Philip Silver, Fischl to his parents (the family name is Silver, but since he was always called Silvers. Phil adopted the letter 's' for keeps), was born May 11, 1911, at 417 Pennsylvania Avenue in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, he was the youngest of eight children. Everyone it seemed, except those who had resigned themselves to living there and were considered prematurely dead, had one idea about Brownsville - to make enough money to leave it. And anyone it seemed was desperately trying their hand at any enterprise to do it. His family, with ten mouths to feed and a family income that never reached thirty dollars a week until he left it, managed to turn out a lawyer, a chemist, a business executive, an architect, several bookkeepers and one top banana.
Later, Phil would say that he had one standout memory of his childhood lodged in the windmill of his mind. This was his father's nasty tobacco chewing and spitting habit. Apparently his mother had to spread newspapers on all the floors, "We always walked on the headlines and heaven knows what else," said Phil.
Phil Silvers, the great terror of a Brownsville boy was to be labelled a schlemiel. A schlemiel is like a third banana – the poor dope who always gets the short end of the stick. Only one thing was worse. A schlemiel is the man who buys the soup with his last dime and then proceeds to drop it. The schlematzal is the man whose head it falls on. To prove that a person wasn't a schlemiel, it was a habit, if not necessity, as a form of self-defense, to be fast with the wise crack, the ready quip, the killing crushing joke.
2014: Steve Everitt, co-founder of the BPSAS, visiting the birthplace of Phil
Into this sprawling, bawling, disorganized world, a boy with bright eyes and a quick mind could see more life in an afternoon than the average American boy might see in a year.
As in any community where jobs were poor and competition tough, Brownsville produced its share of shysters, fleecers, con men, wise guys, petty toughs and crooks, horse players, card players, pool-hall bums and amazing successes. People would bet on anything in the hope of clearing a few fast dollars --- including stick-ball games in the street. Phil was an avid stick-ball better until he found out that the games were fixed. "Bribing eight-year-olds to throw stick-ball games is not my idea of the good life. At least, not when I'm betting on the wrong team." Phil later said.
Everyone was in some kind of business or wanted to get into one. Some of Phil's older classmates found a unique idea for a new enterprise, and it prospered mightily until some of the top executives unfortunately got burned. For a time they really carved out a career for themselves. And I mean carved out. The name of the company was Murder Incorporated. Young Phil thought it would be more fun, but just as perilous, to try killing people from the stage.
"I don't know why I thought that, but I always did. The only play I ever was in was a Thanksgiving Day pageant and I was supposed to come out on the stage and stand around looking like a Pilgrim. I thought the bit was going slow and needed some life, so I grabbed at my side like I had been struck by an arrow and began shouting. 'Indians! Indians!' They rang down the curtain on me for the first time in my life. I guess I was a born ham." Said Phil.
The boy ham of Brownsville was a worry to his parents, who were great believers in children getting all the education they never had. Phil was admitted to be a bright boy but he couldn't seem to get through his courses. He spent most of his time trying to pass as a smart cracking wisenheimer so that the other lads wouldn't take him for a cluck.
Of his education Phil remembered: "The gnarled old rabbi in the prescribed grey beard and black gabardine gave private lessons in his black cellar tenement. He taught Hebrew by rote and the mumbo jumbo of the ritual made no sense to me. By the second session I hated Hebrew and I hated the old man. He'd slap my palm with a ruler when I refused to recite.............................I ran out and never came back."
Aged eleven with Bud and Buddy junior
Thirteen and growing fast!
He had, however, one solid, theatrical piece of equipment. As hard as it is to believe, he was blessed with a beautiful soprano voice --- and he wasn't afraid to admit it. And sing he would---for hours and hours.
His fame as a singer began to spread, and he started getting calls to sing at political clubs, social groups and in Brooklyn's numerous athletic clubs where no one was ever known to get more exercise than was necessary to propel a cue ball into a pocket or pick up chips from a big pot. At one of his first proper paying engagements, a beer hall party in honour of a just-sprung Murder Incorporated enforcer named Little Doggie, two hoodlums stormed in and carried out a hit on a third; the victim fell dead at Phil's feet as he sang. He was eight at the time. At ten he was singing to the boxers at a gym; and at eleven he was a singer at the Supreme Theatre - he kept the customers amused in case of projection trouble. He would belt out novelty hits like 'Big Boy'.
Aged eleven a theatre manager, named Jack Elliot, teamed him up with Bud and Buddy, Jr., billing Phil as Brownsville’s Own Sophie Tucker. With a moniker like that, a guy had to be tough. The act was booked around Brooklyn, and on ferryboats that still chugged away in and out of Williamsburg every day. When he was thirteen he tried going to New Utrecht High School but, after having faced his public, he couldn't stand the boredom.His discovery sounds as corny as a grade-B Hollywood script, but it is true. He was on the beach at Coney Island, singing for free and circled by a mob of admirers, when a natty gent leaned over the boardwalk railing and allowed his card to flutter down.
"Look me up," the man said, and left before Phil could launch into another number. The name on the card read: 'Gus Edwards'.
Edwards was the owner of a big-time vaudeville act called Gus Edward's School Days which had turned out such big names as Eddie Cantor, Georgie Jessel, Groucho Marx, Walter Winchell and many others. For the first time in his life the brashest boy in Brownsville was stunned. He was so frightened he'd flop that it took him three weeks to get up the nerve to put on his blue serge suit with the knickerbockers and take the subway across the river to America, as many people referred to any place outside Brownsville.
Edwards still liked what he'd heard and signed Phil for a salary of forty dollars a week, twelve more than his father was earning. He was almost afraid to go home and tell his family about his good fortune. He felt it would embarrass his father.
"I should have known better. The family kept half of the money happily and still told me I was an idiot to be in show business." Phil later said. Phil, with the School Days troupe, opened in the fabled Palace in New York, the mecca of every act and trouper in the world. He did a song and dance act that no one can quite recall but which must have been adequate vaudeville fare. He might still have made it as a singer, doing jazzy imitations of Al Jolson in some seedy night club, except for one thing. After three years with Edwards, Phil woke up one morning to find that his voice, which had resembled that of a sparrow, nowsounded very like a candy butcher in a low-class strip house. Mr Edwards pointed to the stage door. "Get out, my boy, for today you are a man."
When it appeared that his theatrical life had died an early death, by a piece of pure luck Phil was signed on by the big-time vaudeville team of Joe Morris and Flo Campbell. Morris needed a brash, cocky young boy with a loud grating voice---yet a kid who behind it was still likeable---who would sit in the audience, posing as his spoiled son, and shout insults at his father on stage. The brashest boy he could remember was Phil.
"I loved that role. I knew I had a good day when the audience wanted to tar and feather me after a show. A few times old ladies pummeled me with their umbrellas, but I never let that stop me. I always hit them back." Phil later said.
When you look at it, that part is quite close in many respects to the Bilko role, which would immortalise Phil in later life. It called for a brash, egotistical, lovable wise guy whose mission is to confound, fool, beguile and rout the opposition from the vantage point of safety.
1931 at the Catskill hotel
During five years with Morris and Campbell, Phil had the trouper's chance, as pointed out, of studying, learning and mimicking hundreds of tried and tested comic routines. He also learned to ad lib under pressure, handle a heckling crowd, and sharpen his wits in battles with other bananas.
Phil later said; "I had one really bad day. We were in Boston and some of the backstage crew introduced me to a horseroom downtown. It looked like a dump to me but I kept betting and betting into the man who was the head bookie. At the end of the day I lost a week's pay. That night I was going through the brat routine when out of the corner of my eye I see the bookie standing around backstage pulling up scenery. My mouth dropped open and I couldn't say a word. The audience looked at me like I had suffered a stroke. That was no horseroom and no bookie. Even if I had won, I never would have seen a cent. That was the only time I couldn't think of one thing to say."
All this was to pay off handsomely later. In the 1930s, at the depth of the depression, Phil was faced with an unhappy reality. He was still playing the brat, but in the meantime he had grown to be nearly six feet tall, weighed two hundred pounds and his hair was falling as fast as the stock market. He headed for the borsch circuit, that first refuge for undiscovered talent and the last for washed-up talent. The borsch circuit is a fabulous collection of summer resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains, so named for the simple reason that on the top of the menu for each meal is the inevitable borsch. The clientele is almost exclusively Jewish, and every hotel worthy of the name felt impelled to have a dinner show replete with acts, song-and-dance teams, and a comic who acted as master of ceremonies and social director.
As social director it was Phil's job to see that everyone had a hilarious time all the time. The job is called tumling, and many a desperate tumler toward the end of a season was not above pouring bowls of borsch on his head, firing off bombs, falling off the stage and being hit on the head by a giant stuffed herring to get a solitary laugh. Every night called for a new routine, and it was here that everything Phil had absorbed in vaudeville was, in desperation, put to use.
It is killing work, but if you survive it --- and have talent --- you are a comic. The borsch circuit has produced such comic talent as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Abbott and Costello, Imogene Coca and, in other fields such names as Ethel Merman, Robert Alda, Robert Merrill, Mimi Benzell and Eddie Fisher, to name but a few.
1939 Broadway musical debut in Yokel Boy
From borsch, Phil jumped into burlesque and was signed as a top banana for the G-string and bump-and-grind houses run by a man called Minsky, who fancied himself as the poor man's Ziegfield. This work called for broad humour! If you had toget your jokes across by hitting a man over the head with a club---then that is whatyou did. Phil was lucky playing in the high-class chain along with other bananas like Rags Ragland, Bobby Clark and Bert Lahr. In some of the houses, if the audience got tired waiting for the strippers, the management satisfied their patrons by yanking the clown off the stage with a long hook, to the crys of "Give the bum the hook;" squirting them with seltzer water; batting them across the rump with slapsticks and roping them.
As his profile grew Phil became a favourite of H.K. Minsky and his nephew Harold, who owned the Gaiety and other Burlesque house. He remained at Minsky’s from 1934 through 1939 shouting out jokes and routines to people who came to observe dames take their clothes off. It was here that he first adopted the oversized, clown glasses, matching his oversized clown bow tie. Phil knew he was better than this material, but he also knew that it could be a means to a better end, as it had been for Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr, and Abbott and Costello, whose famous "Who's on First?" skit was actually an old burlesque routine they'd appropriated for themselves.
When he told a dirty joke, he never enjoyed it and would usually say something like, "That's a little thing I borrowed from the Theatre Guild."
A mentor was found, in none other than Herbie Faye, a bold, hollow-eyed veteran of the strip joints, and a best friend in Rags Ragland, a hard-drinking Kentuckian who'd failed as a boxer and decided to give comedy a go. From Faye he learned the ropes and etiquettes - never move on someone else's line; don't date the strippers, they go with the straight men - and with Rags he perfected some bits that he would use again throughout his career, chief among them the "singinglesson" sketch he later performed with Sinatra, Crosby, Como et al.
In the 1930s Phil made great friends out of Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton and Red Buttons, all of whom were young comics on the way up working at the Gaiety, the burlesque palace at 46th and Broadway.
Phil began to appear, without pay, at any cafe where there was a guest-star night. He wanted to gather more experience. At one of these clubs, on guest-star night, by the time Phil was finally introduced there was only six customers left - Charlie Chaplin was amongst them. Phil got up and did his comedy routine, Charlie laughed and clapped and afterwards said to him: "Mr Silvers, your comedy speaks for the stifled voices of the masses. It is eloquent in its expression of the spirit of the Common Man. Its proper interpretation is that of a desire to.........." Phil butted in with, "Desire? All I desire is a few yaks and a good job."
One time, in a nightclub, frequented and owned by mafia heavies, Phil had come to listen to the star turn, a friend, who promptly called him to the floor. Phil looked around and noticed the ringside tables were occupied by mobsters, and announced. "It's nice to see the sons of Italy turned out for your opening." As one the room fell silent and held its breath.
Not Phil. He turned to the tables: "Listen I come from Brooklyn, the home of Murder Incorporated, and we used to call you guys fags!" The whole place suddenly burst into fits of hilarious laughter!
In 1937, Phil landed work in short films for the Vitaphone studio, making short films under the name of Broadway Brevities.
By 1939, Phil was a burlesque topliner - a first banana, in the vernacular of the trade - but he knew it was time to move on. When he was offered a small part in Yokel Boy, a new Broadway musical starring Buddy Ebsen, he jumped at the chance, even though the $150-a-week pay was a comedown from the $275 the Minsky's paid him.
Lew Brown was the man producing and directing Yokel Boy, he wanted Phil from the first whistle. As well as Buddy Ebsen, the show included; Judy Canovar, Dixie Dunbar and starred Jack Pearl, a dutch language comic who had left his radio persona as Baron Munchausen, due to the audience tiring of the character. When Pearl failed to get laughs, Phils' role in Yokel Boy was suddenly expanded and Pearl left the show Phils' original role of director's assistant was cut from the show and he was now a brash Hollywood press agent called Punko Parks - a template for Bilko if ever there was one.
In an interview given later in his life, Phil said Punko was an: "aggressive, smiling, call-a-tall-man-shorty manipulator."
Yokel Boy completed 208 performances at the Majestic Theatre, but it wasn't really a successful show, the critics didn't give it very good reviews. One good thing did come out of the show though, Phil Silvers tremendous performances won him the attention of a Hollywood big shot. One night, Louis B. Mayer, caught the show, whilst he was in New York, and was so impressed by Phil that he offered him a $500-a-week contract to come work for his MGM studio
But for nearly nine months, Phil languished at MGM, playing bits that always landed on the cutting room floor and spending more time at the cashier's office, drawing his weekly paycheck of $500, than he did in front of the camera. Five hundred bucks a week isn't bad drawing, of course, but Phil was getting very discouraged.
"Those were Babylonian days, it was a frightening city. I never got anything to do." Phil would later say.
Then one day he asked to entertain at a big dinner Mr Mayer was having for the entire MGM family. Phil literally killed them. He was on for half an hour and could have stayed on all night. Mr Mayer rose to his feet and looked over to the big crowd,"Gentlemen," he said, "you're looking at a perfectly sane man. You know that I am not crazy, and if I think an actor nobody has ever heard of is worth $500 a week, then you must know he has a great talent. Gentlemen, you have just seen that talent.He has been on the lot foralmost a year and all I can say to you producers, directors and writers is that I'm ashamed of you for failing to recognize it."
Phil Silvers slipped quietly from the room with his accompanist. "This is it at last," he told him, "It's been worth nine months of misery just to hear those words from Mr Mayer, because now I'm in.