Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Of Tricycles and Flahooley

He was the “World’s Foremost Authority.” Whether Professor Irwin Corey ever said what he was the world’s foremost authority on is unknown. But it may have been on a subject few people have first-hand experience with: protesting with tricycles.

Corey died yesterday, a man whose stand-up comedy career dated back to the late 1930s. He was called a “cockeyed philosopher” by Broadway beat reporter Earl Wilson, a “tatterdemalion professor of everything,” according to Virginia Forbes of the New York Sun and a man who “wallows in a sea of oratorical chaos” in yet another column. His act was unusual, and he appears to have been as quirky in real life (he claimed, during the height of the Red Scare, that the Communists didn’t want him). Here’s a story from the Long Island Star Journal of June 22, 1950. I wish the photo accompanying the scanned photocopy of this story on the internet was viewable; it shows women rushing to Corey’s defence.
‘Human Chain’ of Mothers Blocks Bus Street in Kew Gardens Hills
Police Break Barricade After Scuffle

Another "human chain" was flung across a Kew Gardens Hills street yesterday by 50 mothers who barred all traffic for a full hour . . . duplicating a feat staged by another band last week a few blocks away.
They barricaded 69th road with a massed line of tricycles in the middle of the block between 147th street and Main street.
Ten policemen finally smashed the blockade by pushing the housewives and tricycles off the roadway.
The police grabbed one dad—Irwin Corey, widely known comedian—who was trying to save his wife from being shoved off the sheet. He was rushed off the roadway and pushed against the side of a bus.
But the housewives rushed to his defense, screaming at the top of their lungs and pulled at the policemen's uniforms. They finally succeeded in rescuing him.
• • •
COREY RUSHED off to his home at 144-27 69th road. The police did not follow him. Known as Professor Corey, he has just completed an engagement at Manhattan's Copacabana night club.
The mothers were "demonstrating" in an effort to have the Q-44 Shuttle bus taken off their street, claiming it's dangerous for their children.
They did block one bus. When the driver climbed out and called for help, police arrived and detoured other buses from the trouble spot, blocking it off with a barricade of their own.
The driver of the bus thus found himself trapped between the two barricades, so he sat it out and whiled away the time while the mothers mixed it up with the police.
After the perspiring policemen managed to clear the road, Mrs. Dorothy Willner of 144-40 69th road, spokesman for the mothers, promptly announced that they would block the street again today and every day until the city re-routes the buses.
• • •
LATER IN the day, however, Inspector Frank Centner, in charge of the North Queens police, visited the area and invited the mothers to appoint a committee to meet with him and thresh things out.
Just nine days before, another human chain made up of mothers with children in baby carriages, blocked all traffic at Main street and 72nd avenue, in a demonstration to force police to install a traffic light.
It took police an hour to clear away the demonstrators and reopen the street, too.
As a result of that demonstration, Inspector Centner had a policeman assigned to direct traffic at the intersection, and he sent a commendation for a traffic light to his superiors at Manhattan Police Headquarters.
• • •
THE BUSES use 69th road as part of a turn-around loop at the end of the Q-44 shuttle line.
Mrs. Willner asserted that Corey’s child “was almost run over by a bus last week.”
Professionally, Corey was involved in an unusual experience on Broadway. In May 1951, he was in the cast of a musical that was making money, but closed for re-writes because the authors (and critics) weren’t happy with it—and never re-opened. “Flahooley” lasted 40 performances. Names you would recognise from the opening night cast are Nehemiah Persoff, Louis Nye, Yma Sumac, veteran Ernest Truex and the Bil Baird puppets. “Involved and unwieldy” was how the Brooklyn Eagle’s critic viewed the musical. And he was one of the critics who liked it.

Louis Sheaffer’s “Curtain Time” column of June 12, 1951 in the Eagle was supposed to be a profile of Corey but kind of got sidetracked, appropriate, I suppose, as Corey’s nightclub act consisted of a monologue that went off on tangents upon tangents.
Interview With a Genie Turns Into a Discussion of Audiences
It was supposed to be an interview with Irwin Corey on the sort of childhood, general background and acting experience that qualifies an actor to play a musical comedy genie—Carey plays the big-hearted genie in “Flahooley.” But for a while three-way discussion when E. Y. Harburg, one of the creative brains behind “Flahooley,” joined our table at Sardi's and began talking about the show's curious first-night reception on Broadway and the unusual steps being taken to give it a healthier lease on life.
“One of the troubles,” Mr. Harburg was saying, “is that Philadelphia loved the show too much. They didn't tell us anything. You never know what you've got in a show until you've played it before an audience—the audience tells you where it's good and where it's bad, what its weak spots are. Then you go to work and fix them up. That's why you take shows out of town to try them out. But Philadelphia didn't tell us a thing. The whole three weeks we were there the audiences loved 'Flahooley,' and their critics gave us fine notices.
Broadway Reaction
“Then we come in to New York with the show, figure we're all set, and run into a hostile first-night crowd. Some of the notices were good, but many of them weren’t. A friend of ours, a psychiatrist, told me afterwards he felt that he was sitting in a sea of hostility. I don't understand it; it was almost something personal. But I know we've got a good show here, and the audiences since the opening have been telling us the same thing. They've loved it.”
Corey, the part-time genie, added his bit: "Some of the opening night crowd even said the score wasn't good, but three of the songs are on best-selling lists.” Your reporter, who had enjoyed “Flahooley” and thought that at least half of it was sparkling, imaginative fun, offered the opinion that maybe the trouble was that it was too “rich” a show, something like a Christmas or Thanksgiving spread, that the production was rather crowded at times, “busy,” and needed a little pruning and simplifying to make everything jell together smoothly.
Summer Recess
Attentive to the various comments passed over the luncheon table, Mr. Harburg agreed that the book needed some tightening, clarification in spots, and added that they would be made. This Saturday night, taking an unusual, if not unique, step, “Flahooley” will close at the Broadhurst for the Summer; even though the musical has been playing to profitable houses so far, and is expected to reopen in the Fall with virtually the same cast, after Mr. Harburg, who wrote the lyrics and co-authored the book with Fred Saidy, has worked with his collaborator in making the necessary changes. (Editorial opinion: It wouldn't take much work, to make the entire show a thoroughgoing delight.)
A Genie's Background
After a while Mr. Harburg headed back to his own table, and your reporter went back to his job of probing into the background of “Flahooley's” genie, who first began acting in small fry pageants and shows at the Brooklyn Orphan Asylum. He was there from the ages of four to eight, along with his five brothers and sisters, and before that was at the Infants Home in the Bronx.
A frank, outspoken chap, Irwin Corey says that he has a strong need for affection today, talking in reference to his work, because his parents busted up when he was a baby, thereby leaving him to orphan asylums' care the first eight years of his life. “My only concern when I get on a night club floor is: Will they love me? Sometimes the sweat breaks out, wondering if the audience is on my side.”
Billed as “The World's Foremost Authority,” Corey is known to the plushier bistros and supper clubs, the Blue Angel, Le Ruban Bleu, the Copacabana, Chicago’s Palmer House, as one comedian who raises laughs without telling gags or funny stories. He does it through character comedy. Dressed as a seedy but formally turned out professor, Corey fumbles his knowing way through lectures that rarely come within shouting distance of their announced topics or goals.
Comedian Emerges
How does a comedian go about working up such a character? How, for that matter, does one go about becoming a comedian? Corey tries conscientiously, but he can't explain it himself. First he did one thing, then another, worked as a busboy and waiter, was in the CCC, working in a Bush Terminal factory making chairs, got together a little show on the borscht circuit, and somehow developed into a genuine funnyman with a style and personality of his own.
Ask him if he had a sense of humor as a child and he’ll say, “Naw, I was just a scrappy kid.” He went to Pershing Junior High and Abraham Lincoln High, and didn’t like either school. Once the youngsters were supposed to write an essay on “Why I’m Glad to Be a Member of Abraham Lincoln High School.” Young Corey changed it around to why he was NOT glad to be a member.
When he was about 18, he and a friend hitch-hiked to California because Irwin wanted to take a postgraduate course in dramatics at Los Angeles' Belmont High School. A scout from the Pasadena Playhouse liked him in a school play and offered him a scholarship, but it only paid for his tuition and he turned it down. He also had to eat.
Cold Winter
Back in the East, between busboy and factory jobs, he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps and was sent to Vermont, in the Winter time.
“It was 20 below zero and cold . . .! I was called Doc Iodine because I was in the medics, and I had half the boys, about 120, marked to quarters because it was so cold out. Our outfit was supposed to chop down trees and build roads. Well, a supervisor came along and found all the boys in the barracks playing cards, reading, but he couldn't do anything because they were marked quarters. But I was transferred from the medics.”
After various types of jobs, Corey landed a minor spot in “Pins and Needles” and next turned up as a solo performer at Greenwich Village's incubator of name talent, the Village Vanguard, where he began his night club career. Unlike most comedians, Corey retains a humorous slant on things even when he isn’t paid to be funny, as his children, Margaret 8, and Richard, 5, are well aware. Recently he told Margaret, “I’m really pretty but it doesn’t show on my face. I have a beautiful bone structure.”
Another time he hugged Richard so hard the boy protested, and father Corey gravely informed him, “It only seems to hurt; it really doesn’t.”
But perhaps that wasn’t intended as humor. Maybe Irwin Corey was trying to make certain his boy gets enough affection.
The good professor had affection for the audiences who got his unusual way of looking at things. And they returned it for decades. Irwin Corey died at 102.

No comments:

Post a Comment