“Just thinking about them makes my sides ache”– Edgar Bergen.
Smith and Dale are the archetypical vaudeville male comedy 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 more 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?
Doctor: Well, you got it again.
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 worked 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 Four. 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 and to have been a mentor to our pal Michael Townsend Wright. Satisfaction enough, one would think, for a life lived in pursuit of comic immortality.
The team are buried together! I visited the spot at Woodlawn Cemetery in 2015:
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including great comedy teams like Smith and Dale, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.