Edward Southerland: 'Slowly I turned....'
By Edward Southerland
Mar 17, 2017
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The first person I remember seeing on television was Kate Smith. I didn’t particularly want to see the expansive Songbird of the South, but she came on at four o’clock in the afternoon, fifteen minutes before Howdy Doody.

Howdy and Buffalo Bob were the objects of my interest, but I had arrived at the home of my grandparents’ friends, the Dillons, in Leonard, well before the appointed time and had to let Kate get “the moon over the mountain” before I could hear the magic words, “What time is it, kids?” It was of course, Howdy Doody Time.

The Dillons had one of the first TV sets in the circle of my world, and I had been invited down to their house to see a show. All I really remember was the test pattern; it featured an Indian chief in a war bonnet in the middle of a pattern of concentric circles and parallel lines. The test pattern seems to have left a stronger impression than either Mr. Doody or Miss Smith.

In Bonham, early TV was more an impression than a clear image. Leonard, for reasons known only to broadcast technicians and geographers, got all three Dallas-Fort Worth stations with some clarity, while Bonham, only sixteen miles removed to the north, got mostly snow. Sergeant Preston of the Yukon should have had such snow.

By the time the mahogany and white, wood trimmed, twenty-one inch, black and white RCA took center stage in our living room on Eighth Street, the signals out of Dallas-Fort Worth had improved and we could distinguish Dinah Shore from Davy Crockett almost every time. Few years later, somebody built a tall community antenna and for a monthly fee, we could get the stations, by then there were four, all clear, all the time.

This was a good thing, because the fourth channel was an independent out of Fort Worth, Channel 11, and Channel 11 was the home of Slam Bang Theater with Ickky Twerp. What ever happened to Ickky Twerp? And what about Ajax and Delphinium?
It was an interesting mix, Ickky Twerp with his too small cowboy hat and undersized clothes, two gorilla assistants named for ancient Greek heroes, and the Three Stooges. It was esthetic eclecticism run amok.

Moe, Larry, and Curley were the stars of course, not that far removed from their twenty-year stint at Columbia and on the verge of a newly minted audience of the children of the television generation. I use the inclusive term children with reservation. Experience suggests that the female side of the species never really appreciated the subtleties of the double eye poke or the cross-handed face slap. It was a guy thing.

The guys at our house, my brothers and I, would come home about 5:30 each afternoon from practice of whatever sport was in season and plop down in the den to watch Ickky and Ajax and Delphinium introduce the Stooges. We would watch, usually without an audible laugh or noticeable smile until the program ended or mother called us to supper.

The only rise came when a particularly well liked bit of business came up.
Since we had seen the shorts so many times we could almost recite the lines, we knew when Curley was about to fall to one knee and give out with an Al Jolson, “Mammy!” For reasons lost to time, we thought that was particularly funny.

Another great moment came when Moe was teaching Curley to speak “pig talk” (pig Latin). Moe explained that he was “Omae” and Larry was “Arrylae.” “And you would be?” asked Moe. With all the wheels and cogs spinning furiously in his brain and with a look of inspired illogical logic Curley answered quickly, “Curleyque.” Oh, we liked that line.

Also high on the shtick list were Curley making chicken soup by pouring hot water over a chicken carcass and into a bowl, Curley doing his little dance and rubbing his face before becoming the mighty wrestler when Larry played “Pop Goes the Weasel,” or the boys answering a hail with three part harmony, “Hello...hello...hello.”

The greatest of bits however was “Slowly I Turned.” When Curley inadvertently uttered the trigger phrase, “Niagara Falls” and Moe began the attack with, “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned. Step by step, inch by inch....” the laughter grew. Every repetition was funnier than the last.

If none of the above has any meaning for you then your education in traditional, classic American comedy is sorely lacking. Early television often relied on a revival of vaudeville and burlesque comedy for its humor. Many of the skits, not reproducible on radio because of their visual components, had lain dormant for two or three decades. Television was a new turn, in a new a new theater, with a new audience.

No comedy team cataloged the classics better than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Their movies always included several burlesque routines and their TV shows on the Colgate Comedy Hour often were built a round a traditional piece. “Floogle Street,” “The Crazy House,” “Pay the Two Dollars,” “Who’s on First,” “The Dice Game,” all of these pieces found their way into the thirty-minute television shows.

There was even a better version of “Slowly I Turned” with Costello as the patsy and long time sideman Syd Fields as the heavy. The essentially gentle and bum foozled Lou was a more suitable victim than the equally confused but more aggressive Curley Howard.

The great vaudeville and burlesque routines also regularly found new life on the Toast of the Town hosted by Ed Sullivan and occasionally with Steve Allen on one of his shows. The bits have just about faded from common memory now and that’s a shame.

Don’t let it happen. Do your part today. The next time you hear the words “Niagara Falls,” stop, turn and advance on the speaker with the feigned indignity, intoning, “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned. Inch by inch, step by step....”