More Greek-American Blackface; The story Joe Burns and Murray Kissen

FILE - In this May 19, 1980, photo, people walk past ruins in the Culmer section of Miami after rioting over the acquittal of four police officers charged with the 1979 beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black motorcyclist. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)

Joe Burns and Murray Kissen were an incredibly successful song and comedy team that performed for decades all across North America. That Burns and Kissen based a significant part of their careers making fun of Greek immigrants to North America is somehow long forgotten.

Vaudeville acts during the late 1890s and well into the 1900s were renowned for their comedy routines that wickedly lampooned the newly arriving immigrants. The inability of the newly arrived foreigners to speak, and so fully understand standard American English was the core premise of this form of humor. Germans, Orientals, Jews, Irish, Greeks, and other newly arriving ethnic groups were all mercilessly made the butt of this specific type of jokes.

These ‘jokes’ proved humorous to a native-born American audience since the primary focus of such acts was on how badly the new comers spoke and/or understood English. In the public press this type of joke was referred to by a number of code words such as ‘imitations,’ ‘dialogue humor’, and ‘impersonations.’ Presenting stereotypic images of any number of ethnic groups was not restricted to the newly arriving foreign workers. Caucasian performers singing and dancing typically offered as African-American minstrels predated the vaudeville stage.

All in all, these ethnic caricatures unquestionably reflected the tensions and daily troubles between the new arrivals and the native-born Americans.

Given the relatively small number of Greek immigrants compared to the dozens of other new arrivals to America in the 1880 to 1920 era it is surprising that there were several comedians who regularly performed their comedic Greek personas. Aside from Burns and Kissen these other comedians were Harry Einstein (a.k.a. Parkyakarkus) (1904-1958) and George Givot (a.k.a. the Greek Ambassador of Good Will) (1903-1984) who performed on the stage, radio, record, and film for literally decades.

Billy Gilbert (1894-1971), a noted comedian of this era, did not exclusively perform as a Greek character. Nonetheless Gilbert did appear as a Greek in a long string of supporting but decidedly comedic roles in Hollywood films. A representative number of Gilbert’s Greek film personas would have to include but are not limited to: Just Sleepytime Gal (1942) as Chef Popodopolis, One Night in Lisbon (1941) as Popopopoulos, Once Over Lightly (Short) (1938) as Professor Dimitrius Kapouris, Mr. Doodle Kicks Off as Professor Minorous (1938), Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) as George Papaloopas, Bulldog Edition as George Poppupoppalas (1936) and Millions in the Air as Nikolas Popadopolis (1935).

I know of no female performers who offered Greek immigrant parodies. Nellie V. Nichols (1885-1971), a Greek-American vaudeville singer, had an enormous success with her song Will Someone Name My Nationality where she switched from one ethnic accent to another. But Nichols’ ‘imitations’, as this form of pseudo-ethnic humor was known, never included anything Greek.

As far as I can now reckon, from available documents, Joe Burns and Murray Kissen became an act in late 1913. Individually the two performers were already established vaudeville song and dance men. Together these veteran vaudevillians immediately received rave reviews. Typical of this coverage we hear: “Burns and Kissen are famous as song writers but more famous as vaudeville stars. These two boys are just what they claim to be, songwriting entertainers. They sing many of their own compositions and their work has won them high praise in New York and other of the larger cities. They are eccentric in their methods and their comedy is good (Akron Beacon Journal January 21, 1918).

Sheet music of songs Burns and Kissen wrote are still sought after and can still be seen on the Internet.

As Burns and Kissen toured the country two of their most popular comedy routines included Stromberry Pie and Dank You.

Reviews from around the nation attest to their popularity as we hear: “Joe Burns and Murray Kissen…are not new to local audiences and have never been seen here in a better vehicle than the one in which they are now appearing. Their offering is entitled Stromberry Pie, which is a series of comical Hebrew, Greek, and other impersonations, and the composing of a song in which the entire audience takes part. Their routines produce continuous laughter,” (Scranton Republican September 18, 1924).

As press reviews report, audience response soon influenced their Stromberry Pie act, turning it into a more “Greek character comedy,” (Montreal Gazette December 12, 1925).

Dank You, was another of their comedic routines that centered its circumstances on a Greek restaurant. And the possibility of actually hearing and seeing these Greek imitation comedies is still possible.

Just as vaudevillians were touring the nation the very forms of public entertainment were changing. It is an accepted fact of history that silent film shorts, and then later short ‘talkies’ were initially mixed in with the other vaudevillian stage performances. In point of fact, Alexander Pantages (1867-1936) a Greek immigrant and early independent entertainment mogul, long claimed that he was the first to show silent films in his theaters. The distinct separation we see and accept without question today is the difference between stage and screen. But this distinction between entertainment forms was a gradual process. Various Hollywood studios soon began filming and releasing short feature films on an array of topics. For a time these short films were seen on both the vaudevillian stage and the movie palace screens.

And these films preserve for us the entertainments the average American found popular.

In our exploration of the American stage and ethnic humor the modern-day viewer will notice the use of racial stereotypes in some of the variety stage films, especially in the comedy genre. Popular comedy acts used stereotypes of many groups, including the Irish, Jews, Germans, Swedish, Italians, and African-Americans, reflecting the migration of many of these groups to American urban centers.

Some examples of comedies that use stereotypes in this collection are A Gesture Fight in Hester Street, A Wake in Hell’s Kitchen, and Levi & Cohen, the Irish Comedians.
Another of these stereotypic comedic routines was the Fights of Nations,”  which was a particularly interesting example incorporating stereotypes because it presents several vignettes of various nationalities and ethnic groups, including the Irish, Jews, and African-Americans. This patriotic skit portrays the “fights” between various nationalities that are then resolved in the melting pot of the United States. Notably absent from the final peaceful scene are the African-Americans who are present earlier in the film. Also in the finale, a Native American woman appears kneeling in front of Uncle Sam, implying that she has less status than the other characters. (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/vshtml/vsfhcnt.html).

Two of Warner Bros’ Vitaphone short films were made featuring Burns and Kissen imitation humor. Vitaphone film No. 2679, entitled Dank You is specifically listed as a ‘Greek’ comedy that takes place on the street and featured three songs, It All Depends On You, Yes, We Have No Bananas, and the Burns and Kissen song (composed by Burns) titled Stromberry Pie (Vitaphone 2679, one reel, T., copyright September 12, 1928).

Various reviews from across the nation report not only on the existence and presentation of these films but also the local reviewers responses: “Also on the program are also some short talking and sound films. One of these is Burns and Kissen, long a well-known comedy team in vaudeville and comedies, in their comedy sketch called Dank You. This is a Greek restaurant act in which they do a Greek waiter comedy and sing their own well-known song called Stromberry Pie,” (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (NY) March 10, 1929).

 

In another notice, Victoria theater in Shamokin PA, attests that “Vitaphone vaudeville will provide additional interest to the program. Burns and Kissen, a team of clever comedians who present themselves as Greek characters should bring tears of laughter,” (Shamokin News-Dispatch November 5, 1928).

Another notes, “Also on the program are also some short talking and sound films. One of these is Burns and Kissen, long a well-known comedy team in vaudeville and comedies,” (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (NY) March 10, 1929).

All in all Burns and Kissen are widely known as “portrayers of Greek characters” who offered their version of Greeks on vaudeville stages across the country, radio programs, 78 rpm records and sheet music. For those researchers who would but take the time, American stereotypes of Greek immigrants can be easily charted from their first appearances to the point where these projected characteristics can be seen chronologically marching into yet another image/or set of stereotypic images. All that is missing is the will to investigate our collective historical presence in the United States.


helleneNOW1@yahoo.com

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