Maxwell Kates: Wayne, Shuster & Baseball

Wayne, Shuster & Baseball

By Maxwell Kates

On September 15, 2018, the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario hosted a program called “Wayne and Shuster: Celebrating Canadian Comedy.” For nearly half a century, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster fronted one of the most successful comedy acts in Canadian history . Their brand has been described as ‘literary humour,’ spoofs and satires which fused classic literature, especially Shakespeare, with popular culture of the day. Hamlet met Archie Bunker to become “All in the Royal Family.” Macbeth as a modern murder mystery became “The Hassle at the Castle.” Meanwhile, the film revival of Baroness Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel” begat “The Brown Pumpernickel.”

Wayne and Shuster was also about building their vision of Canada. Both hailed from immigrant Jewish families at a time Canada consisted of two solitudes. Quebec was largely francophone and staunchly Catholic while the rest of the country was predominantly anglophone and British. Wayne and Shuster envisioned a progressive, multicultural Canada which included everyone regardless of geographic or ethnic identity. Johnny Wayne once remarked that “my job is to make the guy in Saskatoon feel special.” Their humour was often seasoned with ethnocultural references, particularly their own background. This has been interpreted to encourage other Canadians to explore and take pride in their own identity at a time many Jewish comedians in the United States saw no place for their heritage in their acts.

Wayne and Shuster, Opening Credits

Here is one example where Wayne and Shuster used Yiddish to augment their scripts. In 1978, they fused “Pygmalion” and “Saturday Night Fever” to write “Saturday Night Feeble.” Shuster portrayed disco impressario Manjack Wolf while Wayne played octogenerian school guard John Fafolta. For what it’s worth, Fafolta is the Yiddish word for ‘all washed up,’ as in laundry. Fafolta suddenly became “the world’s first 84 year old sex symbol” and his dance craze, inspired by the Hustle, was called ‘the Shlep.’ By the end of the episode, the Shlep’s parade had passed and Fafolta went back to being a crossing guard – but not before the Variety headline screamed “John Fafolta all washed up.”

John Fafolta, All Washed Up

Frank Shuster was born in Toronto on September 5, 1916, and was raised in the Ontario communities of Niagara Falls and Windsor. Meanwhile, his partner in comedy was born Lou Weingarten on May 28, 1918, also in Toronto. Frank’s family owned and operated a theatre which inspired him towards character acting. Lou, meanwhile, was naturally funny. A classmate of Lou’s, the late Murray Green, shared his recollections of the budding comedy star:

“Louie used to bring a jar of flies to Hebrew school, line them up on the table, and place bets. When the rabbi saw what Louie was doing, he’d chase after him with a ruler. But Louie would outsmart the rabbi every time. The rabbi looked everywhere to find Louie and whip him. He checked the sanctuary, he checked the janitor’s closet, but he never found him. He never checked the girls’ toilets and that’s exactly where Louie hid.”

Louie on a Horse, Age 2

Frank and Lou met as Boy Scouts and performed in revues both at Harbord Collegiate and the University of Toronto. Their first break in show business came in 1941 when they hosted a local radio program called Javex Wife Preservers. Although the program lasted less than one year, they were later hired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). After serving in the military during the Second World War, Frank and Lou (now known as Johnny Wayne) returned to the CBC. They worked first in radio, moving to television in 1954. A year later, they aired “Rinse the Blood Off My Toga.” Their interpretation of “Julius Caesar” as a Mickey Spillane novel cast Wayne as detective Flavius Maximus opposite Shuster as the shifty Senator Brutus. In a most memorable scene, Sylvia Lennick playing Caesar’s widow Calpurnia pleaded with Flavius, “I told him, Julie don’t go!”

In 1958, Wayne and Shuster made their first of 67 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Three years later, they substituted for Jack Benny as a network summer replacement with “Holiday Lodge.” When offered to take their act to Hollywood on a permanent basis, Johnny and Frank declined. Instead, they chose to remain in Canada for the balance of their professional careers and to raise their families.

Wayne and Shuster Always Get Their Ed, 1963

Sports figured prominently in Wayne and Shuster’s sketches as an easy way to reach a large cross-section of the Canadian audience. Although Shuster’s passion was golf and Wayne’s favourite sports were football and hockey, baseball did figure prominently in their repertoire. What you are about to read is an appreciation of Wayne and Shuster’s work, with an emphasis on their baseball sketches and references.

For their first appearance on Ed Sullivan, Wayne and Shuster introduced a sketch called “Shakespearean Baseball.” An adaptation of “Casey at the Bat” recited in iambic pentameter, “Shakespearean Baseball” stars Shuster as the unnamed manager of the Stratford team opposite Wayne as “the noblest catcher of them all,” the Mighty Yogi. Mired in a slump, Yogi is hitless in his last ten games, batting an anemic .208. His manager expressed dismay by lamenting “to think he led the league in RBIs / Now he reads the record book and cries.”

The Original Shakespearean Baseball, 1958

Yogi introduces himself by parodying Hamlet with the monologue, “Oh, what a rogue and bush league slob am I!” Shakespeare references and puns abound throughout the script; the basemen are “Sam the 1st, Bill the 2nd, and Richard the 3rd.” When inspecting a bat, Yogi channels his inner Macbeth by asking “Is this a Slugger I see before me?” And when Yogi learns the game is being televised, he qualms, “TV or not TV, that is not the question!”

The sketch reaches its climactic scene in the bottom of the 9th. Stratford is down by a run with one away. As Macduff strides to the plate, Yogi cheers, “Lay on Macduff! And watch out for that breaking stuff!” But Macduff’s “very palpable hit” is ruled foul. Yogi challenges the umpire, played by Paul Kligman, arguing “so fair a foul I have not seen” followed by “get thee a pair of glasses, get thee to an optometrist!” With “two out, damn spot,” it is Yogi’s time at bat. Unlike the Ernest Thayer poem where the Mighty Casey strikes out, the Mighty Yogi gets beaned. Yogi enters a dramatic monologue in a semiconscious state. Again he paraphrases Hamlet with “alas, poor Durocher, I knew him well, a man of infinite lip.” Then he says “’tis a tale told by an umpire, full of sound and fury, signifying 1-nothing” before slipping on a baseball, knocking himself out. The manager ends the sketch by lamenting “no longer would Stratford see Yogi play ball, I’m trading the bum to Montreal.”

Pitchers, Catchers, Shortstops, Lend Me Your Ears, 1971

Shuster probably meant the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in the International League that was the rival of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1969, the emergence of the Montreal Expos as a major league team brought baseball to an entirely different level in Canadian popular culture. Two years later, Wayne and Shuster decided to reprise “Shakespearean Baseball.” With Yogi Berra long since retired, the Mighty Yogi was replaced by the Mighty Rocky. Meanwhile, Roy Wordsworth played a red haired shortstop named Rusty as a nod to Le Grand Orange.

That same year, 1971, Wayne and Shuster spoofed “Citizen Kane” with “Citizen Wayne.” Shuster plays a reporter who interviews Citizen Wayne late in life. Wayne offers the reporter a guided tour of his estate, showing off his marble from Carrara his bamboo from Ceylon. When asked where the carpet is from, Citizen Wayne replies “Houston. It is Astroturf.”

The first Commonwealth pennant, 1973

Although the Montreal Expos fell short of winning their first National League East division title in 1973, they were still the best major league team in the British Commonwealth. All right, they were the only team in the Commonwealth. But seriously – folks – the disappointing Expos did not prevent Wayne and Shuster from pitting them against the Chelsea Grouse, a fictional British team, in “The First Commonwealth Pennant.” According to the Sherbrooke (Quebec) Record, “bowler hatted home run hitters drink tea between strikeouts and show how reserved British ball players can be under stress.” Wayne and Shuster play the Honourable Quentin Jellicoe and Sir Basil Baskerville in an episode partially filmed on location at Montreal’s Jarry Park.

The Expos were no longer the only team in the Commonwealth by 1977 when the American League expanded to Toronto. To celebrate the new Blue Jays, Wayne and Shuster released a third version of “Shakespearean Baseball.” This time, Wayne played the Mighty Thurman, as in Munson, while teammates included starting pitcher Catfish and relief ace Sparky. This time, the Mighty Thurman sang his own lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which included “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack / If they don’t sell me beer, I’ll never go back.” Paradoxically, while the Blue Jays were partially owned by a brewer, Labatt’s, city by-laws made it was illegal to sell beer at Exhibition Stadium. The venue was derided as ‘Prohibition Stadium’ until the ban was lifted in 1982.

Shakespearean Baseball, 1977

At the end of the 1970s, Wayne and Shuster performed an operetta entitled “Everybody’s a Comic.” Written by Stan Daniels, the song demonstrated how often people foisted jokes on them because they were comedians. In one vignette, Shuster attends a Blue Jays game with fellow performer Tom Harvey. The score is 2-0. When Wayne asks which team is winning, Tom replies “Two.”

By the 1980s, comedy tastes had changed. Humour was becoming edgier and more aggressive, interpreted by the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and later, Eddie Murphy. Consequently, Wayne and Shuster’s brand of humour was panned by the critics as archaic and out of fashion. A monthly series was now reduced to a few special presentations each television season. As part of their 1987 “Super Special,” Wayne and Shuster performed a sketch arguing that baseball players were more concerned about making money than winning games. The average major league salary at that time was $400,000. Shuster played the manager of the Toronto Tycoons while Wayne was one of the players. After Wayne is asked to move his red Mercedes, as it was blocking home plate, Shuster bans accountants, computers, and calculators from the dugout. Wayne retorts by protesting that “We’re not just ballplayers, we’re also multimillion dollar corporations.” The episode ends as Wayne and Shuster film a commercial for Finster Light Ale in the middle of the game. (NB. Finster is the Yiddish word for ‘dark,’ so the beer they were advertising was, in essence, ‘dark light.’)

Once Upon A Giant, 1988

Wayne and Shuster filmed a television movie for children in 1988 called “Once Upon A Giant.” Shuster was cast as Humphrey the physician while Wayne played Lester the jester. Lester and Humphrey were incarcerated for interfering with the wedding of Princess Marigold and the evil Prince Malocchio (“the evil eye” in Italian). While imprisoned, they are visited by Angelica the Good Witch. Played by Carol Robinson, Angelica described her mission in life as seeking out the disillusioned and downtrodden and helping them. Lester whispers in Humphrey’s ear, “Where was she when the Blue Jays needed her?”

Unlike anything in “Shakesperean Baseball,” this line refers to an actual event in baseball history. Late in the 1987 season, the Toronto Blue Jays were embroiled in a pennant race with the New York Yankees, the Detroit Tigers, and the Milwaukee Brewers. With one week to play, the Blue Jays (96-59) held a three game lead over 2nd place Detroit (93-62). That’s when the Blue Jays lost all seven of their last games, including four one-run decisions to the archrival Tigers. Readers of the Toronto Star may remember a photograph of an avuncular spectator wearing full Blue Jays regalia at the sudden death series at Tiger Stadium in Detroit amid the caption “Go Jays!” That spectator was Johnny Wayne.

Frank Shuster with Wayne Sons Brian, Jamie, and Michael

Wayne and Shuster aired their final ‘Super Special’ in 1989. A year later, on July 19, Johnny Wayne died, age 72. Frank Shuster passed away on January 13, 2002, age 85. Regrettably, Wayne and Shuster are virtually unknown to an entire generation of Canadians, although the online network Encore+ is trying to change that by broadcasting vintage episodes every week on YouTube. In addition, Wayne’s sons Brian and Michael are frequent contributors to “The Wayne and Shuster Appreciation Society,” a Facebook page which was started by Bob Badgely.

The legacy of Wayne and Shuster’s humour continues on both sides of the 49th parallel. Frank Shuster’s daughter Rosalind was once married to Lorne Lipowitz. After changing his surname to Michaels, Lorne founded “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. Wayne and Shuster influenced Canadian television series such as SCTV and Kids in the Hall, along with comedians such as Mike Myers (Wayne‘s World?) and Russell Peters. In a 1992 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry was booked on a flight from St. Louis to New York in first class while Elaine was seated in economy. This was a parody of an episode of “The Carol Burnett Show” but Carol likely got the idea from Wayne and Shuster.

Well, I see by the clock on the wall that my time is up. Well if it weren’t, where’s the sketch?

Wayne and Shuster, Closing Credits, 1980

Special thanks to Brian Wayne for his contributions to this article

 

********************

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

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