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American Vaudeville Pioneers

THE AVON COMEDY FOUR:
A Short History

By Allan Sutton


The Avon Comedy Four was first and foremost a vehicle for the dialect comedy of Joe Smith (born Joseph Sutlzer, 1884) and Charles Dale (born Charles Marks, 1881). As they recalled it for the press many years later, they first met in a bicycle crash. The bickering and insults that followed reportedly led the bike rental agent to observe that they sounded like the popular vaudeville team of Weber and Fields, and he urged then to reconcile and pursue a career in show business. 1

A New York Times report, published in 1918, offered a far less colorful version of the story. The Times did not mention the bicycle incident, claiming instead that Smith and Dale were simply “boyhood chums on the East Side.” The story went on to say that the team took to the road after having been rejected as an act by A. H. Woods, manager of the National Theatre, and later their manager. They eventually landed in Kingston, New York. There, it was said, they rented a piano and opened their own theater while working at a nearby icehouse to keep the venture solvent. 2

  
Avon Comedy Four with Irving Kaufman

Irving Kaufman (far right) was with the Avon Comedy Four
by the time this photo was taken in 1914.
(Mainspring Press collection)
     

The team, now expanded by two members and callings itself the Avon Comedy Four, soon made its way back to New York City, and here the story becomes even more scrambled. All accounts agree that the quartet made its first New York appearance at the Atlantic Gardens, a nightclub on the Bowery. However, Harry Goodwin, once a prominent member of the quartet, claimed in his later years that both he and Irving Kaufman were original members of the group, and that the group was formed in 1901. 3 The 1918 Times article gave 1902 as the quartet’s founding date, and claimed that Smith and Dale had recruited Goodwin and Kaufman on the sidewalk in front of the Atlantic Gardens.

Neither account is accurate in claiming that Kaufman—who would have been 11 or 12 years old at the time—was signed for the original act. Goodwin also seems to have arrived later than he recalled. The evidence is that the initial personnel were Smith, Dale, Jack Coleman, and Will Lester. 4

By 1903, the Avon Comedy Four was appearing in much more reputable venues, touring on the F.F. Proctor vaudeville circuits and playing many of New York’ higher-class houses. Among its most popular routines was the “Hungarian Rhapsody” skit, which Smith later estimated he had performed 10,000 times. In the summer off-seasons the quartet followed the crowds to the seashore, playing music halls and amusement piers at Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Atlantic City, and other popular resorts. Although all members of the quartet were Jewish, they sometimes volunteered at benefit performances for Protestant and Catholic parishes. Perhaps one of their oddest engagements was a Thanksgiving Day concert for the prisoners on Blackwell’s Island. 5 The Avon Comedy Four’s fame eventually even extended overseas. In 1914 the quartet sailed to England to play a royal command performance at the Palace Theatre in London. 6

Smith and Dale’s comic routines had always been the Avon Comedy Four’s leading feature, but as their fame spread, more emphasis was placed on the musical component of the act. At some point in the early 1910s, tenor Irving Kaufman was brought in to handle the lead vocals. The date of Kaufman’s arrival has not been determined, but he appears in the group’s photo on the sheet music of “Way Out Yonder in the Golden West,” a 1914 publication. He was clearly present on June 7, 1916, when the quartet recorded its first sides — “Yaaka Hula Hickey Doola” and “My Mother’s Rosary” (Victor 18081) — under Rosario Bourdon’s direction in Camden, New Jersey. 7

Victor seems to have little interest in Smith and Dale’s comic routines. Several were recorded, but only “The Professor's Birthday” and “Ginsberg’s Stump Speech” were issued, coupled on Victor 35606. The remainder of the group’s 1916 Victor output consisted of close-harmony quartet singing, capably led by Kaufman.

Victor let the group go at the end of 1916, and they moved to Emerson, which issued several of their vocal recordings on 6” and 7” discs in April 1917. They then returned to Victor briefly, cutting three rejected sides in August 1917, before signing with Columbia the following month. Columbia issued only sides between 1917 and 1919, all of them straightforward vocals.

While the Avon Comedy Four were having little luck in the recording studios, the act was increasingly successful on Broadway. In 1918, under the management of A. H. Woods—the same man who had rejected Smith and Dale in the 1890s—the group made its first appearance in a major Broadway musical, starring with Fannie Brice in Why Worry? The show opened at the Harris Theatre on August 23, 1918, and ran for only 27 performances, 8 but it established the Avon Comedy Four as something more than just a vaudeville act. The quartet was next signed to appear in the prestigious Passing Show of 1919, but fate intervened. An actor’s strike was called in August 1919, shortly before the show was scheduled to open, and Smith and Dale withdrew the act in support of the strikers. 9 When the strike ended and the show opened in October 1919, the Avon Comedy Four were back on the bill, but both Kaufman and Goodwin were conspicuously absent from the new publicity shots. In their place were E. Rash and Charles Adams.10
     

Avon Comedy Four from Passing Show of 1919

By the time the Avon Comedy Four opened in The Passing Show
of 1919
, Kaufman and Goodwin were no longer in the group.
(Mainspring Press collection)
     

No new recording deals were forthcoming in the early 1920s. The Avon Comedy Four's material was sounding increasingly dated, and the group's fortunes began to decline. In 1921 Smith and Dale began to appear in musical comedies and revues on their own. They continued to tour with the Avon Comedy Four on the vaudeville circuits, but supporting personnel came and went. Frank Corbett and Eddie Miller were in the group for a time, and were probably present when the quartet made its two final visits to the Victor studio in October 1924. Only one release resulted — a coupling of two comic sketches, “The New School Teacher” and “Clancy’s Minstrels” (Victor 35750), with Smith and Dale featured.

Smith and Dale managed to keep the Avon Comedy Four afloat into the late 1920s, traveling the Keith vaudeville circuits and landing radio jobs in lieu of recording contracts, but by 1930 they had tired of the routine. In April 1930 the Times reported that both were “eager to put aside their old Avon Comedy Four act and display themselves in what is euphemistically called ‘the legitimate.’” 11 Smith and Dale disbanded the quartet and invested heavily in an ill-fated production entitled Mendel, Inc.

The failure of Mendel, Inc., would prove only a temporary setback for the team. Smith and Dale would go on to great success in motion pictures, and their lives were later fictionalized in the hit film, The Sunshine Boys.


The complete Avon Comedy Four discography can be found in the author’s American Stage Performers Discography — Actors, Vaudevillians, and Musical Comedy Stars, available from Mainspring Press.


NOTES

1  “Biographical Note,” in Guide to the Smith and Dale Papers, 1903–1981. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (2006).

2  “Minute Visits in the Wings.” New York Times (9/1/1918), p. 36.

3  “Harry Goodwin, 62, of Avon Quartet [sic]” [obituary]. New York Times (10/26/1942), p. 15.

4  See, for example, Kilgarriff: Grace, Beauty and Banjos (Oberon Books, 1999).

5  “Vaudeville for Prisoners.” New York Times (11/21/1921), p. 23.

6  Goodwin obituary, op. cit.

7  The Avon Comedy Four’s complete discography appears in the author’s American Stage Performers Discography—Actors, Vaudevillians, and Musical Comedy Stars (Mainspring Press), scheduled to release in 2007.

8  Norton, Richard A. Chronology of the American Musical Theater, Vol. II, p. 158. New York: Oxford University Press (2002).

9  “Striking Actors Sued for $500,000 by the Shuberts.” New York Times (8/12/1919), p. 1

10  Goodwin stated that he left the group in 1922, but given the many other demonstrable errors in his account, this is probably incorrect. Rush and Adams are named on the Passing Show showbills. Kaufman and Goodwin are both credited on the 1918 playbill for Why Worry?

11  “In the ‘Abie’ Tradition.” New York Times (4/6/1930), p. 122.



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