Willie, West and McGinty, The Comedy Builders

Pic from “Vaudeville, Old and New”, Routledge Press

Lucky me, to have found a singularly appropriate vaudevillle act to present for LABOR DAY!

Willie, West and McGinty’s whole routine revolved around a construction work site. Known as “The Comedy Builders”, many regarded them as the funniest slapstick act in vaudeville (and beyond, for they were regular guests on Ed Sullivan through the end of the 1950s). In a poll of ten top show biz writers, seven included them on their dream vaudeville bills.

Now, you may say to yourself, “Surely I’ve seen this kind of thing before. What makes this act so special?” The difference in Willie, West & McGinty’s act lay in the smooth, non-stop flow of the gag choreography. It worked almost like a Rube Goldberg cartoon, one gag after another, until every single prop and situation onstage had been used for a gag. No hammer, nail, saw, board, shovel of dirt, ladder, window, brick, etc etc etc that made it onstage with Willie, West and McGinty would be left out of the mayhem. And like cartoon characters, the three men would bounce back after every gaffe and simply return to work and the inevitable mishap that was only seconds away.

The act went on for sixty years. By the end, the team was like Steven Wright’s account of George Washington’s hatchet — none of the original components remained. Over the team’s long life, there were two “Willies”, two “Wests” and three “McGinties”. They started out in British Music Hall in their native Lancashire around 1900. By the mid 20s, they were stars in large scale American vaud venues like the Palace and the Hippodrome. As vaudeville dried up, they could be found in presentation houses, circuses, and gigs like Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair , Olsen and Johnson’s Laffing Room Only (1944-45), and one of Judy Garland’s many vaudeville revivals (1951).

You might think that gagmeisters this expert would have been naturals for silent films, but oddly that seems never to have transpired. Ironically, they may have been too successful onstage to have made that leap. Also, the gentlemen began as acrobats — if you watch them in clips, they really aren’t actors or even clowns. They don’t really have characters. They’re sort of gag technicians, components in a very specific comedy machine.

Ironically, they did make a sound short in 1930 called Plastered which will give you the flavor of their act, viewable at this link here. I suspect there are several differences between this and their stage act. I’ve seen clips of them from the Ed Sullivan show and I remember the act as more swiftly-moving, big and economical. And naturally the stage version would have a simpler set and far fewer props to work with. (Interesting digression: note the use of Irving Berlin’s “Why Am I So Romantic?” on the soundtrack, written for the Marx Bros vehicle The Cocoanuts, released by Paramount the previous year). Other films the team appears in include The Big Broadcast of 1936 (also by Paramount) and Beautiful But Broke with Joan Davis (1944)

 The last of the team, Frank Crossley, Jr. (the second “McGinty”) passed away in 1997.

To learn more about 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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2 Responses to “Willie, West and McGinty, The Comedy Builders”

  1. Just a correction: the last member of the team was Donald Keith of Bradford N.H. the town in which both Bill Wests, both of whom I knew as a boy, resided until their deaths. Don died there in 2009.

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