah me!" brought him great fame at WQJ and he frequently repeats it at WMBB, to the delight of the listeners.
Clyde Hager
But, as reviews suggest, Kenna continued to dominate with his pitchman character on the live theatre stage.

Variety, August, 1917.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna kept the house in good humor throughout his stay with the "Street Fakir" monolog, the novel proportions of the specialty practically insuring his success.  Kenna is a good showman and gauged his audience to the fractional second on delivery and time.  His routine has been greatly improved since his last metropolitan appearance and with the well known lack of good comedy "singles" Kenna should find little or no trouble in landing continual work hereabouts.
Variety, June, 1918.  Review of appearance at the Hamilton Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna, as a street corner salesman, selling insect powder, earned laughs aplenty and was sent over with some to spare.
Variety, November, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Harlem Opera House, New York:
It's a long time since Charles Kenna has been around New York with his fakir turn.  Like old wine, Kenna improved with age.  Kenna possesses the virtue of being original, a quality that few male singers can successfully claim credit for.  His talk went over for a continuous laugh.  It's a standard turn that seems as fresh as the day it started way back in the dark ages of vaudeville.
And, then, Kenna was gone.  This was Kenna’s last known engagement.

Variety, April, 1920

Declining health prevented the comedian from continuing his act.  Kenna retired to his home in Mansfield, Massachusetts.  He died on April 24, 1929.

Other comedians rushed forth to fill the vacuum created by Kenna’s retirement.  New pitchman routines were introduced by a variety of comedians, including Jimmie Cooper, Joe Frisco and Charles Robinson.  Robinson went as far as billing himself as "The Street Fakir."  But none of these copycat acts had the staying power of Kenna’s act.

One night in April, 1920, a one-armed singer/comedian Al Grossman came on stage with a sample case and a stand and engaged in a pitchman monologue much like Kenna had.  It upset the performer when Variety accused him of patterning his act after Kenna's act.  He wrote a letter to Variety that read, in part:
My offering is dissimilar to Mr.Kenna's.  The street fakir harks back to days long before Mr. Kenna.  The idea was first used in "The Runaways" at the Casino fifteen years ago.
Is this true?

"The Runaways" debuted on Broadway on May 11, 1903.  Al Fields was billed in the program as "Fleeceum, A Patent Medicine Fakir."  He was introduced in the show hanging around with touts and bookies at a racetrack.  The Plattsburgh Sentinel noted that Fields distinguished himself in the role with "his long legs and battered hat."  But it is unknown the exact nature or function of the Fleeceum role.

Let us now move ahead six months.  The earliest known record of Kenna's act was this ad that was published in November, 1903.


Such a prominent ad suggests that the act was well-established by this date.  Kenna could have been performing the act for the last year or two.  Or, maybe he hadn’t.  No information that I turned up in my research can confirm this one way or another.  From the incomplete timeline that I was able to create, it remains possible that Kenna acquired inspiration for his act from "The Runaways."  But I am still willing to believe that the act had been, for the most part, originated by Kenna.  The critics unanimously credited Kenna as the originator of the act and I feel inclined to believe that they knew what they were talking about.

Mr. Al Fields, himself, was an undistinguished presence on the vaudeville stage.  We have no record of him ever including his Fleeceum business as part of his act.  Instead, he toured with an act called "The Misery of a Hansom Cab," which cast him as a funny cab driver.  The act involved Fields getting into patter routines with a straight man riding in the backseat as a passenger.  It was like the old bit that Burns and Schreiber performed on television in the 1960s.

Clyde Hager, the aforementioned radio announcer, had free reign to tour the vaudeville circuits with his pitchman bit once Kenna had passed from the scene.  Hager reintroduced his stage act in a 1929 Olsen and Johnson revue, "Merry Mad Minutes of Monkey Business."  Kenna once said that stage producer William Hammerstein hired him after he saw him selling potato peelers on a street corner.  Hager now told a story that was a nearly identical, the only difference being that he left out the producer’s name.  Hager, as Kenna, wanted his fans to believe that he was a 100-percent authentic, experience-hardened pitchman.

He later toured with the act on his own.  His reviews were generally good, although not as enthusiastic as Kenna's reviews.

Variety, June, 1930.  Review of appearance at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle:
Clyde Hager had 'em with his street vendor sales talk, the lingo being good, although some of the jokes are bewhiskered.
Exhibitors Herald-World, September, 1930.  Review of appearance at an unnamed Chicago Theatre:
Clyde Hager kept the house in an uproar from the time he landed on the stage. . . His long suit was selling some kind of an economic potato peeler, and when he actually peeled a poor little offensive spud right on the stage, it brought a howl.
In 1933, Hager was singled out in Variety for performing his "familiar street-hawking act" at the Pitt Theatre in Pittsburgh.

Variety April, 1935.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre, New York:
Clyde Hager, the pitchman, was okay on second.  His "go way from me boys, you bother me"' is always worth a giggle.  Hager surprised himself last summer by getting into a legit show — 'Keep Moving' at the Forrest, but he intends sticking to vaude.
Eddie Cantor had Hager perform his routine in his feature film Strike Me Pink (1936).  This was the year of the pitchman in Hollywood.  Other pitchman characters were affectionately spotlighted in two other releases of the year, Come Closer, Folks and Gift of Gab.

Pat O'Brien played a pitchman in I Sell Anything (1934).

Variety, August 1936.  Review of appearance at the Met Theatre, Boston:
Clyde Hager, in his ace pitch man single bit fits in nicely to the trey, spattering the front row with potato peelings as he demonstrates his first gadget, and shellacking his stooge with lather in another demonstration.  Hager's line is rich, his delivery is very good, but he did not register in the far-off seats.  Appeared to be too far away from the mike.  Although consistently the, pitch man, Hager would do well to work up a punchy blow-off.
Variety June, 1937.  Review of appearance at the Capitol Theatre, Washington D.C.:
Hager, the Street Fakir, has house in palm of his hand when he walks onto ramp with stand and suitcase for turn as pitchman.  Idea is rare enough here for him to work straight and wow 'em throughout the act, but he launches into broad farce, smearing stooge with cold cream, and plenty off-color gags that get the laughs, but alienate the cricks [i. e. elite] and smart crowd.
Variety, October, 1937.  Review of appearance at the Salt Lake City Theatre, Utah:
Clyde Hager's pitchman act, which he has been spieling for nearly 20 years, remains as the top applause garnerer of the bill.  Gabbing somewhat in a W. C. Fields tone, Hager calls upon such potent pitch bon mots as 'Go way, you bother me,' and 'You say you're not satisfied' to lift his act for a solid click.  Uses two stooges, one a cop to move him along the stage, and the other is spotted in audience but steps on the stage when the cue comes.
For the next several years, Hager performed the pitchman act in two of Olsen and Johnson's Broadway shows, "Hellzapoppin" and "Sons o' Fun."  He then teamed with Wally Brown to perform comedy patter routines on the Kate Smith radio show.  By this time, the comedian had reportedly obtained a copyright on the catchphrase "That’s all, brother!"

Clyde Hager
Hager returned briefly to one-night stage engagements.

Billboard, January 24, 1942.  Review of appearance at the Flatbush Theatre, Brooklyn:
Clyde Hager, with his familiar pitchman routine, gets belly laughs from men and embarrassed titters from ladies.
From 1942 to 1944, Hager performed his pitchman act as part of the floorshow at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub.  He left the club to tour army camps as a member of the Camel Caravan.  The following notice appeared in North Carolina's Cloudbuster newspaper on April 15, 1944:
[Clyde Hager] will entertain with his pitchman routine, exaggerating the styles of the street corner vendors selling everything from gold watches to hot perfumes for a dime.
Hager was still touring with the Camel Caravan when he died of a heart attack on May 22, 1944.  He was 58 years old.

Tommy Bernard and Ransom Sherman pitch their medicine show wares in Yankee Fakir (1947).

It wasn't long after Hager’s death that another successor to Kenna's comedy legacy came along.  The succession was clearly noted in a Variety article published on September 15, 1948:
And then there is Sid Stone, now a rather familiar Tuesday night figure on the Texaco television hour with his pitchman commercial for his sponsor.  Here he does the pitchman.  He includes the "get away, boys, you bother me,'' and all the rest of it so well identified with the late Clyde Hager.  It's said that Hager in turn had "adopted" the idea from a yesteryear vaudevillian, Charles Kenna.
Stone performed the pitchman role on Milton Berle’s "Texaco Star Theatre" from 1948 to 1951.  He furnished the familiar lines.  "You say you want more for your money?" he'd say.  "Tell you what I'm gonna do."

The fascination with the pitchman continued in the coming decades.  In the 1950s, John Steinbeck and George Frazier wrote a musical about an elixir salesman called "The Wizard of Maine."  Bing Crosby performed a pitchman musical number in The Country Girl (1954).

The pitchman's ways were ideally exemplified by Robert Preston in The Music Man (1962).  And, of course, let us not forget about Johnny Carson's Art Fern. . .

or Dan Aykroyd’s Super Bass-O-Matic pitchman.

Additional notes

My article includes assertions by Joe Laurie, Jr. that W. C. Fields appropriated parts of Charles Kenna's pitchman act.  Above all else, Fields has frequently been credited with using Kenna’s catchphrase "Go away, kid, you bother me!"  The pitchman is meant to deliver the line to an intrusive small boy whose questions or comments are interfering with his patter.  But I could find no instance of Fields speaking this line in a film.  Was this a misattribution much like claims that Cary Grant said "Judy, Judy, Judy" or Jimmy Cagney said "You dirty rat"?   I consulted two Fields biographers, James Curtis and Simon Louvish.  They, too, were unaware of an instance in which Fields ever recited this line.   They did, however, contribute their thoughts on this subject, which helped me to compose my final assessment.

Being as irascible as he was, Fields was quick to shoo away the frequent pests that came near him.  But he tended to mutter simply, "Go away, go away."  He might say this or something similar to a small child.

But he would just as easily say it to a dog (The Barber, 1933). . .

or a fly (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 1941).

The closest that he came to Kenna's famous line occurs in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).  While performing a ventriloquist act for a carnival crowd, Fields snarls at a boy in the front row, "Away, boy, you draw flies!"

The Kenna line may have become associated with Fields by way of cartoons, including Little Blabbermouse (1940) and Shop, Look, and Listen (1940).

As of the 1920s, the sidewalk pitchman had been around for more than a hundred years.  People were familiar with this man's spellbinding spiels.  If you want to know the pitchman's rich history, you can read Brooks McNamara’s "Step right up" or Ann Anderson’s "Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones."  Kenna had no patent on the pitchman as a comic character.  Comedians had a right to adapt this character to their own personal style and perspective.  I think that is what Fields did.  Fields originated the role of Prof. Eustace McGargle, a blustery carnival barker, in a 1923 Broadway musical, "Poppy."  He portrayed variations of this character, on and off, for the remainder of his career.

We have no recording of Kenna's act, but we do have recordings of his most prominent imitators, Hager and Stone.  Their fast-talking pitchman characters are notably different than the pitchman characters that Fields brought to the screen.  Fields delivered his spiels with a raspy drawl, which was quite different than Hager or Stone's snappy patter.  But, to be perfectly honest, I cannot say that the acts are entirely dissimilar.  Judge for yourself.

Clyde Hager

Sid Stone

W.C. Fields in The Old Fashioned Way

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