Phil Silvers in his quintessential role as Sgt. Ernie Bilko on television’s “You’ll Never Get Rich” (1955), later “The Phil Silvers Show.”
“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 seventy years ago this fall. Starring Phil Silvers as an over-the-top television star, Top Banana was a big hit and ran for 350 performances. A part of Broadway’s distant past, it’s never received a revival of note (there’s a very odd film version of the play shot at a Los Angeles theatre, with ill-timed reaction shots from the audience and no attempt at turning it into a film, the result being a stagnant and mostly unfunny hybrid). Any revival would naturally hinge on finding an actor to play Jerry Biffle (next to impossible), as he was a character very much a creature of his time — a thinly-veiled spoof of the broad comic 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. The British “Phil Silvers Appreciation Society” describes his upbringing as his being “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!’” And, believe it or not, Silvers was once a boy-soprano: his singing voice his ticket out of the ghetto. He 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 was 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. As 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 for Top Banana and Silvers brought with him some of his old comic pals from the world of burlesque like Herbie Faye, Joey Faye (no relation), Jack Albertson and Ed Hanley. 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 inTop 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, critic 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.”
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 from his spot atop the ratings heap. Bilko would be the most important role of Silvers’ career, earning him worldwide fame and multiple awards.
After Bilko ended its five-year run, Silvers returned to Broadway and triumphed opposite Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi, with a score by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (“Make Someone Happy” was a standout in its wonderful score). Alongside another fabulous array of comics (David Burns among them), “It’s Legitimate” was a reminder of Silvers’ prowess as a musical theatre star of the first rank.
“It’s Legitimate” with Phil Silvers, George Matthews, George Givot & David Burns in Do Re Mi (1960).
Silvers last stage conquest was one he had turned down in its initial production: the role of Pseudolus in 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Written by Larry Gelbart, Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim with Silvers in mind, Silvers was unsure of whether their show was actually funny after reading it and said no. Having then missed out on what was one of the most uproarious musicals to ever hit Broadway, he made sure he didn’t 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…
Sadly, after winning the Tony and with business picking up, Silvers had a minor stroke, essentially ending Forum’s run. Though he recovered and went on in 1974 to play in a touring production England, Scotland and Ireland, there was a perception back home that he was more ill than he really was. It led to sporadic work for the rest of his career, as he wound down to doing cameos in film and television for the next decade which, for a restless performer like Silvers, was akin to death itself. He died at the age of seventy-four in 1985.
The date of his passing was November 1st, the anniversary of the opening night of Do Re Mi, his last original Broadway musical. If a comedian like Phil Silvers wasn’t known for his timing, what else was there?
* Interesting side note: If you’re wondering if Silvers had an understudy in case he got sick while performing in Top Banana, he did. It was fellow cast member Jack Albertson, who would eventually go on to win the triple crown for acting: an Oscar, Emmy and a Tony Award over a long and varied career. Not sure if he ever went on for the indefatigable Silvers, but it is interesting to note that he did graduate to becoming a Top Banana himself, the star of the hit sitcom Chico and the Man and the original Willie Clark in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in 1972.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Follow me here and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.