"If you wanna be a top banana, you gotta start at the bottom of the bunch."
So goes Johnny Mercer's lyric to the title song of the 1951 Broadway musical that opened sixty-six years ago tonight. Starring Phil Silvers as an over-the-top television star, Top Banana was a big hit and ran for 305 performances. It's a part of Broadway's distant past, as it's never received a revival of note, mainly due to its being very much of its time (a thinly-veiled spoof of Milton Berle, when he was the undisputed king of television). But Top Banana has its small treasures, and in Silvers, it had one of the truly great musical theatre stars doing what he did best: making people laugh.
Phil Silvers as Jerry Biffle in Top Banana (1951).
Philip Silver (the "s" was added later) was born on May 11, 1911 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. According to the "official" Phil Silvers website, "He was the youngest of eight children born to Saul and Sarah Silver, Russian-Jewish immigrants who had fled to the United States. Phil once remarked that his parents' story 'was like Fiddler On The Roof, minus the music, Chagall-style scenery and friendly Gentiles!'" Believe it or not, he was once a boy-soprano: his singing voice a ticket out of the ghetto. Silvers would get in front of any audience he could, either at parties or at local movie theatres, in order to bring in some money for his large family. Once his voice changed, Silvers kept his oar in show biz by working his way up through vaudeville and burlesque houses as a comic, finally reaching "the big time" when he became a star at Minsky's. This led to his first Broadway musical Yokel Boy in 1939, in a relatively minor part. But then in a stroke of luck, when the show's star quit before opening, the producers quickly crafted a better role for Silvers to fill the void. Having enjoyed the clever improvising he had come up with in rehearsals, they rewrote the show to better showcase the comedian. Silvers himself described how that character became the basis of his future persona: "Punko Parks was the role that I played for years, the aggressive, smiling, call-a-tall-man-Shorty manipulator was born."
After that, Silvers went to Hollywood where he mostly found himself grinding out films supporting the leads in musicals like Gene Kelly or Betty Grable. Ideally, his kind of brash humor worked better in front of an audience live on stage. When his old friend called—the lyricist Sammy Cahn—it was with an offer to star in a new Broadway musical he was writing. With music by Jule Styne, High Button Shoes became a smash in 1947, and in Harrison Floy, Silvers scored once again with his likable, if familiar, con-man characterization.
It was Silvers who came up with the idea for his next Broadway musical, one fashioned around the backstage goings-on at a TV musical variety program, focused on its egotistical star's outrageous behavior. A Silvers put it: "In 1950 the tyrant of the tube was Milton Berle; on Tuesday night at eight, he had the whole country in his hand. I would do Uncle Miltie ... I knew every flip gesture of Berle's, every ruthless smile. Milton was, shall I say, an impatient man. He had to have his laughs, and he didn't care where or how he found them."
Berle was all those things ... as well as a friend of Silvers. Knowing he couldn't proceed without Berle's blessing, the story goes that Silvers approached the subject during a golf game (true or not, we'll never know). Upon pitching the musical as being about a ruthlessly successful TV star; a joke-stealing tyrant always at the ready to mow down anybody who gets in his way, Berle's supposed response to Silvers was: "I'll be a sonovabitch! I know guys just like that!"
Johnny Mercer was enlisted to write the music and lyrics, and Silvers brought with him some of his old pals from the world of burlesque, low comics like Herbie Faye, Joey Faye, Jack Albertson and Ed Hanley (the Fayes were unrelated). Former child star Rose Marie (later to claim fame as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show), rounded out the cast as Silver's comic foil and love interest.
Phil Silvers and Rose Marie in Top Banana (1951).
Clockwise from top left: Herbie Faye, Joey Faye, Ed Hanley
and Jack Albertson in Top Banana (1951).
The musical's thin plot was nothing more than a way to squeeze in as many old-fashioned "yucks" as possible. But in Silvers' skilled hands, everything from belly laughs to groans added to the evening's guilty pleasures. In the World-Telegram & Sun (yes, there was once such a daily paper), William Hawkins wrote, "Top Banana zooms through the evening with a laughing swoosh that leaves your hair mussed, your ears ringing, and your stomach muscles limp."
Yes, Silvers did a song with a dog in Top Banana. This photo is from the publicity shoot during the recording of the original cast album (1951).
But what the hell IS a Top Banana anyway, you might be wondering? Taken care of by the title song early in the evening so that there's no misunderstanding, it's an old burlesque term that describes who the boss of comedy is at all times on stage. As Mercer's lyrics tell it:
"A dance wears a safety pin to keep her tights up—
A top banana's gotta wear a nose that light up.
You may wanna imitate Noël Coward—
You'll get more laughs by saying 'What the hey!'
We hardly find the drawing room a source of mirth,
But put us in a bedroom with an upper berth ..
If you wanna be the top banana,
You gotta start from the bottom up."
Having triumphed as Top Banana’s Jerry Biffle—the biggest thing on all of television—life then imitated art (or is it the other way around?) when in 1955, You'll Never Get Rich (later The Phil Silvers Show) made its debut on CBS. As Sgt. Ernie Bilko, Silvers dug into his deep bag of tricks, solidifying his status as an undisputed King of Comedy. In fact, it was Silvers who became the only one who managed to dethrone Milton Berle himself from his spot atop the ratings heap. Bilko would be the most important role of Silvers' career, earning him worldwide fame and multiple awards.
Silvers one last stage conquest was one he had turned down in its initial production. In 1962, Larry Gelbart, Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim had written A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Silvers in mind, but when they asked him to play it, he turned them down, unsure of whether their show was actually funny. Then having missed out on what was one of the most uproarious musicals to ever hit Broadway, he made sure he didn't miss out when it was made into its 1966 film. Playing the supporting part of Marcus Lycus was fine, but Silvers still yearned to play the top banana—the show's leading player—the slave Pseudolus. Opportunity (and fate) knocked one more time when in 1972, just ten years after Forum's initial run, he brought the show back to Broadway and scored big-time, winning a second Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical (his first had been for Top Banana).
Phil Silvers and Larry Blyden in the 1972 Broadway revival
of A Funny Thing ...
The tie-in for writing this column had to do with it being the anniversary of the opening of Top Banana. It was odd then, upon doing my research, that I discovered November 1st was also the date Phil Silvers passed away at the age of seventy-four, the anniversary of the night of one of his greatest successes.
Well, if a comedian like Phil Silvers wasn't known for his timing, what else was there?
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.