Wayne and Shuster: Duo were Canada’s comedy ambassadors

JOHNNY WAYNE (1918-1990) AND FRANK SHUSTER (1916-2002): PIONEER

JOHNNY WAYNE (1918-1990) AND FRANK SHUSTER (1916-2002): PIONEER

Toronto comics Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster made broadcast history 50 years ago when they appeared on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show for the first time in May 1958. They delighted audiences across the United States and Canada with their hilarious sketch comedy Rinse the Blood off My Toga.

The premise was simple yet brilliantly inventive. Making sidesplitting mincemeat of Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler in a cross-genre skit, Wayne played a tough-guy detective who was zapped into the famous account of Brutus’ (Shuster) assassination of Roman icon Julius Caesar. Canadian comic actress Sylvia Lennick delivered one of the most memorable lines of the ’50s as Caesar’s prophetic widow Calpurnia: ‘If I told him once, I told him twice, ‘Julie, don’t go!”

Combining low-rent slapstick with rarified literary conceits, Wayne and Shuster brought their cabaret style to an audience of millions, making them international stars overnight.

Ratings shot up for Sullivan’s variety show that night, prompting the famous TV host to invite Wayne and Shuster to appear 66 more times over the next 11 years – more than any other performers in the show’s history. Legend has it that the CBC was about to cancel the duo’s weekly comedy show until that fateful night.

‘It sounds apocryphal, but it’s a good story,’ agrees Michael Wayne, Johnny’s son and now a professor of history at the University of Toronto. Instead, the CBC’s administration ‘pushed a contract across the table [when they returned from New York]. Frank looked at it and pushed it right back at them and said, ‘Double it.’ My father was taken completely by surprise, but he gulped and said, ‘He’s quite right, gentlemen. We’re American stars now.”

Wayne and Shuster went on to produce and star in a series of monthly specials that ran on the CBC until 1989. At their peak in the ’60s, the duo had carte blanche to create routines of any length for Sullivan and the CBC.

‘The singer Eartha Kitt once asked my dad, ‘What have you guys got on Ed Sullivan?” recalls Shuster’s son, the comic Steve Shuster. ‘She’d had one of her songs cut from the show, while they were doing a 12-minute sketch. Sullivan always left them alone. That was the agreement when he hired them.’

One of the longest-running comedy teams in history, the duo met as students at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate in the early 1930s, the decade they specialized in live performances. The ’40s gave way to radio stints and the ’50s made them TV stars.

Roy Wolfe, a former professor of geography at York University, now 90, sat behind Wayne (then known by his birth name Louis Weingarten), and opposite Shuster, in that class. He remembers rushing home after listening to the effervescent Weingarten to tell his mother, ‘The new Eddie Cantor is in my grade!’, referring to the exuberant Jewish star of early Warner Bros. comedies.

Wayne and Shuster began to work on their comic chemistry. Wayne took on the wacky role, while Shuster offered solid support as the straight man. At the University of Toronto, they began to perfect their timing at yearly events like the UC Follies. Recalls the younger Shuster: ‘My dad used to claim that the fraternity shows were their best ever, because they knew the audiences so well.’

Both comedians enlisted in the Army, and memorably performed an Invasion Revue soon after the troops landed in Normandy in June 1944. The comedy duo had been assigned to the Canadian military’s The Army Show (1942-1945), a special unit set up for entertaining the troops.

After World War Two, they landed a radio show on the CBC that ran from 1946 until they moved into TV in the mid-’50s. The duo bought homes a block away from each other, maintaining an office at Shuster’s residence. There, they wrote the routines that galvanized audiences for decades.

So, after all these years, what is the legacy of Wayne and Shuster?

Mark Breslin, the founder of Canada’s largest comedy nightclub chain Yuk Yuk’s, believes that ‘There’s a direct link from them to [Royal Canadian] Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Second City and Saturday Night Live. Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, was married [during his formative years] to Frank’s daughter, [Emmy Award-winning comedy writer] Rosie Shuster, and whether through osmosis or observation or genetics, popularized modern sketch and satirical comedy. So you can say that Wayne and Shuster are responsible for all of contemporary comedy.’

Quite a responsibility – but maybe it’s somewhere that Wayne and Shuster just had ‘to go.’