Q. I recently laughed myself silly again over the Three Stooges’ “Niagara Falls” routine. It sounds like something Moe Howard would do, but I’ve always wondered whether he wrote the sketch or if it was more a collaborative effort with Curly and Larry.
— L.C.S., of Fairview Heights
A. How about “none of the above”?
“Oh, a wise guy, eh?” you’re probably thinking. As it turns out, I am as usual. With a bit of research, you’ll find that this piece of funny business — perhaps best known as “Slowly I Turned” — was one of the most popular skits of the vaudeville stage. Since then, it has since been kept alive by comedic masters ranging from the Stooges and Abbott and Costello to Milton Berle and Lucille Ball.
For those whose parents wouldn’t let them watch the eye-poking, nose-twisting, head-bonking trio, it goes like this: Two strangers meet, and one tells of how badly he had been wronged — a wife running off with a lover, for example. The man continues by relating to what extraordinary lengths he went to track the pair down — all the way to Niagara Falls, in the Stooges’ routine. When Curly innocently repeats “Niagara Falls,” Moe goes ballistic: “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned! And step by step, inch by inch ... ” he growls before attacking the poor stranger. It only gets funnier when Larry the lover shows up and both he and Moe wind up chasing after hapless Curly.
But just who originally dreamed up this four-minute bit of inanity? Well, that turns out to be a funny question, because the honor could go to at least three people depending on whom you believe.
Many credit Harry Steppe, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the United States when he was just 4 years old. Known to theatergoers as “The Hebrew Gent,” his alter ego Ignatz Cohen became a popular stereotypical Jewish character. His vaudeville shows were Ziegfeld-like spectaculars filled with dancing girls, operatic arias and other specialty acts. It’s no surprise, then, that Phil Silvers and others credit Steppe for coining the term “top banana” as a synonym for a lead comic on a show’s bill. It grew out of a skit in which three comics try to share two bananas. He is also credited by some for the “Slowly I Turned” sketch, in which he uses the perhaps funnier sounding Pokomoko for Niagara Falls.
But others say that vaudeville stars commonly stole routines from each other, so other names are thrown into the mix. One is Joey Faye, who also wrote the Susquehana Hat Company sketch and wound up as second banana to Phil Silvers in two Broadway musicals. (He also played the dancing grapes in Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials.) The other possibility is writer-actor Samuel Goldman, who died in 1965 but whose version of the “Slowly I Turned” classic is part of 15 boxes of his papers on file at the University of Chicago Library.
Whatever the real source, it sounds like many comedians who followed could not wait to incorporate it into their own acts. You might be interested to know that the Stooges first filmed the skit for the 1943 film “Good Luck, Mr. Yates,” with Claire Trevor, but it wound up on the cutting-room floor. Instead of simply throwing the film away, Columbia Pictures built the 1944 Stooges’ short “Gents Without Cents” around it with the trio playing song-and-dance performers who hit the big time when they meet three lovely women and hit the road together. They wind up getting married and planning a honeymoon in — where else? — Niagara Falls.
Other comics knew gold when they saw it. Also in 1944, Abbott and Costello worked their “Pokomoko” variation into the movie “Lost in a Harem” as they travel to Arabia to rescue the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra before using the “Niagara Falls” version in their TV series. The routine also wound up in the first season of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy plays a crazed ballerina as well as the eighth season of “The Danny Thomas Show” in which Danny and Joey Faye use the trigger word “Martha.” Dr. Demento fans will remember the good doctor playing the “Buffalo” sketch recorded by Milton Berle.
You don’t have to go back generations to enjoy it, though. Even Steve Martin paid homage to it in “Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid,” and you’ll find it at the heart of the lyrics of “Native Love” by the late drag singer Divine and “Don’t Call Me Dude” by the thrash metal band Scatterbrain. But if you are a fan of the classics, you can laugh along to the Stooges or Bud and Lou anytime on YouTube. Just search for “Niagara Falls” or “Pokomoko.”
Q. I hate washers, so I really want to play horseshoes, but can’t find the equipment or rules anywhere.
— G.S., of Belleville
A. If you can’t find they anywhere else, you can score a ringer at The Sport Authority, 6575 N. Illinois St. in Fairview Heights. They tell me they have royal, champion and pro sets ranging from $35 to $50 — or search for horseshoes at www.sportsauthority.com, where you can find an indoor set with rubber shoes. I would imagine rules would be included, but if not, send me a note and I’m sure I can track some down for you because that would be a little outside the scope of this column.
What invention did Thomas Jefferson’s opponents call “Jefferson’s whirligig”?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Which Simon and Garfunkel song was band on British BBC and Australian radio? You’d think it would have been been “Mrs. Robinson” because of the movie subject matter and use of the word “Jesus.” But it turned out to be “Kodachrome,” because the use of a trademarked name was prohibited. It’s the same reason the BBC banned the original version of “Lola” because the Kinks’ had rhymed it with Coca-Cola. They changed it to cherry cola for the BBC.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.