Top Banana! Broadway to 3-D, 1954, with Funny-man, Phil Silvers

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Top Banana starring Phil Silvers (which premiered Friday, February 19, 1954[1]) first had a successful Broadway run at the Winter Garden Theatre, opening on Thursday, November 1, 1951, and after 350 (Banana was Dark for 29 days, on a layoff from August 3 – August 31, 1952) performances closed on Saturday, October 4, 1952. Phil Silvers won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for 1952, on Sunday, March 30, 1952; the awards show was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom, in New York City.

Jack Carter took over the leading man duties from Phil Silvers on Tuesday, July 22, 1952 (Silvers was taking a vacation and had throat surgery[2]), but by the end of the first weekend of August the sabbatical was called off; reasons for the month’s vacation are mixed: a… that without Silvers the show was a flop or b… Carter did not like the idea of filling in for two months with no long term payoff[3].

During the near month-long hiatus of Banana in August of 1952, comedian Steve Allen began dating Audrey Meadows ,[4] (Meadows had been in the Banana cast in December, 1951 and early January, 1952,[5] replacing Rose Marie[6]) Meadows had been seeing Silvers[7] (while filling in for Marie), their relationship ran cold, and then grew warm again in June of 1952. [8] Then yet went cold again with Silvers on his time-away; I guess sometimes ‘absence does not make the heart grow fonder’, but ‘all’s well that ends well,’ for Allen moved on to older sister Jayne Meadows[9] (they were married in July of 1954 and remained so until Allen’s death in 1990) while Audrey and Silvers reignited their short-lived romance.

The Broadway run resumed on Labor Day, September 1, 1952, with a matinee performance.[10] Banana finished its planned schedule and on Monday, October 6, 1952 the national tour (which lasted over a year) of Banana, starring Phil Silvers, with the Broadway cast intact,[11] began in Philadelphia at the Shubert Theatre. Consistently on the tour the Orchestra seating was sold-out, but the balcony crowds were often sparse or non-existent[12]. The producers, husband and wife team, Paula Stone and Mike Sloan, were already considering making Banana independently, as July of 1952,[13] but rumors abounded that Jack Haley [14] or Red Buttons [15] would take the lead as Jerry Biffle (instead of Silvers) for the movie version.

Top Banana was the first musical in 3-D, shot in just five days on a budget of just $500,000. The producers used the sets, costumes and so to speak ‘the kitchen sink’ from the road-show, which had just wound up in Los Angeles.[16] The filmed play had few changes, the profanity was removed, a few questionable lines taken out and the strip tease scene was toned down for the movie. [17]

Top Banana was directed by Alfred E. Green and Albert Zugsmith (uncredited), Gene Towne wrote the screen version, Johnny Mercer wrote the music and lyrics, William Bradford was the cinematographer, and the dancing was choreographed by Ron Fletcher and Jack Donohue. With the exception of bringing back Rose Marie, who replaced Kay Ballard of the road company of Banana, [18] there were no cast changes to speak of. Banana starred the aforementioned Silvers, Marie along with Jack Albertson (who had been the understudy for Silvers on Broadway), Joey Faye, Herbie Faye, Johnny Trama, Danny Scholl and Judy Lynn.

New Faces (available on DVD), by the by, was a comedy and musical revue with nary a plot and as Top Banana had been successful, so to was Faces successful on Broadway, playing at the Royale Theatre, May 16, 1952 through March 28, 1953 for a total of 365 performances. The film was photographed in Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, featuring the sketches written by Mel Brooks (parody of “Death of a Salesman”), Paul Lynde (Trip of the Month” monologue) with a bulk of the skits written by Brooks and Ronny Graham. New Faces starred Eartha Kitt (sang in six of the songs), Robert Clary (six songs), Ronny Graham (sang one, wrote three), Alice Ghostley (a unique voice, sang three songs), Paul Lynde, Carol Lawrence (two songs), June Carroll (sung two songs and wrote the lyrics for five), Virginia Wilson (three songs), and we don’t want to forget to mention Jean Shepherd who in 1966 would write “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and in 1983 he would adapt that novel into the screenplay for, “A Christmas Story.”

Additional notes on New Faces… the musical director for the Broadway production was Anton Coppola, brother of Carmine Coppola and uncle to Francis Ford Coppola and Talia Shire. Some songs were omitted for the film, others added; others still had their lyrics updated to reflect the social and political change between the time of the play’s first staging and the film’s release in 1954.

Banana is presented from the perspective of the audience, with only a few shots of a crowd in a theater to orient the viewer; the color is poor and what once were 3-D snippets meant to add some affect to the movie-goers experience, look odd, worn and tired in 2-D. Unfortunately, Top Banana is not available in the original 3-D version, but still great fun is to be had with the DVD, if you like burlesque and especially Phil Silvers; Silvers and his motley quartet of Joey Faye, Herbie Faye, Johnny Trama and Jack Albertson make this a verbal and visual treat. See what the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther had to say about Top Banana. (Please don’t miss out the informative endnotes)

 

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By C. S. Williams

 

[1] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) February 14, 1954

[2] The News-Herald (Franklin, Pennsylvania) July 22, 1952 Also, Silvers, it seems, was running on empty and was in need of rest, for in July he was unable to finish a performance because of energy pills which he had taken (The Salt Lake City Tribune {Salt Lake City, Utah} July 13, 1952), but, with that said Silvers holiday had been announced in June of 1952 (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle {Brooklyn, New York} June 25, 1952

[3] The Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio) August 5, 1952

[4] The News-Herald (Franklin, Pennsylvania) August 11, 1952

[5] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) December 11, 1951

[6] Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) November 30, 1951 Marie was originally scheduled to take off one week and then expanded to four weeks with hope waning for that return (The Record-Argus {Greenville, Pennsylvania} December 3, 1951); eventually Marie would return to the cast in early January of  1952 (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle {Brooklyn, New York} January 8, 1952); ultimately Marie was to be replaced by Gale Robbins on June 2, 1952 (The Times {San Mateo, California} January 1, 1952) but the decision was made before her return from her operation in January.

[7] The Record-Argus (Greenville, Pennsylvania) January 21, 1952

[8] Pottstown Mercury (Pottstown, Pennsylvania) June 24, 1952

[9] The Winona Republican-Herald (Winona, Minnesota) September 15, 1952

[10] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) August 29, 1952

[11] The Baytown Sun (Baytown, Texas) October 15, 1952

[12] The Times (San Mateo, California, June 19, 1953

[13] The Rhinelander Daily News (Rhinelander, Wisconsin) July 22, 1952

[14] The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California) October 22, 1952 (Fox appears to have been the early contender as the production company for Banana)

[15] The Winona Republican-Herald (Winona, Minnesota) March 24, 1953

[16] Independent Press-Telegram (Long Beach, California) August 2, 1953

[17] The Times (San Mateo, California) July 23, 1953

[18] The Times (San Mateo, California) July 23, 1953

 

 

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