August 30, 2013

"Frankenstein" Sued... For Being Scary!

From The Billboard of 24 October 1942 — with bandleader Kay Kyser on the cover — an article about performers and exhibitors’ liabilities reveals “the recent dropping” of a lawsuit brought against comedian Billy De Wolfe by “a woman patron for scaring her when doing his Frankenstein bit in the aisles of a Milwaukee theater”. The article goes on to say that the law regards patrons as “going into a place of amusement at their own risk”, including sports events and the risk of getting beaned by flying baseballs and hockey pucks. Artists and venue operators are essentially immune from prosecution for mishaps, save for cases of demonstrable negligence.  

Billy De Wolfe was a song, dance, impersonation and comedy performer whose Frankenstein act had him putting his coat jacket on backwards, slicking his hair down onto his forehead, sucking his cheeks in and affecting The Movie Monster’s grunts and stiff-limbed walkabout. The bit was immortalized in glorious Technicolor in Blue Skies (1946). See my previous post for a video clip.

As an interesting aside to this story, here are two ads from The Montreal Gazette of February 27, 1939. Son of Frankenstein was playing at The Princess while Billy De Wolfe was kicking off a stand a few blocks away at the très swanky Chez Maurice dinner club. Was the Frankenstein bit already part of De Wolfe’s show?

Note how the Massachusetts-born artist is billed as “England’s Magnificent Entertainer”, on the assumption that Canadian patrons would appreciate a Commonwealth connection. Misleading, certainly, but not an outright lie: De Wolfe had just returned from a long and very successful tour of England.

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