Frank Fay is considered the very first stand-up comedian. Prior to his emergence in the early 1920s, comedians accompanied their act with props and funny costumes. Even those without gimmicks rarely appeared onstage alone. Comedians had their punchlines set-up by another person, a straightman. To be a comedian meant you performed with the help of a costume or an instrument or another guy. “A comedian without a prop can’t click,” said actor Wesley Ruggles. “I learned that back in the days when I pushed the props around for Charlie Chaplin. Great pantomist that he is, Chaplin realizes the necessity of props.”
Frank Fay realized that as long as you knew what you were doing, as long as you had confidence in your material, props weren't necessary at all. The comedians insisting on props and costumes did so out of conformity or out of fear. Fay started with gimmicks like everyone else, wearing baggy pants, squirting seltzer, delivering straight lines for a comedian that circled him on roller skates - and he hated it. After humiliating himself onstage for two years, Fay decided to use the same persona he had offstage. No props, no costumes, no partner, he took to the stage wearing a well-tailored tuxedo and told jokes alone. It was so unconventional that The New York Times frowned: "“Fay needs a good straight man, as before, to feed his eccentric comedy." There was initial resistance to a man just standing and talking, but Fay's success would transform stand-up as an artform. Fellow comedians saw Fay succeed and they abandoned their props and emulated his style. Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Jack Paar all cited him as an influence. Fay became one of the most influential stand-up comics of all time.
He was also comedy's most notorious racist. In January 1946, several months after Germany had been defeated, a rally of ten thousand white supremacists gathered at Madison Square Garden. They delivered speeches in support of Franco, Mussolini and their fallen hero Adolf Hitler. They promised that the defeat of Germany would not go unpunished. The podium was beneath a banner that saluted their guest of honor. The event was called "The Friends of Frank Fay."
Frank Fay was a longstanding emcee at the crown jewel of American vaudeville theaters, The Palace. If you played the New York venue in the 1920s, it meant you had made it to the top. To succeed at the Palace was to be a star, the equivalent of a Las Vegas headliner in the 1960s. It was at that venue Frank Fay not only became a bonafide celebrity, but also pioneered the idea of an emcee. For several years vaudeville used only painted placards with the name of each act to announce who was coming to the stage. Fay changed this common practice, becoming one of the first people to actually emcee a show. His role as an introducer and extroducer was another revolutionary shift in stand-up. He wasn't just introducing, but entertaining as he did so. If the previous act bombed, he warmed the crowd back up, and If the momentum was good, he just kept the show going. Abel Green, editor of the trade paper Variety, said “Fay pioneered the emcee and made him important.”
Bob Hope was impressed and patterned himself after Fay. “Frank Fay was something else and I saw them all. [Fay] used to take command of the stage. He was just a sensational man that could do more with nothing, with attitude, than any man I ever saw on the stage. And he played the Palace sixteen weeks when it was two a day. It was the all-time record for a man to emcee. I loved him. His material was very New Yorkish and very inside.”
Throughout the 1920s the press raved about Fay's revolutionary style, but all the good press went to his head. Fay's narcissism often turned nasty. He feuded with fellow comedians. Comic Bert Lahr, the future Cowardly Lion, relied on funny costumes for his laughs and Fay held him in contempt. Passing Lahr in the wings Fay would say, "What's the low comic up to today?" Milton Berle idolized Fay, but Fay frequently addressed Berle with anti-Semitic remarks. In response Berle challenged Fay "to a battle of wits." Fay replied, "Sorry, I never attack an unarmed man."
It boiled over one night at the Palace. Fay was performing while Berle watched from the wings. Fay gestured to a stagehand and said, “Get that little Jew bastard out of the wings!” Berle fumed. “I waited until he had finished for the night,” said Berle. “I was ready for him as he cut around behind some flats on the way to his dressing room. I had picked up a stage brace – they’re made of wood and metal, and they’re used to hold the scenery together – and as he went by me, I reached out and spun him around. Before he knew what was happening, I hit him right across the face with the brace. It ripped his nose apart.”
“Everybody criticized Frank Fay because of the anti-Semitism,” says elderly comedian Will Jordan. “Everyone was on Berle’s side, but in actual fact, Fay was much better than Berle. They kind of wanted to have it out, but when they actually went onstage together, Frank Fay would just cut him to pieces. But if you just talk about Fay’s anti-Semitism, you’re leaving out the man who was literally the first stand-up comedian.”
Bert Wheeler of comedy team Wheeler and Woolsey was one of Fay’s loyal companions. “Fay has the fastest mind in the business,” said Wheeler. “He can chase any comic living today, bar none.” The Palace agreed and paid him eighteen thousand dollars a week in the lead-up to the stock market crash. Fay foresaw the demise of vaudeville and was the first comedian to stage a one-man show. He broke his contract with the powerful Keith-Albee empire and opened his Sunday Concerts, a stand-up act done in a formal setting. “Fay wasn’t the most popular guy in vaudeville, but we all admired him for this,” said Harpo Marx. “It took a lot of guts to buck the empire.” Fay's ego continued to grow. He insisted the theaters where he appeared bill him as either “The Great Fay,” “The King” or “Broadway’s Favorite Son.” One snide reporter remarked, “Fay forgot to mention who made the appointment."
When vaudeville deflated in the early 1930s, Fay needed to look elsewhere for work. “Fay was brilliant, sardonic, and contemptuous of most of mankind,” said Palace employee Marian Spitzer. “He had a spectacular career at the Palace, but his Palace bookings were spotted with ‘off the bill because of illness’ or ‘replaced by so-and-so.’ He had a demon in him which won out in the end. Despite his brilliance and his inventiveness, the demon got control and ultimately his career was destroyed." Fay believed the so-called demon was Jewish America.
People were resistant to hire him in Hollywood now that his anti-Semitism was famous. “In a business known for its lack of bigotry, he was a bigot,” said comedy writer Milt Josefsberg. “This was no secret, but widely known and well substantiated.” Fay married the struggling actress Barbara Stanwyck in 1928, before she found stardom. When she became famous, a joke about Fay made the rounds:
Q: Which Hollywood actor has the biggest prick?
A: Barbara Stanwyck.
While many celebrities distanced themselves from Fay, he found a friend in the popular radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin. Coughlin railed against “Jewish bankers” and spoke favorably of Mussolini and Hitler. His crusade against trade unions, social security and many elements of President Roosevelt's New Deal (Coughlin reportedly called it The Jew Deal) made him a hero to anti-Semites and a friend of Fay. Coughlin's political views would influence Fay in the years to come.
Fay struggled in film and radio for the next ten years. His appearances were spotty and mostly unsuccessful. He had made too many enemies and few cared to help him out. Maurice Zolotow wrote that the “self-destructive pattern has hampered his career. At various times he has been a vaudeville emcee, nightclub comic, radio star and motion picture hero. Fay has been successful in all of these. He has also been a failure in all of these. Fay has been washed up more times than any other bigtime star.”
By the early 1940s he was a pariah to Jewish show business and a faded star to gentiles. In 1944 he was resurrected by Broadway director Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Award is named. Perry cast Fay as the star of Harvey, a Pulitzer Prize winning play about an alcoholic that befriends a vision of an invisible rabbit. It brought Fay back to prominence and ran nearly eighteen hundred performances. He used his latest success to endorse Franco, Spain's fascist dictator.
At the end of 1945, several members of the theatrical union Actor's Equity rallied in favor of Spanish Refugee Appeal. Actors David Brooks, Jean Darling, Luba Malina and Sono Osato criticized the Spanish Catholic Church for executing leftists and campaigned to help Spanish leftists in exile. Fay was furious. He said their criticism was an attack on Catholicism as a whole. Fay demanded Actor’s Equity investigate each anti-Franco member for un-American activity.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities acted on Fay’s suggestion and the actors were vetted. The New York Times reported that Fay “held no brief against any member of [Actor’s Equity] for political beliefs. He resented, however, that Equity members should be party to rallies that condemn religious groups.” Equity president Bert Lytell objected to the political investigation. “Equity members have a wide latitude of interests and beliefs that they may practice and advocate as private citizens.” Actor’s Equity stood by Brooks, Darling, Malina and Osato. Rather than expel them from his union, Lytell censured Frank Fay for “conduct prejudicial to the association or its membership.”
Franco supporters bombarded Actor's Equity with death threats. Reporter Joseph Foster wrote, “Under the guise of being deeply pained over the [comments about] the Catholic Church, these organs of native fascism have been blowing the familiar tunes in all their repulsive cacophony. They say that the issue is religion, but they are no more concerned with religion than were their political masters, the cutthroats of Berlin. Consider Frank Fay himself, the main attraction in the current whoop-de-do. His anti-Semitism is well known and his numerous brawls on that account are common gossip.”
In response to the censure, allies of Franco, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party organized a rally at Madison Square Garden in January 1946 called "The Friends of Frank Fay.” Speakers included Klan ally Joseph Scott, Nazi Laura Ingalls, publisher of anti-Semitic pamphlets John Geis, and the prolific Joseph P. Kamp, who had used the KKK's mailing list to distribute his work about “Jewish influence” and America’s “Communist President” Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Several personalities connected with the Fascist lunatic fringe were the organizers and speakers,” reported Maurice Zolotow. “Naturally, a terrific controversy was aroused by Fay’s association with these persons.” That so many American fascists were flagrantly holding a rally just six months after the end of the War was bold. “That their clamor arises at [this] time, is far from accidental,” wrote reporter Joseph Foster. “When Franco goes, they will have lost the last stronghold of fascism in Europe, and its attendant influence on South America and subsequently US politics.”
Fay long held the title as the most despised comedian in the business for his arrogance and anti-Semitism. Fascist bedfellows made it worse. His chance to star in the film version of Harvey was lost to James Stewart who scored an Oscar nomination in his place. Fay's table at the ultimate showbiz hangout, Lindy’s, was revoked and his comeback was over. To endorse fascism just months after the War was unforgivable. The career that had influenced so many comedians - was done. "He was a terrible man,” says comedian Jack Carter. “Frank Fay was vicious. The anti-Semite of the world! A real head of a Nazi group. A real hater!”
No People Like Show People by Maurice Zolotow
The New York Times, September 29, 1945
Frank Fay’s Fascist Friends by Joseph Foster; New Masses; January 15, 1946
New York PM Daily, January 11, 1946
The New York Times, March 13, 1933
Movies and Methods Volume Two edited by Bill Nichols
Variety, September 29, 1937
Variety, October 7, 1937
Variety, October 9, 1937
Variety, February 9, 1938
Jack Carter, Interview with Author
Will Jordan, Interview with Author
Milt Moss, Interview with Author
The Jack Benny Show by Milt Josefsberg
MIlton Berle: An Autobiography
No Applause Just Money by Trav SD
50 Years of American Comedy by Bill Treadwell
The John Barbour Show, Interview with Bob Hope, December 1975
Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber
The Palace by Marian Spitzer