A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 28, 2009
Top Banana & Second Banana

Entry in progress—B.P.

Wikipedia: Top Banana
“Top Banana” has multiple meanings.

. Top Banana is the starring act in a Vaudeville performance. Originally, the phrase “Top Banana” was coined by comedian and Vaudeville Performer Harry Steppe.

Wikipedia: Harry Steppe
Harry Steppe (born Abraham Stepner, March 1888 – November 22, 1934) was a Jewish-American actor, comedian, writer, director and producer, who toured North America working in Vaudeville and Burlesque. Harry claimed to have coined such terms as “top banana” (the headliner or top act on the bill), and “second banana.” As one of Bud Abbott’s first partners, Harry introduced Bud to Lou Costello in 1934.

Born in Moscow to Russian immigrant Orthodox Jewish parents, Steppe was often billed as a Hebrew or Jewish-dialect comedian. His gags and skits were also performed by such well-known comedians as Phil Silvers, The Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello. Although Steppe had penned the “Pokomoko” (aka Niagara Falls) Routine ("Slowly I Turned, step by step, inch by inch...")" and performed it with The Three Stooges, other writers, including fellow Vaudevillians Joey Faye and Samuel Goldman each laid claim to the skit, too. “Lifting” routines from another performer was standard operating procedure in the early-to-mid 20th century, and the famed routine was performed, without originator credit, by…

. The Three Stooges in the movie Gents Without Cents (1944)
. Abbott and Costello in the movie Lost in a Harem (1944)
. Lucille Ball in the TV show I Love Lucy (1951), Season #1, Episode #19 ("The Ballet")
. Abbott and Costello on TV in The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-1953)

Phil Silvers credited Steppe with “introducing the phrase ‘Top Banana’ into show business jargon in 1927 as a synonym for the top comic on the bill. It rose out of a routine, full of doubletalk, in which three comics tried to share two bananas.” Silvers further popularized the term “Top Banana” in his 1951 Broadway musical and 1954 film of the same name.

Steppe performed at several well-known theaters on the Orpheum Circuit. According to Loew’s Weekly (a program issued free to theater patrons), in a June 18, 1928 performance at the Loew’s Theater in New York, he was billed with Lola Pierce. Reportedly, Pierce was an actress he was linked to romantically. Other paramours of Harry Steppe included Vaudeville performers Victoria “Vic” Dayton (whom he apparently married), Edna Raymond and Leona St. Clair

Wikipedia: Phil Silvers
Phil Silvers (May 11 1911 – November 1 1985) was an American entertainer and comedy actor. He is best known for starring in The Phil Silvers Show, a 1950s sitcom set on a U.S. Army post in which he played Sergeant Bilko.

Early life and career
Born Philip Silver in Brooklyn, New York, Silvers was the youngest of eight children in a Russian-Ukranian Jewish family. His father was one of the workers on the early New York skyscrapers. Silvers started entertaining at age 11, when he would sing in theaters when the projector broke down (a common occurrence in those days). Two years later, he left school to sing professionally, before appearing in vaudeville as a stooge.

Silvers then landed work in short films for the Vitaphone studio, burlesque houses, and on Broadway, where he made his debut in the short-lived show Yokel Boy. Critics raved about Silvers, who was hailed as the bright spot in the mediocre play. He then wrote the revue High Kickers, until he went to Hollywood to star in films.

He made his film debut in Hit Parade of 1941 (1940) (his previous appearance as a pitch man in Strike Up the Band was cut). Over the next two decades, he appeared in character roles for MGM, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox, in such films as Lady Be Good, Coney Island, Cover Girl, and Summer Stock. When the studio system started collapsing, he returned to the stage.

Silvers wrote the lyrics for Frank Sinatra’s “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)”. Although he was not a songwriter, he wrote the lyrics on a whim while visiting Sinatra’s home with composer Jimmy Van Heusen. The song became a popular hit in 1944 and was a staple in Sinatra’s live performances.

Silvers scored a major triumph in Top Banana, a Broadway show of 1952. Silvers played Jerry Biffle, the egocentric, always-busy star of a major television show. (The character is said to have been based on Milton Berle.) Silvers dominated the show and won a Tony Award for his performance. He repeated the role in a 1954 film version that was originally released in 3-D.

Wiktionary
top banana (plural top bananas)
1, (idiomatic) The boss, the leader.
Only the top banana can make a decision of that magnitude.
2. (idiomatic, dated) The principal comedian in a vaudeville or burlesque show.
He was hilarious, and remained the top banana on the tour for years.

Wikipedia: Second banana
A second banana is a performer who serves as a comic foil opposing a comedian in a double act.

The term derives from burlesque, around 1930, where the slang term “banana” referred to a comedian.

In the I Love Lucy show, Lucille Ball was the top banana, and Vivian Vance was the second banana.

Wiktionary
second banana (plural second bananas)
1. (idiomatic) A comedian who plays a secondary or supporting role, especially as straight man and traditionally in vaudeville or burlesque theatre.
He grew disenchanted with playing second banana and never getting credit for the laughter.
2. (idiomatic) A person who serves in a supporting, secondary, or subsidiary capacity; an assistant.
The plumber left his second banana behind, to finish installing my new sink.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Main Entry: top banana
Function: noun
Etymology: from a burlesque routine involving three comedians in which the one that gets the punch line also gets a banana
Date: 1952
: the leading comedian in a burlesque show ; broadly : kingpin 2

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Main Entry: second banana
Function: noun
Date: 1953
: a comedian who plays a supporting role to a top banana ; broadly : a person in a subservient position

(Oxford English Dictionary)
top banana Theatr. slang (chiefly U.S.), the leading comic in a burlesque entertainment
1953 BERREY & VAN DEN BARK Amer. Thes. Slang (1954) §583/12 *Top banana, the burlesque comedian who gets top billing.
1956 Picturegoer 21 July 29/3 ‘Top banana’ is the comic-in-chief of a burlesque show.
1974 Time 21 Jan. 53/3 Dentsu Advertising Ltd..has become the new top banana of world-wide advertising.
1978 N.Y. Times 29 Mar. C 27/1 Miss Burnett is a..very, very funny woman. She is a superb top banana.

second banana slang (orig. U.S.), a supporting comedian (cf. top banana s.v. TOP n.1 34)
1953 N.Y. Times 24 May II. 11/2 In television and radio, Mr. Carney has played *second banana to many star comedy performers.
1974 Ibid. 28 Dec. 26/1 He [sc. Jack Benny] was often the butt of his second bananas, who devastated him with their barbs.
1977 Time 13 June 42/2 Their Yank allies, doubtless because they had second-banana roles in the original production 33 years ago, have dim, brief lives on the screen.

Encyclopedia of the Entertainment World
By Barry Buchanan
ca. 1930s
(The note cards for this never-published Encyclopedia are located at Carnegie-Mellon University. These note cards are filed under “BURLESQUE”—ed.)
second banana
Obsolete term for a second comic.  See, first comic.
second comedian
Same as, second comic.
second comic
An obsolete term for the comedian of second importance in a show.  Such a performer worked with the first comedian, or alone, as the occasion demanded.

2 February 1947, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg. 4C, col. 6:
Burleqsue Goes Elegant: The Ladies
Now Undrape to Symphonic Melodies

By JEAN MEEGAN, AP Newsfeatures Writer
NEW YORK, Feb. 1—(AP)—Burlesque, for years the blousy, brash, black sheep of show business, is going elegant.
(...)
“We’re featuring comics. We book a first and second banana, you know, comics; a ‘yes’ man (straight man); two strippers and a featured strip, the dame who rides in the Pullman.”

28 December 1947, New York (NY) Herald Tribune, This Week magazine, pg. 16, col. 2:
TOP BANANA…
by Charles D. Rice
Phil Silvers,who started out in
burlesque, has found that the $5
customers are no different from the
35-centers—they love a “boffola”

(...)
Third Banana, for the uninitiated, is a very humble station in show business. During the depression Phil played burlesque; the average burlesque company carries three comedians who are always known as First, Second and Third Bananas. (Non-comedians are Straight Men, chorus girls are Slaves, and any female performer who is articulate enough to speak lines has the dignified title of Talking Woman. But more of this interesting industry later...)

11 August 1948, Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS), pg. 4, cols. 5-6:
Up And Down Broadway
By Jack GAVER
United Press Drama Editor
NEW YORK (U.P.)—One of the unsung heroes of the summer season on Broadway was Joey Faye of “High Button Shoes.”
(...)
Some of his contemporaries in burlesque were the late Rags Ragland and Abbott and Costello of the movies. Joey was a “top banana” (burlesque for comic) at a time when A. & C. were second and third bananas.

OCLC WorldCat record
O.k. for TV : fox trot : from the new musical comedy Top banana
Author: Johnny Mercer; Johnny Warrington; Joe Leahy, arranger.
Publisher: New York, N.Y. : Chappell-Mercer Music : Sole selling agent, Crawford Music, ©1951.
Edition/Format: Musical score : Musical revues & comedies : English
Publication: WFAA collection.

25 November 1951, Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK), Sunday Magazine, pg. 5, col. 1:
Second Banana Moves to Top
By TEX McCRARY and JINX FALKENBURG
ON screen, Hollywood has never let Phil Silvers be “Top Banana”—top star. He was always the “Second Banana” pal of stars such as Gene Kelly and Perry Como and Frank Sinatra.

Google Books
The Spice of Variety
By Abel Green
Published by Holt
1952
Pg. 242:
Rags was second banana, Joey Faye the third banana, etc. (Top Banana is strictly a Johnny Mercer contrivance since ‘No. 1 Banana’ wouldn’t look so neat on the marquee...)

Internet Movie Database
Top Banana (1954)
(...)
Plot: A filmed version of Phil Silvers’ hit Broadway show about a television comic who tried to regain his ratings on TV.

Google Books
A Pictorial History of Burlesque
By Bernard Sobel
New York, NY: Putnam
1956
Pg. 78:
The Gazeeka Box, for instance, was one of the favorites. As the story unfolds, the Top Banana tries to sell the Second Banana the Gazeeka Box, a flimsy structure which looks like a [phone booth with a curtain.

When the Top Banana utters the magic word, a procession of beautiful girls exits from the booth. Delighted with the display of accessible femininity, the Second Banana buys the box instantly. But when he tries the magic word a monkey jumps out.

30 March 1958, New York (NY) Times, “About: Bananas” by John Wilcock, pg. SM53:
Silvers, incidentally, credits another burlesque comedian, Harry Steppe, with introducing the phrase “top Banana” into show business jargon in 1927 as a synonym for the top comic on the bill. It rose out of a routine, full of doubletalk, in which three comics tried to share two bananas.

OCLC WorldCat record
Here’s Ed : or, How to be a second banana, from midway to midnight
Author: Ed McMahon; Carroll Carroll
Publisher: New York : Putnam, ©1976.
Edition/Format: Book : Biography : English : 

Posted by {name}
New York CityFood/Drink • (1) Comments • Tuesday, April 28, 2009 • Permalink


I like this analysis! I made “second banana bread” this week in honor of Vivian Vance’s 100th birthday, and it was lots of fun.

http://www.ourgrandmotherskitchens.com/?p=3936

Posted by: Tinky  on  07/25  at  01:19 PM

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