In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles perhaps the most prolific of American playwrights, Owen Davis.
CURSE YOU—JACK DALTON!
SOME people write one play and then are never heard from again. But this fellow’s inexhaustible. OWEN DAVIS.
He is a tiptop cook.
There never will be an exact count of how many plays he wrote. He wrote at least three hundred. Between the ages of twenty-seven and forty he remembers nothing but writing plays. Somehow, between scripts, he managed to get married. Also to raise a family. Didn’t notice either until he was forty. Then took up golf.
He knows much more about a lot of theatrical managers than they care to have him know.
Had a unique contract with A. H. Woods. It stated that for a period of five years he could write plays for Woods only. Also stated that during that period Woods couldn’t produce any plays but his. During those years he wrote fifty-eight melodramas, or a play a month for five years.
He’d go to Europe tomorrow if they’d build a railroad across the Atlantic Ocean.
He doesn’t drink. He’d like to.
Is a Harvard graduate. Played football on the Crimson eleven. Also held that college’s record for the hundred-yard dash until four years ago.
In those days of the thrilling melodramas Woods would select a title and order terrifying lithographs of maidens in peril. Then Davis would write a play to fit both the title and the picture.
Perhaps you recall some of them. They include such titles as Through the Breakers, Deadwood Dick’s Last Shot, The Chinatown Trunk Mystery, Confessions of a Wife, The Gambler from the West, Tony the Bootblack, The Great Express Robbery, Queen of the Opium Ring, Convict 999, Broadway After Dark, The Policeman and the Millionaire’s Wife, The Creole Slave’s Revenge, A Chorus Girl’s Luck in New York, and Edna, the Pretty Typewriter.
He doesn’t remember writing Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl, although he is credited with it.
His play Icebound won the 1923 Pulitzer prize. The Detour he considers his greatest play.
Always smokes cigars. At rehearsals he makes a little cup from a newspaper to flick his ashes in. He is well house broken.
Prefers the theatre to the movies, ices to ice cream, a four-in-hand to a bow tie, a cold bath to a hot one, poker to bridge and a wicked woman to a simple one.
The first theatrical flashlight ever made was of his play The Road to Paradise. It is now pasted on the wall of his workroom. Among those in it are Mrs. Davis, then the “You Ain’t Done Right by Our Nell” girl. And George Jessel‘s stepmother, then very interested in keeping the villain from foreclosing on the old homestead.
Wrote his first play, The Rival Detectives, at the age of eight. All the characters in it were murdered.
His ambition is to have a perfect script after the first writing. Thought he had it with The Nervous Wreck. Then had to rewrite it seven times.
Once was turning out so many plays that he had to write under seven different names. Two of the nom de plumes, Robert Wayne and John Oliver, became well known. In fact, a Pittsburgh dramatic critic wrote a piece about John Oliver stating that “at last a man had come along to drive Owen Davis out of business.”
In Chapter 12 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars Renee Carroll, she reveals what various celebrities wrote in her collection of autograph books, and she follows that with tales of what the stars of the day liked to eat when they patronized Sardi’s.
If you took a rabbit out of those suckers’ hats
They would squawk just the same:
They all have two strikes on them
When they are born.
THAT’S an autograph left in my book by Tex. I’m not quite clear as to its meaning, and I don’t think she is either. But vaguely, it’s Broadway’s philosophy. If somebody pats you on the back, he’s only locating a spot for the knife thrust. If you give a sucker a break, he’s liable to shove his hand in and rip it apart.
Of course, all this is only sentimental hooey, and the boys and girls on Broadway are just as maudlin about one another as boys in an English boarding school. They all want to appear like awful, terrible “bad mans” with no hearts at all. The visage is stern, but the head and heart are made of mush, and it oozes through your fingers when you squeeze it.
I’ve got three books full of autographs. Perhaps a glance at some of them might throw an interesting light on the writers. I particularly like that of Frances Williams, whose cheeriness and glibness is not limited to her appeareances on the stage.
“May every hat check bring you a fat check—and may no meanie neglect my Renee—who never wrecks hats each time she checks hats—Frances Williams.”
Most of the celebrities pore over the book, seeking inspiration in the lines already written. Very few show any originality at all. Al Jolson, in one of his brighter moments, scribbled:
“Oh, look, I am in your book—thanks for letting me.”
“To Renee, who expects something clever from me but won’t get it.”
Russell Patterson, the artist, who very rarely wears a hat, said as much, regretfully, with:
“To Renee, from her worst customer.”
Tony Canzoneri, the prize fighter, dragged his trade in by the teeth when he inscribed:
“To a real and sweet girl, with loads of knockouts.
Lightweight Champion of the World.”
The professional gate crasher, Tammany Young, waxed philosophical and wrote:
“Who takes what you give graciously. All life is a game of give and take. For what she takes she gives in a return a smile, a cheerful greeting and your belongings. May you go a long ways and prosper. Keep smiling Renee, it’s what we all go for.”
“To Renee. In memory of my first daughter of four kilos.”
While Faith Baldwin, the author of Self Made Woman, wrote simply:
“Because I like red-heads.”
I’ve got lots of drawings, too, by famous artists, all of them too risqué for reproduction, and in some cases too combustible for safekeeping. Some of our best known illustrators have garnished the pages of my little books with drawings that would make those paintings on the bathroom walls of old Pompeii quiver with shame.
But not all the good things happen in autograph books or at penthouse parties. I have a lot of laughs right in the restaurant.
SARDI’S may be the place where the celebrities gather, but I get more slugs and buttons in my tip box than I can use in a year’s mending. Figure it out for yourself—the most highly paid performers and theatrical executives slip me slugs I wouldn’t even try on my molars to find out if they’re real or not.
And speaking of tipping and the things I find in my box at the end of the day, one of the most common phenomena are the little slips of paper upon which telephone numbers have been scribbled. I’ve got, or rather, I could have collected a private phone list than the Manhattan police department, not to mention the Broolynites and Bronxites who have been date-hungry.
Maybe I’m wrong, and that’s only one way of kidding me. Another way is the method Jack Oakie used, to make me feel like the butt of a bad joke.
Jack came into the restaurant one day and asked me in his really-not-obnoxious breezy manner how things were going. Just for the fun of it, I told him that I was going to get married the next day. I had no more idea of getting married, then, than the girl in the swing on the big Pepsodent sign. As some wit once said, marriage is an institution, and hwo wants to live in an institution?
But that clown of clowns, that zanie Oakie, set to work and circulated among Sardi’s guests, telling all his friends that I was an expectant mother. When people started to leave the place, I noticed that no one was looking me directly in the eyes, but instead were looking down at me and at the same time talking in a sort of reverentially hushed tone—the kind I gather that people assume when they accost young mothers-to-be.
I didn’t suspect then what was happening, but the next morning when packages began to arrive by every means of transportation except the pony express, I began to smell a good-sized rodent in Mr. Oakie’s direction. For people were sending me baby clothes—dresses, bibs, caps, towels, and all the other accessories necessary to have babies. The pay-off came when Oakie’s package arrived. It contained a dozen towels, stolen from a Pullman, three napkins from three different hotels and a couple of table cloths from a club. All of the Oakie presents were cut into reminiscent triangular shapes—with the names of the places from which they were filched neatly embroidered in the corner of each pseudo-diaper.
But the height of pure nuttiness was achieved by the Four Marx Brothers when they were making Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts at the Astoria studio for Paramount.
A STOOGE, in Broadway parlance, is the assist in the act. If you do an accordion routine and a heckler is paid by you to annoy your act from the box, then you’re probably Phil Baker and your stooge eventually becomes as famous as you are. Witness Sid Silvers of Take a Chance fame.
Broadway is full of stooges, both in real life and on the stage. It may sound strange to you but the jester in the king’s court from the time of The Erl King (I don’t know why they insist on spelling Oil as Erl) has been brought down the years until now he is labeled “stooge.” His job is to take he hard knocks, furnish the opportunity for the gag to be sprung, and appear the perfect fool.
When Phil Baker, who pumps a mean accordion, opened in a show in New York and had a stooge in the box doing the regular routine, Al Boasberg, the gagman who writes funny lines for a dozen or more comedians, wired Baker:
LIKED YOUR ACT STOP THE OLD GENT WITH THE ACCORDION WAS GOOD TOO.
Gracie Allen, of the famous team of Burns and Allen, is the stooge of the act, even though it is she who pulls all the funny lines. Recently she gave George Burns cause to laugh when she came to him with an idea.
“Georgie, dear,” Gracie said. “I have an idea.”
“Well, let’s forget it,” George answered characteristically, knowing it would bring on the usual headache.
“I’ve thought of a line for our act,” she continued.
“All right,” gave in George. “What is it?”
“I can’t tell you until I’ve gotten a prop.”
“What sort of a prop?”
“What’s a muff?” George wanted to know.
“It’s one of those things women used to carry around so that they could hold hands with themselves.”
“All right, Gracie, get yourself a muff and let’s have the gag.”
She went to the best furrier on the Avenue and ordered a muff made. It has to be matched sables, four skins, exquisitely sewn. The muff cost $250 and she charged it to Geroge Burns, her husband. She brought it to him one day. “Here’s the muff, George.”
He examined it carefully. He approved.
“I got it at a bargain, George.”
George immediately became suspicious.
“How much, Gracie? How much?” he pleaded.
“Well—er—two hundred and—er—fifty dollars.”
George felt around for support.
“Two hundred and fifty smackers for that thing? Gracie, you’ll ruin me!”
“But it’s a bargain, George, and the furrier let me have it at that price because there are two holes in it!”
And she held up the muff to show him the holes in which one is supposed to insert one’s hands. Burns was nonplused.
“But what about the gag?” he wanted to know. “Is the gag worth $250?”
“Why, George,” giggled the she-stooge, “I just did it. You see, I come on with this muff and you ask me how much I paid for it and I say: ‘I got it at a bargain because it had two holes in it.”
With which Mr. Burns fainted dead away. And that’s how jokes are born in case you’re interested. Read More »