Alka-Seltzer Comedy Stars Of Hollywood – Circa 1932 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
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Going back, far back in recorded history this weekend. Maybe not as early as the 1890s, but back to the early days of radio and broadcasting. A radio series produced for Dr. Miles Laboratories in Hollywood and featuring what were billed as some of the “top comedy acts of the day”. The two main characters in this 15 minute romp were a team billed as Brown and La Velle and I have spent days researching but turned up nothing as to who they are or anything about them.
The guest star is another story – Fifi D’Orsay was a notable vaudeville and early film star who coined the phrase “ooh la-la” and was considered one of the penultimate sex bombs from France.
The only problem was, she wasn’t French – and for all her sexy Parisian innuendos had never set foot in France, but was in fact an import from Canada by the name of Yvonne Lussier from Montreal. Okay, kind of French, but French Canadian born in 1904.
At the age of 20 she arrived in New York, determined to become an actress. She was met by Helen Morgan, whom she knew from Montreal. Morgan put up the young Yvonne and taught her the ropes about finding jobs. She was soon hired to appear in The Greenwich Village Follies after an audition in which she sang “Yes! We Have No Bananas” in French and told the director that she was an ex-Follies Bèrgere showgirl from Paris. The director renamed her Mademoiselle Fifi”. During the run she became involved with vaudeville veteran Edward Gallagher (who, with Al Shean, formed the hit comedy act “Gallagher and Shean”), who was 37 years her senior. He taught her “all the little tricks of the business”. She said, “I wanted to learn everything about show business and he taught me – believe me!” She and Gallagher put together a vaudeville act and worked together for two years. When they parted ways, she was teamed with Herman Berrans by noted vaudeville sketch writer Herman Timberg. They put together an act that featured Fifi as a saucy music student and Berrans as her teacher, and it soon became a hit on the Orpheum circuit. Hollywood beckoned and on the strength of a favorable screen test, she dumped her fiancé (Berrans’ brother Freddie) and took off for Hollywood. By this time she had adopted the last name “D’Orsay”, after her favorite perfume. She continued her career in movies, alternating them with highly paid appearances in vaudeville.
About this broadcast – the comedy is beyond corny, it is cringeworthy. But this was the state of Vaudeville in the early years of the 20th century, just prior to World War 1. Jokes which were plays on words and laced with stereotypes and nothing that demanded paying attention.
It’s not what you would hear today – far from it. It’s not even what you heard in early films. This is a slice of a long distant and forgotten world. One which was very popular at the time and served as the backbone of American entertainment since the days of the Civil War.
No doubt you’ve probably never heard something like this before. Luckily, the recording is very good so your historic encounter isn’t one you have to strain to hear.
But the standouts are Fifi and the xylophone solos. Worth the price of admission alone.