- Historic Sites
Its last impresario tells why it is the most American of all entertainments. (It’s not because of the strippers.)
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
In 1955 Billy Hagan was no longer in seasonal residence at the Troc. He was now on the road and appeared in Philadelphia about once every 15 weeks. The house comic and stage manager that year was a manic little fellow named Maxie Furman, who became one of my closest friends and whom I cast in Sugar Babies in 1980. (He died on tour with the show.)
Maxie was nervous, fast-talking, and brilliantly acerbic in his stage persona, but kind and gentle off the stage. Unlike Foster and Hagan, he had once had a brief flirtation with the big time. Some years before, when he was playing at the Town Hall Theatre in Toledo, Mike Todd, the Broadway impresario, had spent a restless night in the city after his plane made an emergency landing because of bad weather. Todd found his way to the burlesque house and, charmed by Maxie’s performance, hired him to succeed Bobby Clark in Mexican Hayride . As soon as Maxie’s tour in that show ended, he returned to burlesque, preferring the security of 40 weeks’ work a year to the uncertainty of Broadway.
Maxie’s job as stage manager of the Troc meant that he had to be prepared to jump in if one of the comics was drunk or otherwise indisposed. He had a stock routine that he used on those occasions. He would appear on the stage carrying a trumpet. The orchestra would play, and Maxie would lift the trumpet to his mouth as if preparing to blow, then stop suddenly to tell a story. He repeated this routine three or four times. By now the audience suspected that he couldn’t play the trumpet at all. But of course he could, and he finished his act by playing a superb solo with a whole succession of spectacular high notes.
Maxie was a skillful raconteur, and I learned everything I know about the art of joke telling from him. Many of his jokes were about eccentric pet owners, and I adapted one of them for my recent production of Scandals :
I have a pet, but I’m a nonconformist. I don’t have a dog or a cat. I have a duck. His name is Arnie. One day I was walking Arnie, and I passed a movie theater. It was showing a film I wanted to see. I went to buy a ticket. The cashier looked at my duck and said, “You can’t bring that animal in here.”
“Animal,” I said. “He’s just a little duck. He read the book. He wants to see the movie.”
“You can’t bring him in here,” she said, “and that’s final.”
Well, I really wanted to see that film. So I slipped around the corner, opened my coat, unzipped, and put Arnie inside my pants. I closed the zipper, buttoned my coat, went to the box office, bought a ticket, and got inside without any trouble.
I was sitting next to two old ladies. Well, I didn’t want my little duck to stifle, so I opened my zipper a few inches, and Arnie stuck his head out.
“Mabel,” said one of the old ladies to her friend, “do you see what I see?”
“Ah,” said Mabel, “you’ve seen one; you’ve seen them all.”
“Yes,” said the first. “But this one is eating my popcorn.”
Through Furman and Hagan, I met another brilliant comic. He was Bert Carr, a sophisticated and skillful performer who, despite other offers, chose to continue in burlesque even in its sad final days. Bert was an excellent serious actor. He had performed with Boris Thomashevsky at the Yiddish Art Theatre, but in mid-career he traded high art for low comedy. He had a face like a grotesque Hellenistic comedy mask (when he removed his false teeth), but he was a very gentle, understated comedian. He played a good-natured but greedy clown, always hungry. His tag line, “You gotta eat,” was worked into every stage conversation, often in a cunning and roundabout way. Despite his training in the mawkish Yiddish Theatre, there was no pathos in his comic style.
Bert was the first burlesque comedian I ever worked with. In 1962 I put together a revue for the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and Bert was the star. He stole the show in a famous flirtation scene the comics called “The Shedhouse Quartet, or, Meet Me Round the Corner.” This was one of Billy Hagan’s scenes too, and I liked it so much that I adapted it for Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies .
The sketch is about a quartet of friends who promise to stay together forever but who succumb one by one to feminine temptation. The sketch played for 50 years on the Columbia and Mutual circuits. It has no known source, and it possibly developed improvisationally out of a rehearsal situation.
Early in the scene, as soon as the principal comic appears to complete the quartet, the audience is treated to a series of very naive jokes.
STRAIGHT They need a quartet down at the Gaiety Theater. Can you sing?
FIRST COMIC Sure. I used to sing in a queer.
STRAIGHT No. No. You mean a choir.