Stars of Slapstick #45: Weber and Fields

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Today is Lew Fields’ Birthday. What a great way to kick off the New Year!

WEBER AND FIELDS

The mother 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 influence can be traced to so many (and such diverse) acts gives a strong indication of the complexity of their appeal.

They were both dialect comedians and a knockabout team and so could capture the hearts of the highest and lowest factions of the audience simultaneously. A “Dutch” act, masquerading as two German immigrants, the two would engage in outrageous word play, punctuated with slaps, kicks, punches, eye pokes, and choke holds – massacring the English language at the same time they made mincemeat of each other. Their most frequently quoted exchange went like this:

MIKE: I am delightfulness to meet you.

MYER: Der disgust is all mine.

MIKE: I receividid a letter for mein goil, but I don’t know how to writtenin her back.

MYER: Writtenin her back! Such an edumucation you got it? Writtenin her back! You mean rottenin her back. How can you answer her ven you don’t know how to write?

MIKE: Dot makes no never mind. She don’t know how to read.

This clip isn’t Weber and Fields, but it’s pretty close; it’s a pair of Weber & Fields copycats, probably either Kolb & Dill or the Rogers Brothers:

The fact that such a category as a “Dutch” comic even existed provides a real window onto another world: the 19th-century, when Germans were a significant faction in New York City, much as Asians, West Indians and Latinos are today. A German subculture once flourished in New York. The popularity of beer and hot dogs are among its lasting legacies, as are the “Katzenjammer Kids”. But two early-twentieth century disasters eviscerated the community and forced it into the woodwork. First, the 1904 burning of the ferryboat General Slocum, in which 1,030 German-American women and children were killed, took the heart out of the community. And then World War I and its jingoism prompted German-Americans to assimilate rather than suffer the bigotry of their new countrymen. If not for these two disasters, Germans might be as visible in New York today as, say, Italians, Russians, Poles or Greeks.

But Weber and Fields were not Germans at all – they were Polish Jews.

Moses Schoenfeld (Lew Fields) and Morris (“Joe”) Weber were both Polish-Jewish immigrants to the U.S., born within six months of each other in 1867. They grew up in the Lower East Side – a densely populated, poverty stricken neighborhood where kids ran the streets in packs. The boys met at age 8, while watching some busking clog dancers. The young Fields immediately bragged that he, too, could clog dance – and on a china plate without breaking it. In no time he succeed in ruining much of his mother’s good dinnerware, and received a drubbing for his efforts.

The boys went to school on Allen Street not far from, where 120 years later, vaudeville would once again rear its ugly head (this time with tattoos and body piercings)—at a club known as Surf Reality. The boys were serious students, but not of the required subjects. In every spare minute (and many that were not-so-spare) they practiced the skills that would later help make them famous: tumbling, joking-telling, clog dancing. Like the leading Irish knockabout comedians of the day, Needham and Kelly, and Harry and John Kernel, they put padding under the clothing and practiced smacking each other around for hours on end  They practiced falling onto an old mattress.

In the 4th grade they were both expelled from school for their disruptive behavior. From there they worked at odd jobs to make money to pay for theatre tickets.

By age 9 or 10 they had an act. Three acts really, a blackface, an Irish, and a Dutch, in descending order of their popularity with audiences. Their first public performance was at a local benefit. The boys did an act in blackface, wearing two special matching suits sewn by Lew’s brother. Their mothers even turned out for the event. Everything went wrong in the performance, but the audience was gracious, and so the boys were bitten by the bug.

As Weber and Fields, they begin working some of the ubiquitous Dime Museums in the Bowery and environs. After two weeks at Morris and Hickman’s East Side Museum, they garnered a month at the New York Museum doing Irish and blackface turns. When they heard that the owner of the Globe Museum was seeking a Dutch act, they devised one toot suite. The wininng formula was Lew Field’s brainstorm: a knockabout act but with a “Dutch” accent, instead of an Irish one. To cement the illusion, the two glued on two phony little beards and smeared their faces with whiteface. The fractured dialect was easy – they’d spent their entire lives listening to it.

By 1882, Weber and Fields had been doing a sort of ethnic quickchange act employing Irish, Blackface and Dutch characterizations, up and down the Bowery for four years. They were already making more money than their fathers (which wasn’t much), but they hadn’t yet played Bunnell’s Museum, a step up the ladder at 9th Street and Broadway. In order to get a booking, they told Bunnell, an impresario in the tradition of P.T. Barnum, that they know where he will be able to locate a Chinese man with a third eye in the middle of his forehead, and that they would tell him where he was if he would book them at this museum. Bunnell was duped, but by the time he made the discovery, Weber and Fields have already made a hit at his theatre, so he couldn’t be mad. Part of the act’s appeal in these early years certainly has to have been the fact that the boys were so ridiculously young. The sight of these mismatched boys (Lew was 5’11”, Joe was 5’4”) in heavy padding beating the tar out of each other with machine like rhythm must have been delightful.

The next few years were spent gaining valuable on-the-job experience in small-time theatres in New York and other cities in the Northeast, and very slowly climbing up the pecking order. Time spent in minstrel shows taught them the valuable skill of improvisation, which was to be a keystone of their act.

In 1885, the Adah Richmond Burlesque Company specifically requested a Dutch act, and the boys cooked up a new one, consisting of converted minstrel jokes padded out with knockabout business. This new routine slayed the audience. With all the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, they made every element more extreme than was customary – more and crazier malapropisms and more slapstick mayhem. From here on in Weber and Fields would be “Mike” and “Meyer”, two perpetually arguing German immigrants in loud checked suits and derby hats, whose spats generally arose from their misunderstandings of the peculiarities of the English language, and quickly devolved into punching, kicking slapping, and eye gouging.

Their salaries and their prestige continued to rise throughout the 1880s as they toured their  “Teutonic Eccentricities” throughout the nation.

In 1889, they made a leap that truly cements their place in vaudeville history: they themselves began to produce their own touring vaudeville shows (see above). Entire variety bills were built around themselves as headliners; such companies crisscrossed the country until the team broke up in 1904.

From 1892-95, they worked up many of what would become their most enduring comedy routines, “The Pool Room” (1892-93), “The Horse Race” (1893-94), and “The Schutzenfest (1894-95). In these classic routines, Fields would typically present himself as an expert at some faddish American recreation and attempt to teach it to Weber. Along the way, he would mangle the game’s already-confusing terminology, compounding Weber’s confusion, which in turn compounded Fields’ frustration. The situation would escalate like a cyclone until the two were hitting each other in the stomach, braining each other with canes, and otherwise expressing themselves through violence. Part of the charm was that – as in Laurel and Hardy – Fields “the expert” really knew no more than Weber did to begin with.

Here’s their routine about “The Mosquito Trust”:

In 1893, the boys made their Broadway debut at the Park Theatre thus helping to further legitimize a performance style that had evolved in the smokey dives of the Bowery. In 1896, they made a huge hit at Hammerstein’s Victoria with a  medley of their best routines, and a parody of one of the other acts on the bill, the quick change artist Fregoli. These successes, and the money made from their touring vaudeville shows, permitted them to open their own Broadway theatre, Weber and Fields Music Hall, in 1896. This rather astounding development provides another stark contrast with our own times: imagine Nathan Lane buying his own Broadway theatre, then stuffing each season with specially-commissioned vehicles for himself. Though Weber and Fields continued to present vaudeville bills at the Music Hall (and their touring companies), the real attraction were book shows written as parodies of contemporary Broadway hits. Thus it was the “Forbidden Broadway” of its day, only with full casts, elaborate expensive scenery and full length books and scores. Typical titles: The Geezer, Quo Vass Iss?, Barbara Fidgety,and Fiddle-dee-dee.

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For eight years, Weber and Fields Music Hall was a beloved Broadway institution. In 1904, creative and business differences drove the men apart. They officially split, although on numerous occasions throughout the years they briefly teamed up as producers and performers on numerous occasions. Both continued to produce on their own. Weber kept the Music Hall, but Fields was the more successful producer, becoming by 1911 “The King of Broadway”.  They made some of the first comedy albums together, mostly in the mid-teens. They had their own radio show in the late 1920s, which obviously didn’t allow for slapstick, but was tailor made for their malapropisms. When the Palace held its historic last two-a-day in May 1932, Weber and Fields, whose long career stretched back to the 1870s, was on the bill.

Like Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein, Weber and Fields were there before the beginning and after the end. As late as 1939, Lew Fields portrayed himself in the Astaire and Rogers film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

A team offstage as well as on, they died (as they were born) within a few months of each other, Fields in 1941, Weber in 1942.  Those were good years for a mock-German comedy act to check out.

Don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult 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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