Saturday, February 28, 2015

Discovering the Slate Brothers

[post 399]

I chanced upon the Slate Brothers in a star-studded but less-than-memorable film, College Swing (1938; available on Netflix). Just eight minutes into the movie, this bit comes out of nowhere:

You can imagine how that got my attention! I immediately thought Ritz Brothers, only they're not. My next thought was: they better be in this movie again... Yep, here they are singing, dancing, and slapping and poking each other silly, again ending in a big pile-up.

They make one more appearance in the movie, ending up in the same 3-person fall, as if there's just no way these guys can avoid it. For us pratfall aficionados eager to find a new way to commune with the ground, it's great to be able to study it from another angle.

So who the hell are these guys? Well, they're damn good eccentric dancers but it's pretty clear they're also part of that whole anarchistic "crazy comedy" tradition that includes the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Olsen & Johnson (Hellzapoppin'), and Britain's Crazy Gang, and that no doubt influenced the Goon Show and Monty Python.

Unfortunately, I have not unearthed a treasure trove of video clips. In fact, this next one is the last, at least so far. It's A Little Jive is Good For You (1941), a 3-minute "jukebox soundie" with Martha Tilton as the singing nurse whose dulcet tones miraculously get our crippled boys back in the groove.

The Slate Brothers are also listed as appearing in 
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), a movie I could only find for sale or rental on Amazon. I love you guys so much that I plunked down $2.99 to rent it streaming for 24 hours, but I don't love you enough to have spent two of those hours watching the whole movie. Instead, I fast-forwarded through it a minute at a time — twice! — and never found our heroes, unless they are the bellhops doing nothing interesting for 10 seconds in the opening scene. Any more patient researchers out there?

Unlike the Ritz Brothers, who made sixteen films, the Slate Brothers mostly worked onstage, apparently very successfully, but they were denied the fame that major movies bring. According to Sid (see clip below), they did in fact appear in eight movies in the early 30s, but I find no record of these. Hopefully more clips will surface, and I am happy to see here that they made numerous appearances in early television, including three times on the Texaco Star Theatre when Milton Berle was hosting.

From The Milwaukee Journal, Sept.18, 1942

Meanwhile here's a bit more info:

• They were Jack (1909–1989), Henry, and Sid Slate, and they began as Charleston dancers in the 1920s. They worked as a trio until 1948 or 1956 (sources vary on the date), when Henry left the act, after which Jack and Sid performed as a duo.

• In their later years, they were co-owners of the Slate Brothers Club, a very successful night club  in Los Angeles. According to the insult comedian Don Rickles in his autobiography, this is where he got his start:

Lenny [Bruce], now a budding star, was playing The Slate Brothers when the owners took offense at his language. I don't know the details, but they considered Lenny, who others recognized as brilliant, too offensive for their audience. Now here's the funny part. They hired me, Mr. Good Taste, to replace Lenny Bruce.

And according to the NY Times:
Soon he [Rickles] found himself onstage at a nightclub called Slate Brothers, insulting gangsters and movie stars with alacrity. This was the scene of his first Sinatra sting: when Mr. Rickles turned to Sinatra, he told the singer he should make himself at home by hitting somebody. A friendship was forged. “Slate Brothers seated maybe 100 people,” Mr. Rickles said. “I used to get dressed in the kitchen. I sweated a lot onstage, and Harry Goins” — Mr. Rickles’s longtime friend and man Friday — “used to douse me with cold water in the alleyway while I stood stark naked.” Slate Brothers is long gone, as are many of the rooms Mr. Rickles used to work.

This incident is covered in more graphic detail in the book The Trials of Lenny Bruce.

• Henry Slate and Jack Slate had minor roles in various movies in the 70s and 80s.

That's it for now. Updates if and when I learn more.



My mother's paternal grandmother and The Slate Brothers' mother were sisters. I too recently found all these great Youtube videos on them and tonight I discovered your blog. Thanks for keeping their memory alive and relevant.

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Unknown said...

The Slate Brothers are at the roulette table next to and behind Cyd Charisse when she is holding Dan Dailey's hand to give him luck. To save time (and money), here's a link to the trailer for the movie, where you can see them at about the 1:10 mark.