Stars of Vaudeville #56: Smith and Dale

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SMITH AND DALE

“Just thinking about them makes my sides ache”– Edgar Bergen.

Smith and Dale are the archetypical vaudeville male two act. When one thinks of a “vaudeville comedy team”, one thinks of something like Smith & Dale. Neil Simon based his play The Sunshine Boys on their act, although their offstage relationship wasn’t as dire as depicted—that part was based on Gallagher and Shean.

Smith and Dale may have had another sort of influence on Neil Simon, as the originators of the “whattayou” joke construction so prevalent in the work of Simon and his imitators. Per exemplum: A line from Smith and Dale’s doctor sketch:

DALE (as doctor): What kind of dishes do you eat?

SMITH (as patient): Dishes? What am I, a crocodile?

From Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple:

OSCAR: (to Murray) What are you, Bulldog Drummond?

The kind of jokes Smith and Dale told became staples in the Borchst Belt. From their “Dr. Kronkite” sketch:

Doctor: Did you have this pain before?

Patient: Yes.

Doctor: Well, you got it again.

The line could have (and most assuredly did) come out of the mouths of the likes of Milton Berle and Henny Youngman again and again for the remainder of the twentieth-century.

They were born Joe Sultzer (Smith) and Charles Marks (Dale) in New York in the early 1880s. They met as teenagers when they had a bicycle accident. Their ensuing argument was thought by bystanders to be “as funny as Weber and Fields” and so they began to cultivate an act. They started out in Bowery saloons doing song and dance bits in blackface. They changed their names to “Smith and Dale” when they got a deal on some unclaimed business cards that had been printed with those names.

In 1900, they work for the Imperial Vaudeville and Comedy Company in the Catskills where they first perform their famous sketch “The New Schoolteacher”. Upon returning to New York City, they added Will Lester and Jack Coleman and became the Avon Comedy 4. This seminal team worked their first job at the Atlantic Gardens, in the Bowery. They scored big there and went on to Keith’s Union Square, then a tour. At Hyde and Behman’s Music Hall in Chicago, they were held over for ten weeks.

They continued to develop the school sketch, with the stock characters of  a Jew, a German, a tough guy and a sissy. The group also worked 4-part harmony singing into their act which was not only a success in vaudeville but also on record albums. The Gus Edwards song “School Days”, for example, was the theme song of “The New Schoolteacher”. Close to two dozen performers filled the other two slots in the Avon Comedy Four over the years, but the common denominator was always Smith and Dale.

A famous true life anecdote from their career plays like one of their sketches. In 1909 the team was busted for performing on a Sunday in violation of the law. Brought before the judge, a policeman attempted to describe their act. Listening with growing irritations, the judge finally banged his gavel and said “You have no act. Case Dismissed!”

In 1916, they added the “restaurant” sketch to their growing repertoire. How far their intentions were from “art” can be seen in the way their sketches tend to go untitled, and are merely tagged with the situation that allows them to spin off a barrage of site-specific jokes: the “doctor” sketch, the “school” sketch, the “bank” sketch, the “restaurant” sketch. In fact, the sketches are All Joke, zipping along from punchline to punchline (as in early Marx Brothers films) with gleeful disregard for plot and character. The very crudity of it has a distinctive vaudevillian charm.

By 1919 the Avon Comedy Four started to give way to “Smith and Dale” as the two went back out on their own. In 1925, they introduced a sketch at the Palace, called “Battery to the Bronx” , which was actually a series of mini-sketches, each of which took place near a different subway stop on the journey up Manhattan. By 1929 they were headlining at the London Palladium. Soon after this, however, vaudeville dried up. The boys got some parts in movies, such as Manhattan Parade (1931) The Heart of New York (1932), and Two Tickets to Broadway (1951) but they were already old men by this time, and never actors to begin with.

In the 1940s and 1950s Smith and Dale appeared frequently on television on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show and Toast of the Town. One can still see them in old kinescopes, fifty years into their career, well past their prime, but still entertaining audiences. Both exaggerated their Yiddish accents. Dale’s character was the stupid, whimpering, mush-mouthed one; Smith, the angry, fast-talking one with the heavy eye brows and the eagle beak.

In these old programs, the boys frequently seem like old performing horses, automatically going through the motions of an act they’ve done thousands of times and which long ago lost its luster. Anger and fatigue seem almost palpable, but after all, they were in their 70s by this time. Their appeal at this juncture was largely akin to that of Henny Youngman’s – they amuse because on a certain level, they are “bad”. Even when the act was new, the jokes were probably plundered from joke books. They are sewn together into sketches in a Frankensteinian fashion, often provoking laughter from the sheer audacity of their inorganic set-ups. Even more than Youngman, Smith and Dale were pioneers of ba-doomp-boomp comedy.

Charlie Dale died in 1971, but Joe Smith lived another decade – long enough to have seen scores of productions of The Sunshine Boys. Satisfaction enough, one would think, for a life lived in pursuit of comic immortality.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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30 Responses to “Stars of Vaudeville #56: Smith and Dale”

  1. [...] with Winchell and Eddie Cantor in the Gus Edwards sketch “School Boys and Girls”. Joe Smith of Smith and Dale knew Jessel quite well during this era – he used to buy him ice cream. Charlie Chaplin, who also [...]

  2. [...] in a talkie, the 1927 vehicle My Man (based on her theme song) was not a real hit. As Joe Smith of Smith & Dale said, “She was a very funny girl, but a good actress for only about fifteen minutes.” The truth [...]

  3. [...] of all vaudeville comedy teams, Weber and Fields are the direct progenitors of Gallagher and Shean, Smith and Dale, the Marx Brothers, and Ted Healy and his Stooges, among countless others. The fact that their [...]

  4. john waters Says:

    I have a letter from smith&dale from the 50’s is there a museum with there archives thankyou john

  5. Joe Smith was the ‘Honorary’ member of my not for profit that was to reestablish a Vaudeville theatre in NY back when the Big Apple Circus was beginning. We had a location in the 2nd phase of redevelopment on Theatre Row. I frequently visited Joe at this residence at the Actor’s Fund Home in New Jersey. I would take him out to lunch and talk about his days in vaudeville. It was a joy to hear him talk about his experiences working with the likes of W.C. Fields and Sarah Bernhard. We corresponded for a few years about his role in helping our group establish the new theatre.
    He was 90 when I met him and full of energy for man that age.
    These guys were very funny!
    Thanks for this write up. Wonderful details.
    JIM

  6. Elliott Cowan Says:

    Is there any audio of Smith & Dale performing their routines?

    • I was just about to send you to youtube — they used to have tons of tv clips of them there. Looks like someone pulled them down. But I do see audio of them with the Avon Comedy Four there. And if you want to see video, the Paley Center in NYC has tons…and I imagine you can find them on video…boxed sets of ed sullivan and that kind of thing

      • Elliott Cowan Says:

        Thank you, I will check it out. I am wondering also because amongst other things relating to them, I have 2, 1/4″ audio tapes of a performance of theirs in the 50’s-60’s? which consists of 4 of their most famous pieces. Curious as to their value, if any.

  7. There was a joke that had the line..’Slowly he turned…..’ I remember Milton Berle used to mention this. I think it had to do with a tailor making a suit but i am not sure because I mix it up with ‘Sam, you made the pants too long..’
    Maybe you can tell me what I am trying to remember ????
    I loved all those great comics. thanks

    • Thanks for writing, Peggy! “Slowly I turned” is a burlesque blackout sketch. The version I know revolves around Niagra Falls. “Sam you made the pants too long” is a lyric to a song that some people think is about the Marx Brothers’ father, a famously bad tailor, but if you google it I think you’ll find some moire accurate info. It was first popularized by Joe E. Lewis, later Barbara Streisand

      • Thanks so much for the hints to links..I will google more.

        Since I was born and lived in England for the first part of my life I only found the treasures of the Borscht humour and NYC burlesque names many years later ,and certainly after they were at the end of their run. Too bad..those comedians really knew how to work hard and they were so funny without the miserable stuff of the modern humour. Well– so called humour. It’s only stringing as many vulgarities in a row as they can, and to me that is not witty or funny.
        I remember from the Smith and Dale mention of Bulldog Drummond. .. My father loved all the Edgar Wallace mysteries so I was very aware of Bulldog D. from childhood. Many of the American acts came to England and appeared on the Music Halls and also on the radio.There was no TV in those days. There was a much loved show called ‘In Town Tonight’ on the BBC and many– like Jack Benny and Bob Hope later and I think Burns and Allen would always appear when they came over.
        I don’t know who began ‘Take my wife–please’ but I remember Henny Youngman using that always on the Ed.Sullivan. Saw him once in Cinncinnati sitting at the next table at lunch. He looked just like himself !! :-) Very quiet and it was nice to see him.
        Show biz has certaily changed in the West. I mostly watch Korean and Japanese shows these days.Usually very discreet but very dramatic If you ever get a chance to watch a Chinese film called ‘Hands Up’ you will find a comedy on par with any Laurel and Hardy humour. I have watched it on my computer a few times and it always makes me laugh out loud. Really clever slapstick from the mainland. Don’t need English subs because it has little dialogue and it is all sight humour.
        Sorry..too long…but nice to remember good laughs.

  8. Elliott Cowan Says:

    Lucy used, the slowly I turned bit as well I think. Smith&Dale’s famous line I believe (amongst many) was “It hirsts when I do this – – So, don’t do that” I also have 4 of their famous routines on 1/4″ audio tape, recorded in the late 50’s – early 60’s live in front of an audience. Would like to perhaps sell – not sure where to go with it. Thoughts?

  9. My mother, who passed away 4 years ago , used to tell me that she was a cousin of smith and dale. My parents grew up in Brooklyn New york. My mothers maiden name was Mendelson/ Gerstenfeld…is there any way to check this info out. Her mothers name was Rita and my moms name was Liane.

  10. any info about this would be most welcome. Joan B

  11. After reading and enjoying these tales in your posts I realize that I have outlived my own century…What a thought. I remember things and people that no-one has even read about at times. It really does bring me up short when I get a blank stare from someone…Sigh…
    I and glad I saw Al Jolson in action. I even remember George Robey and who was the marvellous actress who played with him at times in musical comedy. I am sorry her name has left me…….If I can find it I will return. Let me dust off my grey cells.

  12. Guess what? Got rid of the cobwebs. The actress was that lovely VIOLET LORRAINE She was such a good actress. I have a faint thought that she was younger than George and later on wasn’t she in a UK daily soap opera? I may be wrong, since I left England in 1948…With my English husband, an RAF fighter pilot during the war.
    Does anyone remember a comedienne who often appeared on the Ed Sullavan show..her name was Suzette Tarry (sp) She dressed as a charlady with a bucket and mop and would come on the stage saying
    “It’s me Suzy..Suzette Tarry” Her cousin was our first employer in Manhattan. They both came from English family originally. She would chatter and then sing. Rather a good voice.

    • Gael Clarke Says:

      I have been told that Suzette Tarry was related to my late
      father Peter Albert Tarry but can not find the connection!
      Any information about her may help!

  13. George and Violet used to sing that lovely old song..

    ‘If you were the only girl in the world, and I were the only boy
    Nothing else would matter in the word today
    We would go on living in the same old way.
    A garden of Eden just made for two
    with nothing to mar our joy.
    There would be such wonderful things to do
    I would say such wonderful things to you
    If you were the only girl in the word
    And I were the only boy.

    ************************************

    I must say it’s nice to remember stuff.

  14. It’s incredible the interest. I have many articles – scripts, self portraits and an audio recording of their 4 most famous pieces performed live. Looking for ways to release them. Suggestions?

  15. Joseph Majesky Says:

    The Smith and Dale act that always cracked me up was the sketch where Smith or was it Dale would wail “Take off the coat my boy” over and over. It was so crazy but funny. Any one else remember it?
    Joseph Majesky

  16. Joseph ,
    I remember ‘Take of the coat my boy’ As soon as I read the words I could hear it in my mind. I am sure I saw that on a very early TV show and probably the Sullavan show.
    Just to make you feel proud of your memory……
    I was at the doctor’s office today and in conversation I asked the nurse ‘Have you heard about Sir Laurence Olivier?’ I was referring to him having an ailment similar to me. She looked very blankly and said ‘No.. .who is he?’ I honestly nearly fell off the table. Made me feel rather old……. and here we are talking about Smith and Dale and George Robey…. somehow that does not make me feel old at all.

  17. Joseph Majesky Says:

    I would like to know if there are any films or kinescops of the Smith and Dale “Take off the coat my boy” sketch around somewhere.

  18. Suzette Tarry was a popular lady comic on the old music hall theater and went to the USA on several occasions.
    One joke she told was:
    The doctor said father needed sea air for his health. So I fanned him with a Kipper.
    It was the quick short quip that was her trade mark plus comic songs.

  19. Smith and Dale performed “Take Off the Coat” on the original Cavalcade of Stars hosted by Jack Carter in 1949 on Dumont – out of Chicago – beamed out of the Studebaker Theater.

  20. Chris Zajdler simmons Says:

    There was an LP recorded in the 1960s (I believe) by Smith and Dale of at least 4 of their sketches – including DR KRONKHEIT. Unfortunately my CD copy of this LP does not have the title and recording information on it.

    • Very interesting that you mentioned you have a CD or LP of this performance. I have researched and asked questions pertaining to this for quite some time. I also have a copy however, mine is a 1/4 audio reel of it and I believe it might be a master tape. I however have no information and would be interested if you could tell me anyhting you might know pertaining to the copy you have or where and when you might think it was recorded.
      Thanks in advance.

      • Chris Zajdler Simmons Says:

        The Smith and Dale LP is entitled AT THE PALACE WITH SMITH AND DALE (Jubilee 2035). A friend of mine who actually owns the album put it onto CD for me. I don’t know the date of the recording but my guess is the early 1960s.

  21. Patient: “How much do you charge?”
    Doctor: “$10 the first visit, $5.00 the second.”
    Patient: “Nice to see you again.”

    Sadly we will never see their like again.

  22. […] grandfathers of comedy. The characters of Lewis and Clark are based on the long-running comedy duo Smith and Dale, though the hostile relationship was based on real-life tensions between Gallagher and Shean. Ben […]

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