“Of all the great vaudevillians, I admired Frank the most” — James Cagney.
Almost all of the great comedians speak with reverence about Frank Fay. He originated the stand-up comedy style we associate with Hope, Benny, Carson, Leno and Letterman, the extremely polished “American Institution” style, an unspoken confidence that says “an army of people made me possible.” You might call such performers “comic laureates”, almost branches of the U.S. government. As opposed to the more burlesquey Milton Berle–Henny Youngman–Rodney Dangerfield approach, these are not men who take or deliver a pie in the face, cross their eyes, or say “take my wife, please”. What they do is tell America the jokes they will repeat around the water cooler at work the next day. While there was no t.v. in Fay’s heyday, he was the king of the Palace, the flagship theatre of the top vaudeville chain in the nation.
There was much to set Fay apart. Unlike most vaudevillians, Fay was no populist. He cultivated the aloof arrogance of the aristocrat – his trademark was the barbed put-down delivered on the spot with dependable lethalness. That is what audiences prized him for.
He was charming, dashing, and impeccably dressed, with a broad handsome Irish face something like the actor Ralph Fiennes’. He had a very distinctive, swishy style of walking that was almost effeminate, but it was so effective that both Bob Hope and Jack Benny emulated it to their dying day.
He generally finished his act with a sardonic version of “Tea for Two”, wherein he would stop every few bars in order to tear the song apart:
Tea for two, and two for tea (spoken: ) Ain’t that rich! Here’s a guy that has enough tea for two. So he’s going to have tea for two. I notice that he doesn’t say a word about sugar!
Well, it ain’t exactly Duck Soup, but with his wavy hair, straight teeth and twinkling eyes, one gets the feeling that Fay sold his jokes through charm.
He was born in San Francisco in 1897 to vaudevillian parents. He played his first part at age three in a Chicago production of Quo Vadis? His first vaudeville act was the team of Dyer and Fay, but it must have been pretty awful: Fay later downplayed his involvement with it. By 1918 he had established himself as a monologist, and by 1919 he played the Palace. “The Great Faysie”, as he styled himself, was appallingly successful on the vaudeville stage. To play the Palace – at all — was the very highest aspiration of most vaudevillians. A select handful ran a week there. In 1925, Fay ran ten weeks. So he might be a little forgiven if it went to his head.
But there is something to the old adage that what lives longest are not words but deeds. Today Frank Fay lives on in the recorded memory as a notorious S.O.B. and a mean drunk, with nary a kind anecdotal word from anyone who knew him. Milton Berle once said, “Fay’s friends could be counted on the missing arm of a one-armed man.”
An early example of the arrogance that was to overshadow his reputation throughout his career occurred at this early stage. In the incident, which became notorious throughout theatrical circles, Fay let the audience wait several minutes while he struggled to tie his tie in the dressing room. “Let ‘em wait!” he apparently snapped at the stage manager, establishing a tradition that would not be revived until rock and roll was invented forty years later.
Fay didn’t go in for slapstick. He used to taunt Bert Lahr by saying “Well, well, well, what’s the low comedian doing today?” Fay’s bag was verbal wit, and he pulled no punches, offtstage or on. To Berle’s challenge to a battle of wits on one occasion, Fay famously said, “I never attack an unarmed man.”
Apparently, Fay had one of those smirking faces that’s just itching to be smacked. On one occasion, he attempted to humiliate Bert Wheeler by dragging him onto the stage unprepared, and firing off a bunch of unrehearsed lines at him to which he was supposed to attempt rejoinders. Tired of such treatment, Wheeler unnerved him by remaining silent the whole time. when Fay finally cracked and said “What’s the matter? Why don’t you say something?” Wheeler said “You call these laughs? I can top these titters without saying a word” and smacked him on the face – to howls from the audience. Some run-ins were far less light-hearted. Milton Berle recalled having watched Fay perform backstage from the wings, which is a real no-no with some performers. Berle heard him say “get that little Jew bastard out of the wings” and something about “that little kike”, so (according to him) he grabbed a stage brace and busted open Fay’s nose with it. Lou Clayton also let him have it across the jaw for his smart mouth.
Even when Fay meant to be nice he was rotten. Introducing Edgar Bergen for his first Palace date, he said: “The next young man never played here before, so let’s be nice to him.” As any performer can tell you, such an introduction is patronizing at best, sabotage at worst.
Bastard or not, Fay’s vaudeville success led to several Broadway shows during the years 1918-33. He even wrote and produced two starring vehicles for himself (a la Ed Wynn): Frank Fay’s Fables (1922) and Tattle Tales (1933).
Through his friend Oscar Levant, Fay met and married Barbara Stanwyck, then a young chorus girl who’d just gotten her first starring part in a Broadway show (Burlesque, 1927) In 1929 they did a dramatic sketch, as “Fay and Stanwyck” at the Palace. Later that year, they were called to Hollywood, so Frank could star in the film Show of Shows. Fay and Stanwyck’s marriage and their experience in Hollywood later became the basis of a Hollywood movie – A Star is Born.
In Hollywood, as everywhere he went, Fay did not make a lot of friends. A standard joke of the time went “who’s got the biggest prick in Hollywood?” Answer: Barbara Stanwyck. The womanizing, alcoholic Fay’s career floundered, while Stanwyck’s flourished for decades. In 1935 the two were divorced, and Fay continued his downward spiral, until 1944, when he was chosen to play Elwood P. Dowd in the original Broadway production of Harvey.
Fred Allen said: “The last time I saw Frank Fay he was walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.” He passed away in 1961, a humbler, and, one hopes, a wiser man.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Frank Fay, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.