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Posts Tagged ‘Cue: The Weekly Magazine of New York Life’

Top Banana

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 14, 2017

Fictional Titi Vlar asked fictional Missy Barrett on her Facebook page if she knew the history of the expression top banana. Idiomation is always pleased to step up to the plate and assist real and fictional people alike when it comes to tracking down the meaning and history of expressions, phrases, sayings, clichés, and more.

Whenever you hear someone being referred to as the top banana, that person is the lead person in a group or organization, or who is heading up an undertaking. Of course, when it comes to the entertainment industry, the top person is the usually the headlining comedian in a musical comedy, vaudeville, or burlesque show. The comedian’s straight man was second banana to the top banana.

On December 12, 2017 an article posted by Today.com reported the following:

While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have yet to make any official announcement about their wedding cake, there’s a pretty big rumor that has people going absolutely bananas … <snip> … [Dole] offered the services of their “top banana” chef to personally bake the cake that will be served after the couple’s ceremony in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: A banana is 75% water.

In the December 10, 200 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, journalist Michael Evans reported how Westpac Bank boss, Gail Kelly, had gone from being ranked the world’s 18th most powerful woman by Forbes magazine in September of 2009 to angering hundreds of thousands of Westpac customers when they were advised by the bank’s retail chief about supercharged interest rates.

How much was the increase, you ask? Variable mortgage rates rose by 45 basis points, nearly twice the level of the Reserve Bank’s 25 basis point increase, and Gail Kelly’s popularity slipped badly because of it. The news story was aptly titled, “How The Top Banana Slipped.”

New York City is always a great place for unexpected news stories and on August 31, 1991 the New York Times reported on a situation that happened at a housing project in East Harlem in the middle of the day. According to reporter Seth Faison Jr, the spectacle included a crowd of spectators, a phalanx of Housing Police, a crew of EMS workers, a truckload of firefighters, and a monkey in a tree. The monkey was a real monkey owned by Sandra Rodriguez who lived in the Washington Houses project on East 104th Street.

And just like the story about Australia’s Gail Kelly, this article was also aptly titled with the amusing headline, “Monkey Shows Police Just Who’s The Top Banana.”

American lyricist and songwriter Johnny Mercer (18 November 1909 – 25 June 1976) and American screenwriter, playwright, and theatrical producer Hy Kraft (30 April 1899 – 29 July 1975) were responsible for the Broadway play titled, “Top Banana” starring American entertainer and comedic actor Phil Silvers (11 May 1911 – 1 November 1985). Silvers played the part of Jerry Biffle, an ex-burlesque comic who has become a television star on the Blendo Soap Program, and displays a Milton Berle style egocentric personality.

The show opened on November 1, 1951 (closing on October 4, 1952 with a total of 350 performances and a nearly month-long layoff from August 3 to August 31) and in the magazine Cue: The Weekly Magazine of New York Life the expression was part of their published review.

Phil Silvers, the man in the glasses on your right, is a changed man. For one thing, the comic who is *top banana” in the soon-to-arrive musical of the same name is no longer a frustrated actor in search of dignity.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Two years after the Broadway production closed down, many of the original actors in the play reprised their roles in the United Artists movie of the same name.

Bananas were a popular fruit as far as composers were concerned. George Gershwin blended bananas into his songs “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “But Not For Me.” In 1926, Ted Waite wrote the very popular “I’ve Never Seen A Straight Banana” and in 1923 the big novelty hit song was “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: One of the earliest comic novelty songs involving bananas that was a song dates back to 1904 vaudeville when Elizabeth Murray, Raymond Teal, and Willie Tilden included “The Banana Man” by Hamilton and Fischer in their respective acts.

But while all this is very interesting, it gets us no closer to the origin of the expression top banana.

The first full cargo of bananas reached the United States in 1871 when Captain Lorenzo D. Baker landed in Boston after a long trek across the ocean.  Bananas caught on with the American public, and it wasn’t long before bananas were featured in family photographs.  I couldn’t make that up if I wanted to as strange as that sounds.  The Washington Banana Museum in Auburn (WA) has evidence to support this.

Scant years later, a number of fraudulent banana peel claims against streetcar lines were common in America, beginning in the 1890s. This was reported by the Street Railway Review on January 15, 1895. In 1910, the New York Times reported that Anna H. Sturla was arrested for the 17th time in 4 years, claiming she had slipped on a banana peel and been injured.

By the time women like Anna H. Sturla were making a living from banana peel lawsuits, cities were passing laws against discarding banana peels on city streets. St. Louis city council was among the first cities to pass a law outlawing the “throwing or casting” of banana peels on any and all public thoroughfares. New York City, under the guidance of former Civil War military man Colonel George Waring, organized the uniformed “White Wings” workers to sweep, clean, and dispose of waste — mostly because of the banana peel problem. They worked in shifts and disposed of garbage at city-owned composting facilities throughout the city.

Vaudeville comedian “Sliding” Billy Watson aka William Shapiro (1876 – 1939) found fame with his banana peel pratfall and he claimed to be the originator of the gag but vaudeville comedian Cal Stewart (his copyrighted stage persona name was Uncle Josh) was already a hit on stages and in recordings with his banana peel-laden sidewalk jokes.

With the banana peel gag already in play, vaudeville entertainer Rose Bacon incorporated the banana con into her comedy routine in the early 1900s.

There was a young lady named Hannah
Who slipped on a peel of banana.
More stars she espied
As she lay on her side
Than are found in the Star Spangled Banner.

A gentleman sprang to assist her;
He picked up her glove and her wrister;
‘Did you fall, Ma’am?’ he cried:
‘Did you think,’ she replied,
‘I sat down for the fun of it, Mister?’

So how is it that banana peels went from being a popular treat and fodder for vaudeville acts to the phrase top banana in 50 years?

This has proven difficult indeed to track. While the term top banana was obviously used long before burlesque comedian Frank Lebowitz rose to fame, his name is most closely associated with the phrase due to his use of bananas in his stage act. But as we all know, bananas and their peels were already established as props for vaudeville and burlesque acts long before the 1950s hit.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: The American burlesque era is from 1840 to 1960. To burlesque meant to make fun of operas, plays, and social habits of the upper classes.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 5: The difference between vaudeville and burlesque came about in the 1920s when burlesque introduced strip teases in the hopes it would draw audiences away from vaudeville and over to burlesque shows. The American strip tease is thought to have originated with Little Egypt’s 1893 Chicago World’s Fair performance of the hootchie-kooch.

Oddly enough, there’s a little known fact about bananas that take them from being a popular fruit that is responsible for a great many vaudeville gags and being the best of the bunch. During the flapper era of the 1920s, if a person was bananas they were crazy.

The best comedians in vaudeville and burlesque specialized in slapstick comedy which included the banana peel gag. The better they were at the banana peel gag, the harder the audiences laughed. The harder the audiences laughed, the better the chances those comedians would play to packed houses night after night. It wasn’t long before stage managers were referring to the best comedians as the top bananas.

So while Idiomation was unable to identify who coined the phrase top banana or the exact year the expression came into use, it dates back to American vaudeville and burlesque houses in the 1920s.

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