For National Boating Day: The Yacht Club Boys

Congress declared July 1 to be National Boating Day in 2017, and under the assumption that this remains the case, we pick today for a little exploration of the stage and screen phenomenon known as The Yacht Club Boys.

The Yacht Club Boys’ act very savvily smashed together two classic show biz trends: the “comedy four” and the Jazz Age collegiate act. Comedy Fours had originally been dominant in vaudeville around the turn of the century, mixing harmony part singing and comedy patter. Members of certain well-remembered duos like Gallagher and Shean and Smith and Dale were breakaways from acts that had originally been such quartets. In a sense, the Yacht Club Boys were the last one of these acts, though they came along much later. Additionally, they capitalized on the trend for college chic, ascendant in the teens and twenties. Rudy Vallee was the principal star of that fad. The heyday of the Yacht Club Boys came later, however, during the Great Depression. The photo above, from the 1936 movie Pigskin Parade, shows the members of the team to be firmly in middle age, which helped add a layer of parody to the act.

On top of that, the earliest incarnation of the the Yacht Club Boys, circa 1926, was also a functioning jazz band: Tommy Purcell (violin), George Walsh (piano), Chick Endor (guitar, vocals), and Billy Mann (1901-1974) as comedian and emcee. They rose rapidly in night clubs and vaudeville, and even toured cabarets and music halls in the UK and the Continent almost immediately. Purcell dropped out very early however, to be replaced by permanent member James V. “Jimmie” Kern (1909-1966). The early-line up appeared in Al Jolson’s second feature The Singing Fool (1928), and then three Paramount variety shorts On the High Cs (1929), Deep C Melodies (1930), and A Private Engagement (1930). They also cut several records during this early phase.

By 1931, Mann became the leader of the group, and Endor and Walsh dropped out, to be replaced by Charlie Adler (1892-1955), the son of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler, and George Kelly (1890-1974, not to be confused with Grace Kelly’s playwright uncle). At this stage, the instruments were dropped, and the quartet leaned into the comedy four concept: vocalizing and kidding around. In this configuration, the team appeared in films throughout the ’30s, including the shorts Hear Ye! Hear Ye! (1924), They’re Off (1936), and Dough-Nuts (1936), and the features Thanks a Million (1935), The Singing Kid, Pigskin Parade, and Stage Struck (all 1936), Artists and Models and Thrill of a Lifetime (both 1937), and Cocoanut Grove and Artists and Models Abroad (both 1938).

In 1939, Jimmie Kern broke off to greater success in pictures, first as a screen writer, then as a director. His writing credits include the Kay Kyser vehicles That’s Right — You’re Wrong (1939), You’ll Find Out (1940) and Playmates (1941); If I Had My Way (1940) with Bing Crosby and Gloria Jean; Look Who’s Laughing (1941) with Jim and Marion Jordan of Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy, Lucille Ball, and Harold Peary; the patriotic Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943); Shine On Harvest Moon (1944), and Jack Benny’s notorious final vehicle The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). The Doughgirls (1944) with Ann Sheridan was his first film as director, followed by Never Say Goodbye (1946), Stallion Road (1947), April Showers (1948), The Second Woman (1950), Two Tickets to Paradise (1951), and Lum and Abner Abroad (1956). He was to make his biggest splash in television, however, helming no fewer than 99 episodes of My Three Sons (not surprising — Fred MacMurray started out with similar “collegiate” acts as Kern, they’d undoubtedly known each other for decades); 83 episodes of The Joey Bishop Show, 40 of I Love Lucy, 24 of Date with the Angels starring Betty White, 22 of The Ann Sothern Show, and many others.

Billie Mann also broke away in 1939, initially backing the Irving Aaronson Orchestra (financially), later becoming a successful investor and stock broker. Adler and Kelly opened a succession of restaurants and night clubs. There was a brief nightclub revival of the team in 1942 featuring the latter two with Bill Dwyer and Rodney McLennon.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.