Today is the birthday of Al Shaw (Albert Schutzman, 1902-1985), one-half of the legendary vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee. I’ve uncovered next to zero about their early years in vaudeville, although it’s known that they were good friends with Burns and Allen, who threw them jobs in later years, and whose act bore certain similarities to their own, at least with regard to originality and cleverness. They were far better than most vaudeville two-acts. Shaw was born in Poland; his partner Sam Lee (Sam Levy, 1891-1980) was from Newark.
An error appears on IBDB, BTW: they have Sam Lee as appearing with Cohan and Harris’ Minstrels on Broadway in 1909; the writers have confused him with another Sam Lee from minstrel days. But Shaw and Lee did appear in the 1927 show The Five O’Clock Girl, with songs by Kalmar and Ruby, book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, and a cast that included Oscar Shaw (no relation) and Mary Eaton (known to Marx Brothers fans from The Cocoanuts), and Pert Kelton. Lee appeared without Shaw in The Scarlet Fox (1928), as a Chinese magician named Ling Foo Loo, a clear parody of Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo. The team also appeared in the 1929 revue Pleasure Bound and the 1931 show The Gang’s All Here. In 1930, they joined Phil Baker, with whom they had worked in Pleasure Bound, on his radio show, and later became regulars on Jack Oakie’s radio program.
But by 1928, they were already prominent enough to be recorded for a Vitaphone short. Today their notoriety largely rests on that film, ironically named The Beau Brummels, for it is a record of an amazing vaudeville act, both antique and ulta-modern in its deadpan oddness. The pair sing silly songs and exchange strange banter, all the while standing stiffly and awkwardly immobile. Occasionally one or the other will look at his partner with a worried expression. Sometimes they move in unison like dancers. At this writing, you can see it on Youtube. I hesitate to include a link, since they’re always taking things off Youtube and the links go dead on me. But it is worth watching, many many times. They are fascinating and hysterical.
What is anomalous about Shaw and Lee was that they somehow managed to have what amounted to a vaudeville career decades after the death of vaudeville. Almost no one else managed to do this. When you google then, there are reviews for shows at presentation houses (the closest thing left to vaudeville) through the late 1940s. They remained a team. They appeared in one more Vitaphone, called Going Places, in 1930. They appear as as a vaudeville comedy act (essentially themselves) in several films: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), King of Burlesque (1936), In Paris, AWOL (1936) and The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), Hollywood Varieties (1950) and in the Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom vehicle Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951). They also did a little tv, including a shot on Ed Wynn’s variety show.
And — another rarity — they were often cast as extras and bit players as a pair. As such they appear in the 1933 short Hunting Trouble with Walter Catlett and Louise Fazenda; they appear as piano movers in the 1934 Joseph Santley film Young and Beautiful, , as moving men in Ready, Willing and Able (1937), and as thugs in The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). This is pretty unique, but I can think of something semi-modern to compare it to for a reference. Remember when Cheech and Chong played burglars in the Martin Scorsese comedy After Hours (1985)? A very similar idea. Shaw and Lee’s last movie roles were as repairmen in the 1958 George Gobel comedy I Married a Woman.
I’m hoping to tease out more about the earlier and later phases of the lives and careers of the incredible team of Shaw and Lee. Lee’s birthday is in next month; perhaps I’ll have some more material to add by then. Today is going to be a very busy blogging day.
To learn more about vaudeville two-acts like Shaw and Lee, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.