The Butter and Egg Man

The Butter and Egg Man is a 1925 play by George S. Kaufman, the only play he wrote without collaborating. It was a Broadway hit during the 1925–26 season at the Longacre Theatre.[1] Adapted to film six times, it is still performed on stages today.

The Butter and Egg Man
First edition 1926
Written byGeorge S. Kaufman
Date premieredSeptember 23, 1925 (1925-09-23)
Place premieredLongacre Theatre,
New York City, New York, US
Original languageEnglish
SettingOffice of Lehmac Productions in New York City; a hotel in Syracuse

Synopsis

The play's title, of course, is Broadwayese of the moment—a generic name for all those gentlemen who come trustingly to Gotham with bankrolls, bent upon either reckless expenditure or equally reckless investment.

From the dust jacket for the first edition of The Butter and Egg Man (Boni & Liveright, 1926)[2]

A 1920s slang term popularized by Texas Guinan,[3] a butter-and-egg man is a traveling businessman eager to spend large amounts of money in the big city[4]—someone wealthy and unwary.[1] A souvenir booklet for the original production of The Butter and Egg Man devoted an entire page to the various claims of origin for the phrase.[5]

Peter Jones is a young man who arrives on Broadway from Chillicothe, Ohio, hoping to invest $20,000 in a play and turn a profit sufficient to buy a local hotel back home. He is conned by Joe Lehman and Jack McClure into backing their play with a 49-percent stake. The play opens out-of-town in Syracuse and bombs. Lehman and McClure want out, and Jones buys them out, and revamps the play into a huge hit. Jones then sells back to them at a huge profit after learning of claims that the play was stolen, and returns home to get his hotel.[3]

Kaufman's comedy may be seen as a precursor to Mel Brooks' The Producers.[6]

Production

James Gleason directed the Broadway production of The Butter and Egg Man, in which his wife Lucile Webster (center) appeared with Gregory Kelly and Sylvia Field.
Promotional theatre token for the touring production of The Butter and Egg Man (1926)
Gregory Kelly as Peter Jones in The Butter and Egg Man (1925)
Scene from the 2003 production of The Butter and Egg Man at Otterbein University

Produced by Crosby Gaige, The Butter and Egg Man opened at the Longacre Theatre on September 23, 1925, and played for 243 performances.[7] James Gleason directed the following cast:[8]

  • Gregory Kelly as Peter Jones
  • Sylvia Field as Jane Weston
  • Robert Middlemass as Joe Lehman
  • Lucile Webster as Fanny Lehman
  • John A. Butler as Jack McClure
  • Marion Barney as Mary Martin
  • Tom Fadden as A Waiter
  • Harry Neville as Cecil Benham
  • Harry Stubbs as Bernie Sampson
  • Eloise Stream as Peggy Marlowe
  • Puritan Townsend as Kitty Humphries
  • Denman Maley as Oscar Fritchie
  • George Alison as A.J. Patterson

When the Broadway run of the play ended in April 1926, Gregory Kelly starred in its national tour. Kelly had a heart attack in Pittsburgh in February 1927, and the tour was abandoned.[9] Kelly was transferred to a New York City sanitarium by his wife, actress Ruth Gordon, but he was unable to recover and died July 9, 1927, at age 36.[10][11]

The London premiere of The Butter and Egg Man took place August 27, 1927, at the Garrick Theatre. Presented by an American company, the play was performed 31 times, closing on September 27, 1927. Robert Middlemass reprised his Broadway role as Joe Lehman.[12]

Revivals

Recent stagings of the play include Punch Line Theatre in Manhattan in 1982,[1] and by the Off Broadway Atlantic Theater Company in 2002.[13][14]

Reception

New York critics were unanimous in their praise for The Butter and Egg Man.[15] In his review of the play's premiere, Gilbert W. Gabriel wrote in The Sun that it was "the wittiest and liveliest jamboree of the behind-the-scenes ever distilled from the atmosphere of Broadway."[16] Walter Winchell wrote that "first nighters roared at the dialogue". "The audience nearly laughed itself to death", wrote John Anderson of The New York Evening Post. Alexander Woollcott called the play "richly and continuously amusing". "If you like smart, funny, sentimental, satirical comedies, here is a chance to enjoy yourself", wrote Percy Hammond of the New York Herald Tribune.[15]

Adaptations

The Butter and Egg Man has been adapted for motion pictures six times:[17]

P. G. Wodehouse adapted the play for his 1952 novel, Barmy in Wonderland.

References

  1. Gussow, Mel (December 29, 1982). "Theatre: The Butter and Egg Man". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  2. "The Butter and Egg Man". Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Retrieved 2018-02-26.
  3. Bordman, Gerald & Thomas S. Hischak. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, p. 103 (3d ed. 2004)
  4. Allen, Irving Lewis (1995). The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech. Oxford University Press. p. 77. ISBN 0-19-509265-1.
  5. "Souvenir Book for 'The Butter and Egg Man'" (PDF). Long Island News and Owl. December 10, 1925. p. 10. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  6. "The Butter and Egg Man (1925)". George S. Kaufman. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  7. "The Butter and Egg Man". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  8. Kaufman, George S. (1957) [1926]. The Butter and Egg Man: A Play in Three Acts. Samuel French. p. 2.
  9. "Gregory Kelly Ill; Play Tour Ends". The New York Times. February 27, 1927. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  10. "Gregory Kelly, Actor, Dies at 36". The New York Times. July 10, 1927. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  11. Robinson, Lauren (May 20, 2014). "Untimely Deaths of Stage Performers". MCNY Blog: New York Stories. Museum of the City of New York. Retrieved 2018-03-04.
  12. Wearing, J.P. The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, p. 535 (2014)
  13. Weber, Bruce (4 October 2002). George S. Kaufman's Jet-Paced Solo Flight, The New York Times
  14. Isherwood, Charles. (2 Oct 2002) Review: The Butter and Egg Man, Variety
  15. Crosby Gaige Introduces George S. Kaufman's New Comedy The Butter and Egg Man with Gregory Kelly (1925). Promotional brochure for the original production at the Longacre Theatre, New York City.
  16. Gabriel, Gilbert W. (24 Sept 1925). The Drama's Dairy Godfather. Kaufman's "The Butter and Egg Man" Sells a Thousand Laughs at Our Theater's Expense, The Sun, p. 24, col. 1
  17. Goble, Alan. The Complete Index to Literary Sources in Film, p. 252 (1992) (books lists six films based on the play: The Butter and Egg Man (1928), The Tenderfoot (1932), Hello Sweetheart (1937), Dance Charlie Dance (1937), Angel from Texas (1940), and Three Sailors and a Girl (1953)
  18. Hall, Mordaunt (28 Aug 1928). The Screen: The Worm That Turned, The New York Times
  19. Hall, Mordaunt (23 May 1932). Joe E. Brown in a Boisterous Film Conception of the Stage Comedy, "The Butter and Egg Man.", The New York Times
  20. Crowther, Bosley (10 May 1940). An Angel From Texas (Review), The New York Times
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