The following post is by David Sager of the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Division.
During the early 1900s, the act of making a phonograph record was an uncomfortable proposition. For one thing, efficient positioning before the recording horn required as much attention as the performance itself. Performers had the additional concern of needing to back away from and move in on the horn, depending on the volume required. Moreover, additional variables, such as the number of participants, increased the awkwardness and the challenge.
Imagine having to record a scene from a play or a comedy sketch, particularly if it involved multiple participants who often portrayed multiple characters. As if that were not difficult enough, imagine portraying location–creating a sense of space, and even a change from one venue to another. And of course, we also cannot forget sound effects.
Recording comedy was especially daunting: facial expressions were not possible and all visual effects had to be implied vocally.
Most recorded comedy of the early 1900s consisted of monologues, essentially “flat” presentations that required no props, venue, or other participants. In the theatrical world, this style of performance was referred to as being done “in one,” or in front of a closed curtain. But it worked very well as a sound recording. A fine example is Burt Shepard’s “A Talk on Trousers,” which can be heard at the link below.
Meanwhile, another recording of the era, “Frank Tinney’s First Record,” is slightly more complicated, because it involves an additional speaker who acts as a “straight man.” The comic is Frank Tinney, (1878-1940), a popular comic of vaudeville and Broadway, and the straight man is Charles A. Prince (1869-1937), who was also the house conductor for Columbia Records.
With its opening music and Tinney’s spoken interruption, listening audiences of the day would have no doubt envisioned a performer walking out onstage in typical vaudeville style, and peering down into the orchestra pit, asking the conductor to please “Stop the music.” But this illusion is quickly dashed: Tinney remarks, “That’s funny, Charlie, I don’t hear any applause…I guess that’s because the audience can’t see me. Let me alone, Charlie, I know where to talk, I see the machine.” So now, we are in the Columbia studio, with Tinney, Prince, the orchestra and the shattered fourth wall, allowing the folks at home in on the routine. Alas, if only Tinney were funny. Tinney’s recordings can be heard at the links below.
“Frank Tinney’s First Record”
“Frank Tinney’s Second Record”
Avon Comedy Four
Perhaps the masters of creating an aural illusion of a stage scene were the vaudeville team known as the Avon Comedy Four. The two best known of the quartet were Joe Smith and Charlie Dale, whose vaudeville act “Dr. Kronkheit and his Only Living Patient” became one of the most famous of comedy routines, often performed on 1950s television variety programs. In “Cohen’s Wedding”–mislabeled here as “Cohan’s Wedding”–the quartet manipulates positioning, timbre, and volume of music to give us a sense of actually being behind them in a queue. A particularly realistic effect is achieved as they are entering the ceremonial hall. We hear doors opening, the music gets louder, and suddenly there are far more than just four individuals. The recording is transcribed here to help follow the Avon’s fast-paced and clever wit. The speaker attributions for Smith and Kaufman are fairly certain; Dale and Goodwin were less easily recognized. The recording can be heard at the following link.
“Cohan’s Wedding” [sic][i]
Avon Comedy Four
Recorded November 10, 1916
Performers – Joe Smith, Charlie Dale, Harry Goodwin, Irving Kaufman, Victor Orchestra conducted by either Rosario Bourdon or Ted Levy.
Music: “La cinquintaine”
Smith: Hatcheck? You people can’t go in unless you got your hatcheck.
Crowd: We must check our hats?
Smith: Yes, 35 cents apiece, please.
Kaufman: But we had free invitations for Cohen’s wedding.
Dale: Soitenly we got.
Smith: It’s not my funeral! You must check your hats and make a hurry up; there’s a crowd waiting in back of you.
Dale: Vill you check our three hats on one check for 35 cents?
Smith: Say, what do you people think this is–a bargain counter? When you come to a wedding for pleasure, leave business behind.
Goodwin: Vell, with me it’s always business before pleasure.
Smith: And with me, it’s 35 cents for hatcheck; each and every individual.
Goodwin: All right, then here’s my money. [coin plunk]
Dale: And here is mine. [coin plunk]
Kaufman: And here’s mine, also, too. [coin plunk]
Smith: Here’s your hatcheck. Next?
Goodwin: Say, Mister, where’s the entrance to the hall?
Smith: Right to your left.
Dale: I hope we’ll have a good supper.
Goodwin: Oh, here we are!
Smith: Ah… [many voices and orchestra music gets louder, as though a door is opening]
[Crowd noise; music and applause; shouts of “encore”]
Dale: Say, ain’t there a crowd here?
Goodwin: Yes, and there’s Esther Levi, she weighs 300 pounds; she’s a crowd alone.
Dale: Look at Ike Greenburg; he’s wearing a four-in-hand tie and russet shoes with a full-dress suit on! [Laughs]
Goodwin: Let him alone, he thinks he’s at a masquerade ball.
Smith: There’s now Mrs. Lefkowitz. You remember how thin her face looked last month? Give a look at her now. Ain’t her face renovating beautifully?
Goodwin: Yah, sure, the ceremony is [commencing]
[Voices and music “Wedding March” shouts of “Mazel tov”]
Kaufman: Look at Sam Siegel, his pants is so baggy at the knees, he looks just like he’s going to give a joke.[ii]
Goodwin: Ah, and there’s Meyer Cohen, the bridegroom. He looks just like he stepped out of a band box.
Smith: Sure; when you hire a full-dress suit from Minsky, you look just like a Beau Brummel. That’s what his sign reads.
Dale: My, what a lovely figure the bride has.
Goodwin: Vhere, in the bank?
Kaufman?: Oh, lucky Meyer.
[Crowd noise; glass breaking, shouts of “mazel tov’; Music – “Mazel tov”; crowd singing and dancing]
Smith: Ladies and gents, now comes the grand march for supper. Please don’t push or shove. But remember ‘safety foist.’
[Crowd noise; sound of plates being picked up]
Kaufman: Hey don’t push me; ain’t you?
Goodwin: It ain’t me, it’s someone behind me must be starving from hunger.
Smith: Oh, here we are; the dining room.
Dale: Hey waiter, hand the soup over here.
Goodwin: Say waiter, would you please hand me the fish over here?
Kaufman: Say waiter, would you please hand me the chicken over here?
Smith: What do you all think I am – a octopus?
Dale: Boys, let’s sing of a toast to the bridegroom, eh?
[Voices tuning up; singing, “For he was a jolly good bachelor.”]
Dale: Who was?
Goodwin: Meyer Cohan.
Smith: So, well?
Ensemble: Well, he’s a [poor fool?] now.
Goodwin: Telegram for Mr. and Mrs. Meyer Cohen
[Voices: “Read it,” etc.]
Smith: Wait a minute, please. [Reading] To Mr. and Mrs. Meyer Cohen, May your life be neutral. [signed] Mr. and Mrs. Ludlow Wilsonsky. [applause, etc.] To Mr. and Mrs. Meyer Cohen, May all your troubles be little ones. [signed] Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Rosenfeld. [applause, etc.] To Mr. and Mrs. Meyer Cohen, When your wife throws a shoe at you, all you should say is “God bless you.” [signed] Willie and Jennie Bryanovich. [applause]
Goodwin: Say Ike, did you know this same Mrs. Cohen was once mein sweetheart, and that Meyer Cohen came along and stole her away from me? [Sound of plates being picked up.]
Kaufman: Oh I’ll bet you were so mad for what he did that you could kill him.
Goodwin: Mad? Why I’m so happy, I could kiss him!
To hear other recordings in the Library of Congress Recorded Sound Collection, visit us in-person at the Recorded Sound Research Center. To make an appointment, email us at [email protected] .
[i]Subsequent pressings use the correct title.
[ii] The final word of this line is somewhat indistinct. I am assuming “joke” since Kaufman is speaking of baggy pants, as in a baggy pants comic, i.e. a burlesque comedian.