Cast & Characters: Part 1

Billy "Cheese and Crackers" Hagan

Billy “Cheese and Crackers” Hagan wears the baggy pants worn by burlesque comics. Note, too, the oversize “slap shoes.”

These scenes represent a different approach to sketch comedy than most of what is being presented today. The cast of shows like Second City or Saturday Night Live create original scenes built around original and unusual characters.

Burlesque comedy relies much more on standard comedy types. A burlesque comic or straightman would play essentially the same character in every scene. The scenes presented challenging situations for these characters to respond to.

This is an approach we find in clowning. Clowning generally relies on a comedy duo, as John Towsen observes in Clowns – “the first a scheming rogue and the second his less clever butt.”

This pairing of a clever and a stupid clown appears again and again in the history of clowning, from the relationship between the first and second zanni in the commedia dell’arte to the white face and auguste in traditional circus clowning, and Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy in the movies.

In Ethnic Humor Around the World, sociologist Christie Davies that jokes making fun of ethnic or regional outsiders are found in every country and that “the stereotypes that underpin ethnic jokes tend to occur not singly but in pairs of opposites. Thus in most western industrial societies the most popular ethnic jokes are those about groups supposed to be stupid and (in opposition to this) jokes about groups supposed to be canny (i.e. crafty and stingy). These two kinds of ethnic jokes are far more numerous, widespread, durable and popular than any other type of ethnic joke.”
In burlesque and vaudeville, the roles are divided between the Straightman and the Comic or between the First and Second Comic. Always there is a clever trickster who tries to take advantage of his slower, more amiable partner. Where all three appear, the Straightman plays the authoritarian figure, the First Comic is the cleverer stooge and the Second Comic is the dullard. What usually happens is that the First Comic, after being conned by the Straightman, tries the scam on the Second Comic, only to have it backfire on him, causing him lose twice.

Cast

Scenes like those included in these collections played a much more significant role in the burlesque show than in the vaudeville. This is because many burlesque houses operated as stock companies.

cast

Figure 2. Cast members of a burlesque show at the Hollywood Theatre in San Diego. The principals are in the front row and include two teams of comedians and the leading strippers.

In a stock company, the cast was hired by the theatre for the entire season, and they were responsible for putting up a different show each week, much as summer stock theatres do today.

While a vaudeville performer might do the same act through much of his or her career, burlesque comics had to be flexible. Rather than coming up with a brand new scene each week, they reached back into their memories for scenes that had worked before. Hundreds of these scenes existed during the heyday of burlesque and vaudeville in the first half of the twentieth century.
An experienced comic, straightman or talking lady could be expected to perform any of the standards with little or no rehearsal. The performers could put the scene up after simply talking it through, even if they had never played together before. The repertoire of scenes was that familiar.

Figure 3. Straightman Ray Parsons and comic Billy "Zoot" Reed pose with talking lady, Collette, in this still from the burlesque feature, Merry Maids of the Gay Way.

Figure 3. Straightman Ray Parsons and comic Billy “Zoot” Reed pose with talking lady, Collette, in this still from the burlesque feature, Merry Maids of the Gay Way.

Comedy Teams

The comedy was in the hands of a team, which typically included a Comic, a Straightman, and a Talking Woman. Some shows employed two teams of comics, who alternated scenes. In such cases, one team might be affiliated with the theatre, while the second team was a touring act that would be brought in for a limited run.

Most burlesque shows doubled up on these roles. Thus, there would be a Principal Comic (the so-called “Top Banana”) who was supported by a Second Comic (the “Second Banana”) and a Third Comic, sometimes called the Character Man or Bit Man.

The Straightman was supported by the Juvenile Straightman or Juvenile.
The Talking Woman was often the spouse of either the Comic or the Straightman. If a scene required additional women, chorus girls would be tapped for those roles.

Apprenticeship

Figure 4: The candy butcher had the candy concession at the burlesque theatre.  The candy butcher’s spiel was a familiar part of the event.  Young men often got their start in the theatre as his assistants, going up and down the aisle hustling product.  Jack Burns played the candy butcher in The Night They Raided Minsky's.

Figure 4: The candy butcher had the candy concession at the burlesque theatre. The candy butcher’s spiel was a familiar part of the event. Young men often got their start in the theatre as his assistants, going up and down the aisle hustling product. Jack Burns played the candy butcher in The Night They Raided Minsky’s.

Burlesque was a vitally important training ground for young talent, serving much the same kind of role as improv groups like Second City and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade do today.  Burlesque was the bottom rung of show business – offering long hours and low pay.  But it gave young performers a chance to learn repertoire and to develop their comedic skills by performing classic scenes several times each week.

Most men got their start as ushers or candy sellers, where they had the opportunity to observe experienced comedians perform up to 15 times a week.  Women usually got their start in the chorus.

Figure 1.  Steve Mills, shown with his wife Susan in the early 1970s, got his start as a candy seller at Boston's Gayety Theatre in 1910.  His career reached its zenith when he became the top banana in Ann Corio's This Was Burlesque in 1963.

Figure 1. Steve Mills, shown with his wife Susan in the early 1970s, got his start as a candy seller at Boston’s Gayety Theatre in 1910. His career reached its zenith when he became the top banana in Ann Corio’s This Was Burlesque in 1963.

This was the tradition that most performers, ambitious for a career in comedy, were exposed to – for it was a technique relied on by the “poor theatre” which could not afford to hire scriptwriters.

In those days, most actors learned the art of the stage through some kind of apprenticeship.  Young men usually got their start selling candy in the theatres or ushering;  women typically got their start as chorus girls.

From this position, an ambitious young comedian like Steve Mills, who went to work as a candy butcher in 1910, got to watch from thirty-five to forty comedy teams work each season as shows on the Columbia Wheel came through Boston.  And not just once.  Steve got to watch them two shows a day, six days a week.

Figure 2.  Joey Faye (left) shown with Phil Silvers and Herbie Faye in the Broadway musical Top Banana.  All three were veterans of burlesque.

Figure 2. Joey Faye (left) shown with Phil Silvers and Herbie Faye in the Broadway musical Top Banana. All three were veterans of burlesque.

An aspiring comic might pick up a job as a “bit man” or “character man,” doing walk-on roles. Joey Faye recalled what this was like:

“I had very little to do. I said a few lines or made some sounds, like screaming, in a scene, like the ‘Crazy House’ scene. In another scene, I’d be the customer getting a haircut in a barber shop. The barber suddenly poured the illegal booze on my head when the cop entered. Then I’d run out in a frenzy. In another scene, I’d come out in a sheet playing an inmate in a mental institution.”

There were usually lots of spots for women to deliver a line or two in the various “flirtation scenes.” The Straightman usually started off a juvenile, often doubling as a singer.

In the stock houses, the comedians had to come up with three new bits each week. The Gayety in New York employed two teams of comics, each of which was responsible for two new scenes each week. The two teams collaborated on the final large-cast “body scene” to conclude the show.

Rehearsals

Figure 5.  Comic Sparky Kaye and straightman Jimmie Cavanaugh rehearse a scene with two unidentified talking ladies for the burlesque show at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas (1956)

Figure 5. Comic Sparky Kaye and straightman Jimmie Cavanaugh rehearse a scene with two unidentified talking ladies for the burlesque show at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas (1956)

Rehearsals were pretty informal affairs. Rags Ragland – a top banana for the celebrated Minsky Bros. who became a successful character actor in Hollywood – claimed he had never rehearsed more than three hours for any burlesque show.

The comics talked through the scene with castmembers they hadn’t worked with before, describing the action and telling them any specific lines they had Rehearsals were pretty informal affairs. Rags Ragland – a top banana for the celebrated Minsky Bros. who became a successful character actor in Hollywood – claimed he had never rehearsed more than three hours for any burlesque show.

The comics talked through the scene with castmembers they hadn’t worked with before, describing the action and telling them any specific lines they had to deliver.

Gypsy Rose Lee recalled such a run-through in her memoirs:

“Ever done the ‘Illusion’ scene before?” [Herbie] asked me.
I shook my head.

“Well, it don’t matter,” he replied. “I do a rehash on it, anyway. I don’t use none of that Tondelayo dialogue. I go right inta the switch on the Joe the bartender bit only I use a ukulele instead of a bull fiddle. And after the yok yok with Stinky, the second banana, the lights come up and you’re lying stage left in front of a grass hut. I give you a skull, then a slow triple, and you get up and start giving me the business. You do about four bars a bumps and grinds while I chew a hunk outa the grass hut, then you read your lines, “I’m not illusion,’ you say. ‘I’m real–here, take my hand–touch me, feel me….’” You scram on the blackout and I finish the scene with Stinky.”

“What finish?” I asked faintly.
“Him and me clinching–the old tried and true.”

The finer points would be worked out in performance. With two or more shows a day, six days a week, the comics essentially rehearsed the scene in front of the audience, letting them determine which bits to keep and which to toss. Joe Laurie, Jr. recalled that

Week after week a new [scene] was presented, little better than a dress rehearsal at the Monday matinee, but going full swing toward the middle of the week, when half-forgotten bits were recalled and inserted.

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