The Sunshine Boy
The Guys Talk With The Man Whose Characterizations Are Still Relevant Even Though He Has Become A Historical Footnote
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
April 18, 2016 — This one goes way back.
Joe Smith of “Smith & Dale” and “Avon Comedy Four” vaudeville repute was 95 years old and sharp as tack when we met him one crisp September morning back in 1979 at the Actor's Fund Home in Englewood, N.J. It was the unpredictable confluence of chronology that brought us together. We were born in the late 1950s and had reached an adult age where we could seek out celebrities. And Smith, for his part, had held on long enough to appear in our gunsights as a potential interview — a harmonic convergence (with distinct “Borscht Belt” overtones) if ever there was one.
By the time we interviewed Smith — whose “Sunshine Boy” character was immortalized by George Burns in the self-titled movie — his kind of ethnic comedy which relied heavily on German-Jewish and Hungarian dialects and which had been a staple of vaudeville in the first years of the 20th century, had become an historical footnote. Smith himself was all but forgotten; remembered only by a handful of show business archivists, the staff at the Actor's Fund Home … and Hackensack High School. The spry nonagenarian’s only defense against the accumulated early morning dew in the Home's back garden was a pullover sweater with a giant letter “H” stitched on the front. Smith told us Hackensack High had given him the garment — making him de facto, the oldest recent high school graduate in the nation.
“I first met Charlie Dale in 1898 at Child's Restaurant in Manhattan,” he told us. Other reports say that the two knockabout comedians met, appropriately, when their bikes collided into each other on Delancey Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Smith said that he couldn’t know at the time that their inauspicious debut slinging hash would be the beginning of a fruitful partnership that would last 73 years, ending with Dale’s death in 1971.
“We both worked a shift from 12 noon to 3 a.m. The rest of the time we looked for stage work. At the time, Charlie and I had a singin’ and dancin’ act in blackface with some comedy thrown in. In 1901, we hooked up with Will Lester and Jack Coleman and became ‘The Imperial Vaudeville and Comedy Company.’”
In that era, before automobiles (we said this one goes way back!), the foursome played a series of one-night stands all over upstate New York and were transported to their gigs in a horse-drawn sleigh. Smith said that on Saturdays, the act would work for room and board and pitch in as waiters and bartenders.
We wondered aloud whether the act's unwieldy title could that have been a contributing factor why Smith, Dale, Lester and Coleman, were waiting tables on weekends?
“Eventually we put together a school-type act and opened in a café in New York up on 116th street,” Smith said. “As I was leaving the place after arranging the first booking, I looked in the window and noticed it was named Avon. That's how the Avon Comedy Four was born.”
Turn-of-the-century bookings at theaters down on the Bowery (New York's theater district long before Broadway supplanted it) led to a gig at the Atlantic Garden, a family beer hall that featured an all-girl orchestra. That’s where the Avon Comedy Four met an agent who launched them into the big time — the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit.
By that time, the act had developed into a full-blown farce called, “The New School Teacher” — complete with school desks as props. The Avon Comedy Four performed the act to rave notices for more than a decade all over the country. Although the comedy creaks plenty after more than seven decades, Smith assured us the lines flew fast and furious. He gave us a sampling.
“The teacher would come on stage and ask us to name two of the principal oceans in the world. A sissified boy would stand up and recite: ‘The Atlantic and the Pacific.’ And the teacher would reply: 'No, that's a tea company.' The teacher would then say: 'I will now call out the roll.' I would hand him a biscuit and say: ‘Tomorrow I'll bring you a pineapple.' Flustered, he'd then say: ‘Those who are here say, Here! And those who are not here, say Not Here!'"
Around 1906, Smith & Dale also began developing their own comic specialty — “Dr. Kronkheit and his Patient” — that became a staple amidst the Avon Comedy Four's general zaniness. A typical Dr. Kronkheit exchange would be: “Please, my time is liniment — don't rub it in!”
The act played Orpheum Circuit theaters for a solid 10 years with little more changing than the accompanying musical selections. But in 1918, The Avon Comedy Four, in a furious case of spring cleaning, wrote a whole new act entitled, “A Hungarian Rhapsody.”
“We called it that because it took place in a Hungarian restaurant,” Smith said. “We had singers and dancers … about six different singing duos. And we had a cubbyhole setup where the waiters would shout orders to the kitchen staff.”
Smith remembered that the set was bisected into the restaurant and kitchen with comedy shtick happening in each location. “It was practically two acts,” he said. “The waiters would fire orders at me so fast (I worked in the kitchen part), that I would get dizzy. They'd then say, ‘Go see Dr. Kronkheit,’ and that would lead Charlie and me into our bit.
“Later, Charlie would shout to me: ‘Customers are complaining when they order goulash. They want the orchestra to play a Hungarian rhapsody.’ I would reply: ‘I suppose if they wanted a baked apple, they'd want them to play the William T’hell Overture … so, t’hell with 'em!’ The boss would interject: ‘Chef, we gotta hire waiters that can sing, otherwise we'll lose trade.’ Then you would hear a waiter singing ‘mi, mi, mi’ offstage. I would reply: ‘yes, yes, yes. You there, come here!’ I would tell the waiter he had to sing or lose his job, whereupon he'd launch into a gorgeous rendition of ‘The Song of India.’ Then Charlie and I would stick our heads out of the cubbyhole and say, ‘They liked that!’”
After the death-knell of vaudeville, Smith, along with Dale, kept busy, often appearing as a thick-accented specialty act in movies and later, in a sprinkling of guest spots on TV. As Smith himself told us: It's a long way from horse-drawn sleighs and sleeping berths in Pullman Cars to being electronically beamed into TV sets across the nation. Even more momentous was the fact that Smith lived to see himself immortalized in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. That kind of thing is often posthumous, he said.
Two years after our interview, the laugh track finally ended for Joe Smith when he died in his sleep at the age of 97. But, true to form, the old vaudevillian did manage to get the last laugh. He was interred at a cemetery in Valhalla, New York with the following words inscribed on his tombstone: “Booked Solid.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Joe Smith, left and Charlie Dale ham it up in 1955.
Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.
Photo courtesy the Library of Congress.
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