How Wayne & Shuster took New York

July 19 1958

How Wayne & Shuster took New York

July 19 1958

How Wayne & Shuster took New York

When Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, Canada's only television comedians, went to New York last month to substitute for Ed Sullivan as ringmasters of North America’s best-known and longest-lived TV vaudeville show, it came as a fairly incredible climax to a fairly incredible few weeks.

Less than three months earlier, as all Canada knew, Sullivan had screened a film of one of the comedians' stylish TV spoofs and had promptly signed them to twenty-six appearances on his show in the ensuing fifty-two weeks. “Mark my words,” he told them, “in six months you boys will be the hottest property on American TV.” By the time Sullivan entrusted his entire Sunday night hour to Wayne and Shuster, the prediction no longer seemed far-fetched.

BARBARA MOON spends a breathles Canadian viewers for ten years, hav

Indeed, it was well on its way to premature realization after the Canadians’ first appearance with Sullivan. On May 4 they did a parody of Julius Caesar, called Rinse the Blood off My Toga, on his show. Overnight everyone in U. S. show' business knew' about them, and about a line that had occurred several times in the script. Delivered by Toronto actress Sylvia Lennick, it went. "1 told him. 1 said Julie, don't go!”

Shuster took New York

week end with two comedians who, after holding their own with

suddenly become the toast of American television critics.

Here’s what they did to the famous Ed Sullivan Show

The critics called Wayne and Shuster’s work 'literate slapstick” and “civilized comedy.” Their New York agent said, “Boy, it’s like a brushfire.”

Several New York bars echoed a gag in their script 'by recaptioning the single martini a “martinus.”

To reinforce the impact, Sullivan put his protégés on again the following Sunday, May 11, in a satire on the Scarlet Pimpernel called The Brown Pumpernickel.

People began recognizing them on the streets and in restaurants. Strangers would say, "There go those crazy Canadians.”

They’d already got a standing offer from a Las Vegas night club, a request from Random House for a book, and a feeler from a recording company.

When Wayne wanted to see Say, Darling, a current Broadway play, while he was in New York his agent wouldn’t let him go: the request for tickets had been made so late in the day that only seats in the twentieth row were available. “You’re a star, baby,” the agent explained patiently. “You gotta travel first class. You can’t sit anywhere behind the eighth row.”

They were not scheduled for the next two shows, but Sullivan decided to turn over the next show, the whole show on June 1, to the two Canadians to emcee. Sullivan needed the stand-ins because he was going to be absent in Europe lining up a future program.

On May 22, Wayne and Shuster did the last regular show of their 1957-8 season on CBCtelevision.

On May 26 they flew to New York to start preparations for the big assignment. It wasn’t until June 13 that they knew definitely whether they’d ever work for CBC-TV again. On that day they became, by common consent, although the terms weren't announced, the highest-paid performers in Canadian television when they signed a CBC contract calling for five hour-long shows next fall and a sixth if their schedule with Sullivan leaves time for it.

The CBC deal pleased them both for more than commercial reasons. Neither wants to move permanently to New York. Shuster won't even get a haircut there—he waits till he gets back to Toronto.

The June I Sullivan show, telecast from New York, was a triumph for the boys. A typically

lyrical review appeared in Variety, the influential show-business weekly.

It went, “Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster are probably the freshest comedy team extant. Variety further reported that they’d be making twenty-six appearances in all and added, "If they do as well as they did on Sunday, it could probably be called the Wayne and Shuster show.”

Everything that Sullivan and the CBS staff could do to ensure their success had been done. They got the star dressing room, heady praise, respectful attention, big money and the entire resources of Sullivan’s well-oiled production machinery.

Wayne and Shuster made their gratitude obvious. At the same time they consistently acted as unofficial Canadian publicity agents. In a TV interview in Toronto they’d insisted. “Canada is the big time. If you’re good here you’re good anywhere.” In New York they kept saying, '‘We like Canada.”

In fact it was possible to see through the whole week in New York a quiet tug-of-war between the homefires and the lure of traveling abroad—first class. continued over page

How Wayne & Shuster took New York continued

It started even before they arrived in New York. When Wayne phoned from Toronto to reserve rooms at Hampshire House, a posh residential hotel overlooking Central Park, the desk clerk asked courteously, "Is that John Wayne, the movie star, or John Wayne, the television star?” Wayne, the swart, monkey-faced funnyman of the team, was assigned to the Empire suite that Frank Sinatra occasionally occupies when he’s on the east coast. Shuster, the sunny, soft-voiced straight man, was on the fifteenth floor. "You could learn to like this,” he said.

The first day, they attended a preliminary production meeting at the CBS head offices on Madison Avenue. Sullivan’s co-producer, Mario Lewis, was in Europe till Thursday, so they were welcomed by John Wray, the director of the show.

Wray, who is also a choreographer, is a gentle, nearly bald man with prominent light-blue eyes and a boyish smile.

They discussed the line-up for the show. The other acts—seven of them—had been booked by Sullivan, some months in advance, some only the week before. They included a ballet troupe, a balancing act and five assorted singers ranging in genre from opera to rock ’n’ roll. In addition to emceeing the show, Wayne and Shuster were to contribute two "bits,” the indiscriminate show-business term for anything less than a full performance.

One was a song, That’s Television, that they’d pioneered on their Canadian show. Based on the errors, human and mechanical, that can sabotage a telecast, it was constantly to be interrupted by intricate patterns of contrived clumsiness on stage and on camera. The other bit, also a repeat, was penciled in as The $64,000 Squeal, a takeoff' on The $64,000 Question. But five days earlier, on their final Canadian show, they’d introduced an off-beat baseball sketch in blank Shakespearean verse and Shuster, overriding Wayne’s protests, insisted they try it on the American audience. "It's not as safe,” he said, "but if it goes over it’ll do more for us.”

They spent the afternoon with the costume and casting departments and set designer Grover Cole. From the costume department they needed a complete set of baseball uniforms and accoutrements and sundry rig-outs for the TV song including a Valkyrie costume, size 44. From casting they needed five girls and eleven men. "In Canada, over the years, we’ve built up a group of people who can do our stuff,” says Shuster. "We're still sorting them out in the States.”

From the set designer they needed a series of stage booby-traps and an authentic baseball dugout. The designer, an elegant young man who turned out never to have been inside a ball park, took himself off to Yankee Stadium to do research.

That night the comedians did some homework on ideas for opening and closing the show, and for continued on page 49

These spoofs, first seen by CBC-TV viewers, touched off praise and applause in New York

How Wayne & Shuster took New York continued from page 16

“We were just minding the shop for Sullivan.

So we decided to do it his way: get off fast”

introducing the other acts. "We didn’t want to change the show," reports Shuster. “After all, we were just minding the shop for Ed. So we decided to do it the way he does: just introduce them and get off fast.’’

For the time being this was an academic decision: the acts weren't to show up for the first time until Sunday morning. On an ordinary Sullivan show most of the acts are singles-—well rehearsed vaudeville or night-club routines. They go through their acts once in the forenoon on camera day, and only once more at a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, before a live audience.

With two complex sketches, however, Wayne and Shuster were being given three days of rehearsal, plus an unprecedented camera rehearsal on Saturday. "Our stuff has a certain amount of production values,” Wayne explains.

On Tuesday "the boys"—as they are called by everyone at CBS including Sullivan—auditioned and picked their sixteen players, and took them to Brooks, a top show-business outfitter, for costumes.

On Wednesday rehearsals began in a big milk-processing plant on West 57th Street that CBS has converted into studios and staff offices.

Wayne and Shuster had insisted that the authentic modal Elizabethan music written for the baseball sketch by their Toronto arranger, Johnny Dobson, be used on the show. The Ed Sullivan Show orchestra, under veteran Ray Bloch, wouldn't see the score till camera day, so a pianist accompanied the rehearsals.

Thursday morning Mario Lewis arrived back from Europe. Lewis, a big, heavily handsome ex-advertising man, with heavy-lidded eyes and a sunlamp tan, is Sullivan's co-producer and technical expert.

He greeted the boys with an arm affectionately around each of their shoulders. He has worked with Sullivan for more than ten years.

In Sullivan’s absence Lewis was responsible for the show, so over lunch in the cafeteria downstairs Wayne and Shuster checked their own plans with him.

The cafeteria was the usual high-cci 1inged windowless room, loud with talk and the slam of crockery. Over the din Wayne explained again, for Lewis' benefit, “We thought we’d follow the same format. We want to make it clear that we’re just standing, as we say in Latin" —Wayne made a dewy-eyed moue—"in loco Sullivanis.”

Everyone at the table laughed.

"We’ve got a wonderful bit to introduce Jeanmaire," said Wayne. Jeanmaire is the prima ballerina of the Ballet de Paris, a French troupe that was to be featured on the show. Lewis nodded. He was already deep in the problem of timing the show.

"No,” Wayne corrected Shuster. "Twelve minutes it ain’t, the baseball sketch. Ten. eleven maybe.”

That’s Television would be the boys’ first number after the show opening. They discussed where to spot the baseball sketch.

"Over the break." said Lewis. "It’s better strategy.” Since NBC threw Steve Allen against the Sullivan show rival

tacticians have been busy figuring ways to discourage channel-switchers, particularly at the vulnerable half-hourly station-identification gap.

"We’ve got a wonderful gag for the audience introductions.” Wayne said

after a minute. He explained: instead of introducing the usual celebrities in the audience they’d introduce a man named Julius Melnik, who'd been sitting in the audience every night for ten years hoping to get on camera. He'd never been

newsworthy enough before, but now he w'as, precisely because he’d been waiting lor ten years.

"So the camera pans down." Wayne chortled, "only he’s not there. Just an empty seat. But his wife’s there. So we

ask, where is he? So his wife says he just had to go outside for a minute. So we say, ‘After ten years he’s not here when we’re finally going to introduce him'?’ So his wife says, ‘I told him. I said, Julie, don’t go!’”

He paused, and then laughed to show he understood the impossibility of the gag: “We’d have to fly Sylvia down just for that one line.”

Lewis looked up. “I like it. It’s funny. Do it.”

Wayne said, “We’ve got a straightforward bit for the closing. It’s sort of a friendly thing, very nice. You know, we’re - the - only - country - that - won’t -throw - rocks - at - your - embassy - so -c’mon - up.”

Lewis consulted a sheet of paper and Wayne added hastily, “It’ll be forty seconds maximum.”

Lewis got up from the table, saying, “We’ll type all this up. I just want to be sure you think it's good.”

Back in the rehearsal hall Lewis watched a run-through of That’s Television, hugging himself the way Sullivan does. Wray, the director, asked if they’d like to do the baseball sketch now. In it, Wayne plays a catcher-in-a-battingslump as though he were Hamlet, and Shuster plays the team manager as though he were Horatio. The script is an outrageous mixture of baseball lingo and Shakespearean borrowings.

Wayne said to Lewis, a bit anxiously, “This is a little different, but it’s what we want to do.” Lewis nodded and leaned forward to watch. He chuckled quietly all through it and sat smiling after they had finished.

Shuster said, “Johnny and I had a big argument about whether we d do it.”

"It’s pretty risky,” mused Lewis. “I love it myself,” he added hastily.

Shuster said, "It's different. We wanted to be different.”

Wayne broke in, “We tried it in Canada, you know.”

"How did it go there?” asked Lewis.

Wayne said, “Swell. We had a lot of mail, a very good reaction." Lewis nodded several times, and then once decisively. When he got up to leave, a bit player called derisively, “Mario, don’t go!”

“Yeah. Mario, don’t go!” echoed Wayne, laughing.

Friday morning they rehearsed That’s Television steadily for a couple of hours. Besides the comedians themselves there were fourteen participants, each of whom had to come in precisely on cue to illustrate a single line of the song. A musical-comedy soprano had been hired solely to hit one top note and then burst into a coughing fit. She had a lusty voice and magnificently Wagnerian

proportions, but when Wayne explained that he wanted a single Valkyrian ho-yoto-ho, it turned out she'd never heard of Wagner. “I’ll get a record and learn it, though,” she promised.

Arthur Hiller, an cx-CBC producer who is now riding high in Hollywood, wandered into the rehearsal about noon on his way from Toronto to the west coast. Wayne and Shuster hailed him delightedly and introduced him to everyone as “a Canadian who’s doing Big Things in Hollywood.” Hiller and the comedians compared notes on the standard of U. S. technical production. Wayne said, “The difference is, in Toronto they have one guy trying to do five jobs; down here they’ve got five guys.”

Hiller said, “Have you noticed how fast they can strike a set?”

Wayne said, “Well, you don’t have to wait till the boys put down their copies of Proust ...”

“. . . and stroke their beards,” finished Shuster. “A stagehand down here doesn’t want to be something else. He just wants to be the best stagehand there is.”

Wray dismissed the extras at one, but he, his assistants, and the boys waited around because Jeanmaire, the Parisian ballerina, was due at two to rehearse a gag Wayne and Shuster had written as an introduction to the Ballet dc Paris. It involved some complicated bilingual cross-talk that wound up with Jeanmaire asking Wayne, the interpreter, “What did he say?” in English, and Shuster saying confusedly, “Qu’est-ce qu’elle dit?”

At rehearsal Saturday morning the program assistant reported, “Jeanmaire doesn't want to do the bit. She’s afraid of it.” After a moment’s thought he said reprovingly, “It would have been nice if she'd phoned and let us know.”

The special camera rehearsal for the Canadians’ two sketches was being held in the broadcast studio itself—CBS Television Studio 50 on Broadway at 53rd Street. The network converted Studio 50 from the old Hammerstein, once the most elaborate theatre on Broadway with its balcony and dress circle under a vaulted dome as splendid as a basilica’s.

The full technical crew was there. “This is a very expensive day Ed's given us,” remarked Wayne.

Johnny Dobson, the Toronto composer-arranger. had flown in to New York that morning for the final rehearsal. “They were pretty wary of us here, the first time,” he remarked. “You could feel it. But now they’re glad to see us.” He went up on the stage and over to the rehearsal pianist. “It should go slower,” he said. “Speed it up and you lose the tune, it just sounds ordinary.”

The boys were going through That’s Television on camera. Extras dressed like stagehands jostled them, crossed in front of them; a prop camera was trundled across the scene; the mike swooped down suddenly to face level. On the monitor the calculated confusion was compounded: the picture went out of focus; went upside down, went in too close and steadied on a shot of Wayne’s shirt button.

At the height of the disarray a makebelieve floor manager walked on camera shouting, “Coffee break everybody!” In the rush offstage the boys were flung against two pillars, which toppled, dumping a hodful of rubber bricks on their heads. Wayne and Shuster picked themselves up and came forward to start the last chorus. Wayne was juggling two of the rubber bricks.

At the end of the number he started toward Wray saying, “Hey, I’ve got a wonderful gag for there.” Why, he said, couldn't they plant a single brown pumpernickel among the bricks and when he got up he could have it in his hand?

"Yeah, it’s a cute little extra gag,” offered Shuster, grinning his wide Pinnochio grin.

The ample soprano, having contributed her single Wagnerian bar, came down into the dim house and settled herself in a front seat. “Those boys are so good,” she said. “They flip me.” Someone asked how she’d tracked down the cry of the Valkyrie. She rolled her eyes: “I tried all over, yesterday, to find a record,” she said. “But 1 couldn't. Finally I found a girl friend and she knew it, so she spent last night teaching me. It’s got a sort of scoop up to the top." She giggled, “Wait’ll you see my costume. It’s a gasser.”

Shuster and Dobson came down from the stage and sat in the row behind her. Shuster was still seeking reassurance about the baseball sketch. "My head will roll.” he said. “I hadda argument with Johnny about whether we’d do another one . . . safe . . . but good. But safe!”

Brinkman, the stage manager, called, “Baseball sketch everyone.” and Shuster climbed back on stage.

"They had their own show in Canada, eh?” said the soprano. She reflected. “Would there be much work for a person my type in Canada?” she asked.

A cameraman called to a six-year-old, obviously a relative, who was playing up the aisle toward the back of the house. “Watch this one, Gerry,” he said.

The cameraman himself chuckled out loud all through the sketch. At the end he caught the soprano’s eye and they nodded approvingly. I he soprano glanced round at the circle of backstage people who'd gathered to watch. “If you’re good around here,” she said, “boy. you re good.”

The cast went through the baseball sketch twice more. This time they were in costume, for the benefit of a photographer from TV Guide.

At two o’clock they were through. Wayne went to pick up his wife and three little boys, who had come by overnight train, to take them to the Bronx zoo. Shuster went off with Dobson to see Li’l Abner, a musical comedy, and spent the evening quietly with relatives. His wife had house guests from New York and had to stay in Toronto.

Ed Sullivan called on Sunday morning. from the Savoy Hotel in London, to wish the boys good luck.

They were at the theatre at ten-thirty, seeing the other acts in the show for the first time. There was Sallie Blair, a new young Negro discovery, who prowled

through a torch song with glistening eyes and a voracious smile: Jimmie Rodgers, a young rock-’n’-roll record star with loose limbs and automatic rhythm: Edie Adams, the curvy blond wife of comedian Ernie Kovacs, who did a traditional ballad and then burst into a night-club imitation of Marilyn Monroe; Mario Del Monaco, a beefy young Metropolitan tenor with well-manicured hands and a big voice; Doretta Morrow, a blond soprano from musical comedy; the Ballet de Paris troupe, and the Amin Brothers —the inevitable circus act for the benefit of the kiddies.

Wayne and Shuster rehearsed their two sketches for the first time with the full orchestra, under Ray Bloch, and many of the musicians laughed right out loud. The rest of the time the Canadians sat out in the house watching the stage.

Around noon comedian Jack Leonard drifted in. A heavy man in sunglasses with thick, furrowed features, he appears sporadically on the show and almost always drops around on camera day. He sat with the boys and greeted them: “Ah, the Jewish Mounted Police,” in a penetrating voice. Wayne and Shuster doubled up with laughter. The Wagnerian soprano. resplendent in winged helmet and cuirass, clanked slowly up the aisle. “We got her from the Israeli tank corps,” Wayne said to Leonard.

"Have you seen Sylvia?” Shuster asked.

"Who is Sylvia,” Leonard guffawed, beaming all round.

“Aw please. Jack,” Lewis called irritably from the stage.

"I can’t even hum around here,” sulked Leonard.

Shuster said, “I told her to come at one. She flew in this morning.”

Sylvia Lennick came down the aisle, waved to everyone and sat down. “I’ve been in this business in Toronto for years,” she said, "and nobody ever heard of me. I do one line on this show and suddenly I’m famous. They’ve got a drink at the Stage Door in Toronto now called the Big Julie.”

The agents had begun to gather in the theatre for the afternoon dress rehearsal. They sat in the front rows, like cattle buyers at the corral fence, chatting quietly and watching the stage. A boy passed out matzo-ball soup in cardboard containers and turkey-on-rye in waxed paper to the performers.

The Amin Brothers were rehearsing on stage—one slim swarthy Egyptian balancing a second slim, swarthy Egyptian on the balls of his feet, through a breathtaking series of pinwheel turns.

Dobson, the composer, said, “These kids get flown in and knock their hearts out in rehearsal; then comes the show and Sullivan says, ‘Okay, boys, knock it down to your best trick, make it forty seconds.’ ”

A cameraman broke in. “I’ll say this for Sullivan, he can really pick out the fine points.”

Wayne said, “We had a wonderful bit we were going to do. We were going to get this unicycle act and introduce it as the act Sullivan has had standing by for ten years in case the show was short. Every week for ten years he’s flown them over from Italy just to stand by. So we were going to put them on at last. Only they’ve forgotten how to unicycle. They've spent the last ten years just flying back and forth from Italy.”

The Amin Brothers finished rehearsing. Shuster looked worriedly at his watch. "We're on this show for forty minutes,” he said, “and we haven't done any rehearsal.”

One of the agents said, “This is a very relaxed show."

Shortly after three the balcony was

opened to the public and began filling up. The pit, at the dress rehearsal, is reserved for people connected with the performers—agents and staff.

Wray went to the control booth at the back to direct the show from there and, at 3.35, Lewis came on stage, greeted the audience, told them to watch their monitors during the That’s Television number, introduced Wayne and Shuster and. brow knit, waved in applause fiercely from the balcony. The comedians adlibbed a few warm-up gags and then started the show.

Wayne called out, “You better laugh at us, or we'll stone your embassy in Ottawa.” The audience in the balcony, however, was fairly subdued until Jimmie Rodgers, the rock-’n’-roll star, was introduced. A crescendo of cheers and screams bounced down from the big dome.

“The balcony’s filled with teen-agers,” said a CBS publicity man disgustedly.

The show ran about eight minutes overtime. While TV-emcee Bud Collyer, who was doing the live commercials in Sullivan’s absence, rehearsed in a corner

of the stage, Lewis, Wray, Wayne and Shuster went into a huddle in the boys’ dressing room. They had been assigned to Sullivan’s own dressing room on the second floor with Sullivan’s own Coke machine in the corner.

Lewis decided to cut part of the ballet. Wayne and Shuster said both their sketches would be played faster on the show. “We’d rather pace it up than cut it,” said Shuster. They had already speeded That’s Television by, among other things, cutting out the soprano’s ho-yoto-ho. Now she simply mouthed the

hard-won note and sputtered the cough. By and by the boys slipped out to an automat for a quick coffee and some soup. When they came back they found their dinner jackets laid out, freshly pressed by the costume department. “In Canada I wear it the way it comes from the suitcase,” remarked Shuster. On their other appearances they had gone up to the make-up department on the seventh floor; this time the make-up man came to their dressing room. At seven-thirty the doors were opened to the theatre audience. Mrs. Wayne, with the three youngsters, was led to a seat in the front row. The house filled slowly. At 7.45 Shuster came down from the second floor to count the house from the wings. He thought it looked empty and mentioned it to Lewis. Lewis snorted. "There’s a six-months’ waiting list for tickets to this show,” he said. “It’ll be full by show time.” The orchestra started tuning up. Lewis was still making last-minute changes in the show. At five minutes to eight he told the boys he was switching the Metropolitan tenor with the musicalcomedy soprano. “Del Monaco’s stronger than Doretta Morrow,” he said. "We’ll use him earlier.” At three minutes to eight Lewis came out on stage, welcomed the audience, asked for their applause, told them to look at the monitors during That’s Television, and introduced Wayne and Shuster. The Canadians came out and ad-libbed a few gags. “Don’t be afraid to laugh out loud," said Wayne. At eight o’clock the orchestra broke into the opening fanfare. The announcer’s voice could be heard saying: “. . . the Ed Sullivan . . . Show!" The sponsor's billboard appeared on the monitors. In the second before their own faces would appear on the monitor and before an estimated audience of forty million in the U. S. and Canada, Wayne glanced down into the audience at his wife and children. He and Shuster turned to each other and, solemnly, in the spotlight, shook hands. At nine o’clock, Sullivan was on the phone from London to know how the show had gone. The house was still applauding and the stage was jammed with well-wishers and autograph seekers. The hour had gone so fast that Wayne and Shuster had had time for barely twenty seconds of hands-across-theborder at the end. Sylvia Lennick was limp; they hadn’t got to her bit from the audience until 8.54. “I must have put on fresh lipstick fourteen times in that fifty-four minutes,” she said. A cameraman said, “Boy! The things that really went wrong on the That’s Television bit! And the language on the intercom!” Taking Sullivan’s call in the wings Wayne, his fist jammed in his free ear to keep out the noise, said it seemed to have gone all right. ★