A vaudeville-born device we used often was the “comedy duet,” where, at several points throughout the number, the performers stopped singing to deliver jokes, usually in the familiar straightline-punchline format.
In a 1978 special entitled "A Tribute to the Palace Theater," our studio at NBC in Burbank had been transformed into a replica of New York’s Palace Theater, the Holy Grail of all vaudevillians.
The special was produced by Sheldon Keller, a devoted vaude-afficionado (my word, but descriptive) and the lines throughout the show reflected his distinctive style. His writing partners, Howard Albrecht and Sol Weinstein (a team I had worked with on the Dean Martin Roasts), also shared writing credit.
The music of this duet performed by Hope and George Burns was written by Sol Weinstein. It’s entitled "That’s the Way It Was in Vaudeville", and I consider it a truly remarkable reflection of the spirit of the era it honors.
The set was a small-town railroad depot, circa 1928. The boys wore brown tweed suits and bowler hats. Each had a cane he would use
throughout the number. As the gold-ltasseled red velvet curtain rose, they were revealed along with two large steamer-trunks, Hope standing and George sitting. When the music begins, they don their bowlers and move forward to center-stage.
HOPE/BURNS: (sing) Hat, cane, trunk, train... that’s the way it was in vaudeville... (Softshoe) Song cue, softshoe, that’s the way it was in vaudeville... They loved us in the cities, they loved us in the sticks, we didn’t mind the vegetables, but when they threw the bricks...Laughs, frowns, tank towns, that’s the way it was in vaudeville...
BURNS: Mamaroneck, Saranac, Scranton and Canton...
HOPE: Austin and Boston, Racine, yes I mean...
HOPE/BURNS: That’s the way it was in vaudeville...
BURNS: Ashville and Nashville, Nogales and Dallas,
HOPE: Detroit and Beloit, Kankakee, don’t you see?
HOPE/BURNS: That’s the way it was in vaudeville.
HOPE: (speaks) Vaudeville... what an era.
BURNS: But it wasn’t all fun and games. Bob.
HOPE: I know what you mean. Remember some of those small town we had to play?
BURNS: You remember Zyszx, Nevada?
HOPE: Do I remember Zyszx? Just saying it used to clear up my sinuses.
BURNS: That town was so small, the trains only stopped there once a week... just to laugh.
HOPE: It was so tiny, the electric company was four batteries and a jar of fireflies.
BURNS: But what made vaudeville worthwhile was some of the unusual acts we worked with. Like "The Great Maurice"... half-man and half-woman. It was fine until one night he was arrested for making a pass at himself.
HOPE: I remember the case. At the last minute, he dropped the charges. But the most unique act of them all was "Knock-
Knees Needleman," the original one-man-band.
BURNS: Yeah, nobody could follow him.
HOPE: He had a pair of cymbals strapped to his knees, a harmonica in his mouth, base drums on both hips, mallets on his elbows, and if that wasn’t enough, he tapped danced on a Wurlitzer to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s
BURNS: That kid had to belong to about six unions.
HOPE: (ad-lib) That’s the longest straight-line I’ve ever had. But in his prime, the poor guy was struck by a bolt of lightning and died in the key of F.
BURNS: I remember his last request was to be buried dressed in his instruments. And while they were lowering him, a windstorm came up and he played at his own funeral.
HOPE: Where else but in a free America?
HOPE/BURNS: The act was a dilly in Cleveland and Philly... we rocked ‘em in Brockton and Troy...What a joy, they went batty in old Cincinnati... They screamed in Moline,
BURNS: We had ’em in Chatham...
HOPE: We killed ’em in Wilton. They raved in New Haavden...
BURNS: (speaks) Hold it! Where the hell is New Haav-den?
HOPE: Somewhere near Conned-id-did-icutt.
HOPE/BURNS: That’s the way it was in vaude...Listen every son and daughter... Aren’t you glad that you have bought a... ticket to a good old vaudeville!
Sol Weinstein was the most talented song writer I ever worked with. A former jazz disc jockey, he wrote several songs recorded by major artists including “The Curtain Falls,” heard for the first time on the Bobby Darin
Show when Sol and Howard were on his staff in the sixties. Bobby used it to close his act, and it’s sung by Kevin Spacey, as Darin, in his 2004
bio-film, Beyond the Sea. Hope sang it at the conclusion of A Tribute to the Palace Theater, and its lyrics conclude this book.
The comic duet took about an hour-and-a-half to tape. Both men had just returned from long road trips. But since we had the audience
already in place for another number, they decided to go out and wing the duet without rehearsing it first.
Several problems were immediately apparent. Since it’s an original song and not a familiar standard, it was more difficult to sing. And the
words are alliterative — some difficult to pronounce. Also, the routine involved choreography. Singing unfamiliar lyrics while dancing proved to be a killer. And, most important, these guys had been around awhile — they claimed they met while appearing in the lounge on Noah’s Ark. At the time, Burns was 83 and Hope was 76.
They had begun the number about three times when Keller told the director to keep the tape running even during the flubs. The audience, of course, loved being witnesses to the train wreck. Hope and Burns adlibbed throughout, ribbing each other while referring to mutual friends they had known in vaudeville.
When Burns drifted off camera, Hope stopped the track and said, “We’ve got to put a string on him. All at once, I was doing a single.”
After about ten unsuccessful attempts on the line “The act was a dilly in Cleveland and Philly,” George looked at the audience and said, “The act was a dilly? The act was pathetic.” The audience roared.
I replay the outtake reel for friends who often ask, “Why didn’t you make an entire special out of this?” With both legends now gone, the tape is priceless.
Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers (c) 2009 by Robert L. Mills and published by Bear Manor Media: . The book was chosen by Leonard Maltin as a “Top 20 Year-End Pick“ for 2009. FREE sample chapters can be read at: : http://www.laughmakers.blogspot.com
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Also available in an unabridged audio version read by the author: http://www.audible.com/adbl/site/products/ProductDetail.jsp?BV_SessionID=....0545479184.1272211432....&BV_EngineID=cccjadekfdmleefcefecekjdffidfmf.0&productID=BK_BEAR_000001