Sunday, July 17, 2016

Funnyman in a Straitjacket

One of the 19th-century’s most notorious establishments was the insane asylum. Comedy can be a response to notoriety or a salve to tragedy.  It was inevitable for comedians to fool with the provocative aspects of an insane asylum.  This brings us to our subject today.

The burlesque routine "Crazy House" is the most longstanding comedy routine to address the subject of the insane asylum.  I have dug further into a history of the routine, which I wrote about before in a "Comedy Routine of the Day" feature (Click here for the article).  The routine dates back to the minstrel shows, at which time it was called "The Crazy Asylum." 

Another type of crazy house.
Burlesque comedian Billy Hart helped to bring about a revival of the routine as a member of The Gay Masqueraders.  Hart performed with the troupe on the Columbia Amusement Company's theatre circuit ("Columbia Wheel") as early as October, 1907.  At the time, the Masqueraders' version of "Crazy Asylum" assumed a fairly traditional form and was known as "Dr. Dopey's Dippy Den" (later, "Dr. Dopey's Dippy Retreat").

The "Dippy" business quickly became a stock act for burlesquers.  The wacky, fast-paced scene brought about an enthusiastic response from audiences wherever it was played.  A Washington Post critic who saw the act performed at D. C.'s Belasco Theatre referred to this style of comedy as "rip-roaring."

It was a reoccurring complaint of critics that Hart's version of the act was risqué.  This was an issue raised by a Variety critic who had seen The Gay Masqueraders perform at the Standard Theatre in Cincinnati.  Still, the critic noted, "there is still plenty of comedy in it to make it go."  He found that, all in all, the troupe offered "a very nice show and one that have eminent satisfaction."  A similarly mixed review appeared in Variety when The Gay Masqueraders later brought their show to New York City.  The review read:
Take Billy Hart out of the show and there would be no Gay Masqueraders. The comedian is on the stage almost continuously from the rise of the curtain.  Mr. Hart is funny — at times, screamingly so; but every now and then he allows a bit of suggestiveness to creep in, which all but kills his better and cleaner moments.  In "Dr. Dopey's Dippy Den," the burlesque, all the comedy is allowed to rest upon the comedian, and he manages to keep things moving at a lively pace.
I noted in my earlier article that Hart extensively reworked the routine when he transferred to The Crackers Jacks, which was another company that operated on the Columbia Wheel.  Hart repopulated the sanitarium with shapely chorus girls in the new version of the routine, which was now billed as "The Female Sanitarium."  I learned in my latest research that Hart deviated from the original routine much further than I suspected.  The New York Clipper noted on March 13, 1909:
The Female Sanitarium had the funny idea of having two gay sports, played by Misses [Ruby] Leoni and [Lillie] Vedder, turned into men by means of magic oils.  Billy Hart, as the attendant, and Wm. Bowman, as a patient, took pills that turned them into women.  Some funny situations resulted.  The various dippy inhabitants performed some laughable stunts.  Miss Leoni appeared to good advantage in a sleep walking visit to the men's dormitory to the satisfaction of the male patients.
The Cherry Blossoms, another burlesque troupe, added the routine to their program in 1907.  Variety said of their show:
"Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium" is the burlesque, made up of the familiar material as the name implies.  A bed is dragged on the stage and made the subject of a lot of sickly comedy aided and abetted by John Perry.  The rest follow traditions pretty closely.
In February, 1916, Cincinnati's Empress Theatre presented a variation of the sketch called "Dr. Joy's Sanitarium."  The Labor Advocate called the sketch "fast, frolicsome, farcical fun."  The newspaper added, "A doctor, a nurse and four 'dippy' patients are introduced in a hospital ward - and the things that happen, fast and furious, make the act a scream from start to finish."

Dr. Dippy's Sanitorium was incorporated into a 1918 Broadway musical comedy called "The Canary."  The production is most notable for featuring music by Irving Berlin.  It is interesting to note the circumstances that brought the play's protagonists to the sanitarium.  The play centers on a famous diamond known as The Canary.  The diamond is stolen and brought by the thieves to an antique dealer.  The New York Clipper reported, "[The diamond] is swallowed by [the antique dealer's] blundering assistant, Timothy.  This causes the latter to be sent to a sanitarium, where an X-ray is taken and, because of the desire of would-be purchasers of the gem, a surgical operation is imminent."  The Three Stooges later used the same diamond-swallowing premise in Crime On Their Hands (1948) and Abbott and Costello used the premise (replacing the diamond with a medallion) in Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

A simple but eloquent review of the act appeared in The New York Clipper in regards to a performance by the Morris and Castle players in Beaver, Wisconsin.  The critic wrote, "Fred Baker invites us into the sanitarium owned and operated by Dr. Dippy.  It is a cure for grouches and such things. . ."

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