Doc Rockwell Makes Vaudeville Go Bananas
Every July, more or less in the vicinity of the 14th, Bastille Day, we'd get a joyful view-card from some remote part of the world with the good news that "the natives are friendly and disposed to trade." These would be signed "Manette," and they came from "Doc" Rockwell, who at the moment was retired from vaudeville and living at Boothbay Harbor, here in Maine. Doc hadn't been anywhere in recent years except to New York City, where he went once a year to do a network radio show with Fred Allen.
Doc, whose professional degree was completely spurious, and Fred Allen had been cronies on a B.F. Keith vaudeville booking that went on year after year and included foreign appearances even to Australia. Fred told me, "Doc is the funniest man I know." Every summer, Fred and his wife, Portland, would vacation in Maine to revisit Doc and Madeline.
So we were sitting with another Bastille Day imminent and got to thinking about Doc's greeting cards. What a pity, we thought, that today's television giants have nothing like Doc and Fred Allen. (On Fred's radio show, Doc played a Down-East lawyer with a moose-hide briefcase.)
When he was 15, Doc began his stage career as a boy magician in Providence, R.I. Having mastered the art of prestidigitation, he applied to his grandmother, who made him a tail-coat suit, or costume, of black satin with pockets all over so he could hide anything from a flock of pigeons to a rack of pool balls. Then he went to do his tricks before a booking agent.
Not altogether impressed, the agent agreed to give the boy a chance, and Doc (he wasn't using that moniker yet) was booked for a one-night performance at an Elks' club. Veteran actors knew this was the trade's toughest challenge, but our boy didn't; he knew only that opportunity beckoned. And when he jumped from the stage over the footlights to let a front-row Elk select a card ("any card, sir!") his grandmother's sateen pockets let go and pool balls rolled all over the place.
The booking agent, who'd come to see Doc's act, immediately agreed to take Doc on, providing he would repeat the pool-ball fiasco every time. This explains how the boy magician came to work the laughs into his act, until in mature days he gave up the magic and became a monologist. In his 1972 book on American vaudeville, Joe Laurie called Doc Rockwell the greatest monologist of them all.
Doc and Fred would reminisce, and we heard about the time the two of them did the whole show in Australia. A B.F. Keith booking was five acts of vaudeville. Fred would open with his juggling act, Doc would come in fourth position with his lecture on human anatomy, and the show would close with Hungarian tumblers. But something went awry and the company got stranded with only Doc and Fred. So Doc and Fred did their own acts and also the other three, and completed the tour. One of the acts Doc took on was a cage of trained monkeys, and part of his problem was to find bananas every day to feed the things.
Today, when even the banana boy in the supermarket has never seen a banana stem, Doc's predicament will not be widely appreciated. Bananas in the early days of the 20th century came in huge bunches, and a store would hang the bunch on a ceiling hook and cut off small groups of bananas or "hands" as customers desired.
Doc would carry a bunch of bananas to the theater each day, and then would have to discard a denuded banana stem. That's where he got his best idea, even though he hated the monkey act. In his conditioned stagecraft mind, he fancied he saw a similarity between a denuded banana stem and the human spine. After working on a new version of his act for some time, he introduced it and knew immediately that it was good.
Madeline Meredith was his stage stooge, a nurse with a perky little nurse's cap, an oversize cud of chewing gum, a stupid expression, and a wooden pointer such as teachers use at a blackboard. Doc, meantime, was forward by the footlights, wearing a cap and gown, and chewing off big words that nobody'd ever heard before as he compressed human anatomy into 15 minutes of unbridled comedy.
AS he paused, Madeline would place the pointer on a spot where once a banana was attached, look up at the ceiling, yawn, and adjust her chew of gum. This was to be the basic act Doc Rockwell did until he was retired, right up to the last night of Earl Carroll's Vanities, when he and Madeline had already made arrangements to retire to Boothbay Harbor in Maine.
Doc said he had laid by $20,000 and figured that would take care of them. Looking ahead, he had bought a summer hotel at Boothbay Harbor, and he figured they would live in it, take vacation guests, and have a gift shop in the basement. These plans came to naught when the hotel burned, but Doc, always a showman, lettered a sign that he put up when the embers had cooled, "OUT OF BUSINESS."
Doc earned small money in retirement by painting signs in his Museum of Fine and Coarse Art. When a local boat builder wanted the letters painted on a transom, he'd build a platform to work from and call Doc.
To Doc, a platform was a stage, and when he was painting the name and hail on a boat, crowds gathered and Doc was back on the vaudeville circuit. Hank Goudey, a boatwright, used to say he ought to sell tickets. Maybe this explains why we miss our annual Bastille Day card from "Manette" in some such place as Tanganyika Junction.