An Interview with Soupy Farnsworth by Terry Allen. Film Fan Monthly, Jan 24, 1971
SF: Sorry Bunny couldn't join us for this. She's with her sister in Culver City right now. Well, what do you have to ask me? I haven't done an interview in years..
TA: Standard questions. I'm a big fan and I'm sure a lot of our readers are big fans, too.
SF: Simple questions?
TA: Simple questions. I promise.
SF: Okay. Shoot.
TA: When did you begin your show-business career?
SF: I thought you were going to ask me simple questions! God.. That would have to be when I joined Kenny Fuller in 1909. I was about 12. Kenny was a friend of mine, a great singer. He could do all of the popular songs of the time... you know, "Love Me and The World is Mine". That kind of crap . He had an act with a guy named Moe Pinkerton. Pinky and Fuller. Just a basic song and dance act. And it stunk! Moe dropped out for some reason and I had known Kenny from my neighborhood in Brooklyn. He came by and said he needed someone to take Moe's place in the act and I had never done anything close to actual performing! I could juggle. Maybe that's why he asked me. Anyway, I said "sure" and told my mom I was dropping out of school. She went through the roof! She wanted me to be a lawyer like my big-shot uncle Floyd. I hated school so I left and got into vaudeville with Kenny. We called the act Fuller and Farnsworth and started out doing the same crap he had been doing with Moe. And it still stunk! I wasn't very good and had to learn fast how to hold an audience. So I'd sit in the wings and watch the other acts and steal material from them! (laughs) No. But I'd get an idea about what audiences thought were funny. That's when I developed my hat tricks.
TA: The hat tricks go back that far?
SF: Yeah. Before the Farnsworth Four, before Farnsworth and Katz, before all of that. I built a career out of those hat tricks. Kinda sad, when you think about it! (laughs) And I needed those, too, because it was all I was good at! My timing was lousy and the jokes weren't very good anyway. So I started learning how to get the hat on my head by bouncing it off my wrist or flipping it onto my head from my foot. Anyone who's seen a Farnsworth and Katz picture has seen it. I can't do that stuff anymore. Arthritis. Back to what I was saying about Fuller and Farnsworth. We had a crummy, cheap act and we could get booking in any theater that was worth a damn . He'd do a song, I'd do a joke, we'd do a duet, we'd dance, I'd tell another joke. The end. We'd been working at it for three years and Kenny was getting depressed. So we end up out in Kansas and Kenny disappears! I hear later that he got drunk and hopped a train out of town with our cash. He ditched me! And I was left with an angry theater manager breathing down my neck because we had two shows to do that night. So I tell the guy not to worry 'cause I'd have an act ready to go. Of course, I was lying! I didn't know what I was going to do! Anyway, before long, I was in a bar trying to drink away my worries and this little guy comes up to me and starts going on about how great I was. I recognized him from an act I opened for the day before, a really great school act.. a rip-off of the old Gus Edwards bit. I was really flattered but told him he was full of shit. I said the act had split up and had to figure out a way to fulfill my obligation to the theater. This guy says that he'll fill in for Kenny for the last two shows to save my bacon! And that was the first time I performed with Bobby Katz.
TA: But that wasn't the beginning of the proper act as everyone came to know it.
SF: No. We were just doing the Fuller and Farnsworth song and dance act with Bobby taking Kenny's place. And he was such a better performer than Kenny. He was hilarious and a better singer to boot! When I'd fulfilled my contract and Fuller and Farnsworth was kaput, I joined the act Bobby was with.. Jimmy Nash's School House. There was me, Jimmy Nash, Bobby, Gilda Morrison, Mel Oldfield, and Tommy DeBeck who later became a director at Millennia. Jimmy Nash was the star with a capitol "S". He was older than the rest of us and demanded respect both on and off stage. After all, he wrote the act! He played this old teacher who'd give us all the straight lines and was constantly grabbing one of us by the ear if we gave him foolish answers. It wouldn't be funny today, but audiences back then thought it was just swell. Anyways, one night Jimmy does his bit and grabs my ear hard.. and I mean hard! I was bleeding! It was hard enough trying to be funny delivering those lousy lines he wrote but trying to be funny while I was in excruciating pain was impossible. He didn't mean to do it, I don't think, but I didn't care. And he wouldn't apologize for it, either. So we had this bit where Jimmy would get an apple from one of his students. So he'd bite into it and there'd be a big green worm in it. It was a fake worm, of course, that he'd pull out of an apple we'd hollowed out. Well, I was sore so Bobby and I sabotaged the act with a real worm. Jimmy bit into that apple and there was the biggest grub worm we could find sitting in there. He hadn't bit into it, but it was too much for him and he ran into the wings and threw up. The audience was just falling over. Jimmy didn't think it was so funny, though. He knew who'd done it, too. He didn't fire me because this was about a year after I'd joined the act and Bobby and I were practically the whole show! We'd been perfecting our bits and Jimmy knew how important we were to his crummy act. We had already started kind of an act within the act as these two nuts in Jimmy's class. In fact, I got my name from that act. Jimmy would go on about how it's rude to eat in the classroom and I'd enter with a picnic lunch and a bowl of hot soup concealed under my hat. And that's not easy, either! You balance a bowl of hot soup on your head sometime! And real soup, too! Not stage soup! Real chicken noodle or french onion or what have you. But it took me forever to learn how to do it and I had spilled gallons of soup all over myself in the process. My clothes stank of beef stock forever so people called me "Soupy" and it stuck... like the smell.
(above) A publicity photo from The Passing Show of 1924. L to R: Bobby Katz, Eleanor Mayfield, Soupy Farnsworth.
TA: Why didn't you practice with water?
SF: How are you going to learn how to balance soup if you use water?
TA: Never mind.
SF: We could have broken away even back then, in 1915, I think. But we didn't because the money was good and Jimmy's act was playing major houses. By the time we did the Palace in 1918, Bobby and I were getting top billing right along with Jimmy. That's when we got an offer from Sennett.
TA: Mack Sennett?
SF: He'd seen the act in California and thought Bobby and I were pretty funny, what with the hat tricks and pratfalls and all and that we could make a success in pictures. Well, I knew that he didn't many worthwhile comics on his roster at that time. Roscoe Arbuckle left him in 1917 and Chaplin had been gone for years so he didn't have much to work with. I don't know if Harry Langdon had joined him yet. Bobby and I agreed to a deal and left Jimmy Nash's act even though we were taking a big pay cut. But we thought it was worth it to come out to California to get into pictures. Boy, were we wrong!
TA: I didn't know you made any silent pictures!
SF: You wouldn't know even if you saw one! (laughs) Sennett thought it was funny enough to just fall down a flight of stairs. Bobby and I did several for him and they were all terrible. We couldn't do anything we had been doing on the stage for years. He made us wear huge mustaches and run around for no reason at all. I did one called The Sharper where I played a top-hatted villain with a huge black mustache. No one would ever know it was me if it weren't for my name being on the thing. Bobby was always being thrown out of windows in the pictures. It was awful. We weren't even appearing in the same pictures! We told Sennett we needed to do stories that dealt with the characters we had developed on the stage but he told us to get lost. He didn't have much invested in us.
TA: Speaking of your stage characters, maybe you could describe them.
SF: Well, I had started out doing an Irish bit, first in the Fuller act and then in the Jimmy Nash act. That's where I finally settled on the hat; the beat up, checkered derby. I was a real wise-ass in the act, kind of like I've always been. Eventually, I dropped the phony Irish accent because it was a pain to do and didn't add anything to my character. Dialect humor wasn't my shtick. I ended up playing a kind of tough-guy character. Ted Healy did something similar except he played straightman to his stooges. Bobby and I would both do straight lines and gags, doing a rapid-fire cross-talk bit. Bobby had always played the same little harried guy. Bobby would be the butt of somebody's joke, usually mine, but he'd always get the last laugh by being smarter and quicker than his opponents. Together, we'd play best friends, like we were in real life. He'd tick me off in the act and we'd harass each other but we were still pals. But our act was really wild, though. We worked out a routine where it would look as if I'd driven a spike through Bobby's head with a mallet! But Sennett didn't want characters. He wanted live bodies to fall down stairs and get mud in the face. So we left and went back to the stage.
TA: How did you break back into vaudeville?
SF: We didn't! In 1919, we got a call from the Schubert Brothers. They were putting together a big revue and needed comics. Bobby and I had never appeared on-stage as Farnsworth and Katz so this was the first time. We were one of the star attractions of The Passing Show of 1919 and appeared in every Passing Show until 1924. This was when we really hit our stride. I also met Bunny Newell for the first time during the 1922 show. She was a dancer in the show and extremely pretty. Also, she was funny. On-stage she was gorgeous. Off-stage, she was the funniest woman I ever met. So I married her.
TA: When did you first work her into your act?
(above) A studio publicity still of Farnsworth and Katz in the film version of Wet Paint. (1928)
SF: Not until Bobby and I began starring in our own shows. That was in 1925 when Shubert decided to bankroll a Farnsworth and Katz show called Wet Paint. We got some great writers for that. Big names like Ralph Spence and Will McGuire. They figured out how to work our stage characters into a book show. Wet Paint took place in a department store where I was the head floorwalker and Bunny was a saleslady. Bobby was a small-time crook I was employing to help him rehabilitate. Bunny and I had been married in 1924 but she didn't want to leave the stage so I made sure she had a part in our first big show. And she was great. She took to her part immediately and upstaged me more often than not. She played this supposed dumb blonde who was much, much smarter than she seemed. It was very funny and she did it from then on. Wet Paint was a big hit and we followed it with an even bigger hit. It was called Jacks In the Box and we had the greatest opening. The orchestra would strike up this huge fanfare and then the curtains would part and there would be nothing but an empty stage... not even a backdrop! The only things on stage would be Bobby and me, sitting in chairs, staring out at the audience as if we were expecting a show to start! And we'd just sit there and, finally, Bobby would turn to me and say that maybe the audience was expecting us to perform. I'd say "Oh.. are we in a show?" And he'd say "yes" and I'd go into this tirade about how much I hated being a Broadway star having to perform all the time. And that's where our big opening musical number would start... "That's Why I Hate Broadway" was the name of the song.
TA: Can you sing a few bars?
TA: How did you make the final break into features?
SF: Hollywood was going Broadway crazy around 1928. They got Jolson instead of Jessel for The Jazz Singer and suddenly everybody wanted stage actors for pictures. After four productions I got a call from Adolph Zucker from Paramount that year for a deal to do Wet Paint as a talking picture. So we did. It was a sweet deal and Paramount paid us plenty. Wet Paint was the first time a lot of people ever saw Farnsworth and Katz and it really was the first time we had been seen in England. I think our popularity was even greater there than it was in the US. We toured England in 1933.
TA: How did the film version differ from the stage version?
SF: It stunk.
SF: The sound technology was lousy. They had the cameras and cameramen holed up in these huge wooden boxes. As a gag, I locked Fred Belgrave, our press agent, in one. He almost died in there... nearly suffocated to death. I was terribly sorry I did it afterwards and was really worried about the poor guys who had to shoot the film from inside those things. At any rate, the picture they were shooting wasn't terribly good. The footage was so expensive, they couldn't afford to do any more than two takes on any scene. There's a bit in the finished picture where I completely forget my lines and Bunny has to cue me. You've probably seen it. Bobby trips over an area rug in another scene and literally falls on his face. And they kept it! Biggest load of crap I ever saw. The story was kept intact except for a courtroom scene we added which Bobby and I wrote. That had to be our first great sequence. "I object." "On what grounds?" "Coffee!" Funny bit. Our next picture was better but we didn't do it for Paramount. Paramount brass was disappointed in the returns on Wet Paint and didn't renew our contract. Instead, they backed the Four Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts. We were about to give up pictures entirely when Bobby made a deal with Tom Petrillo, head of Millennia Pictures. That was the first deal Bobby made for us and it wasn't the last because he became our agent. Anyways, our first for Millennia was Curtain Call in 1930.
TA: Today, Millennia Pictures are known for virtually nothing other than the Farnsworth Four and Farnsworth and Katz pictures.
SF: It was strictly poverty row. It ranked somewhere below Republic but above Monogram. They had to crank out all sorts of crummy filler material. Grade 'Z' garbage. But they gave us complete control over our films under one condition. That we also star with Milton MacMillan as the Farnsworth Four.
(above) A studio publicity still of The Farnsworth Four. L to R: Bobby Katz, Soupy Farnsworth, Milton MacMillan, Bunny Newell. (1930)
TA: What can you tell us about Milton MacMillan?
SF: He was a putz, a total no-talent. His father had helped pay for Millennia's conversion to sound. Milt was shoved into our pictures as a favor to his dad. Tom Petrillo came up with the Farnsworth Four name and we had to figure out how to work him into the act. That was the condition under which we were able to make our own pictures our way. It was impossible. He wasn't funny. He couldn't sing very well. His timing was lousy. He couldn't act. And even worse than that, he was shrill, rude, and obnoxious. Milt and Bobby got into a fist fight on the set of Lucky Dog. We all hated him and he hated us and those Farnsworth Four pictures stunk as a result. To this day, I can't understand why anyone liked those Farnsworth Four things. But they did and the studio made money so we had to keep making them. The studio decided that, because the pictures were popular, Milt must be popular, too, and they ordered us to give him a big part. Left Is Right was our last with Milt. It was a comedy about auto racing. I played a pit crew boss with Bobby as my assistant and Bunny as my girlfriend. That's the one where Bobby got swallowed up in the car engine. Milt played a hot shot racer who was trying to win the girl who was played by, I think, Loretta Sayers. It had a great script and great songs and a great director, Ross Lederman. But it had Milton MacMillan in the lead and he stunk so bad that even studio brass couldn't take it. Until then, we had been able to shove him into the background but it was the first time the studio decided to meddle and it backfired. The public stayed clear and I think it was the first time a Farnsworth Four picture lost money for Millennia. And then Milt had the gall to go and ask Tom Petrillo for a increase in salary. Either that, or Bobby told him to ask Tom for a raise. I don't recall. But I don't need to tell you it was his last day at the studio. I hear he got into real estate later on. Couldn't have been any worse at that than he was at acting. I promised Tom that our next picture would be a winner if he'd just let us have our way. It was. Clock Watchers was the first Farnsworth and Katz picture since Wet Paint and became one of the big hits of 1934.
(above) A newspaper ad for Clock Watchers (1934)
TA: It's considered one of your three great pictures.
SF: Oh, yeah? What are the other two?
TA: Okee-Dokee and The Soda Jerk.
SF: According to whom?
SF: Okee-Dokee I agree with but The Soda Jerk was a bomb. We had a crummy director on it, a man whose name I'm not going to mention. He thought Bobby, Bunny, and I were lousy comics and told us so. He got shot over a gambling debt in Fresno. Anyway, Clock Watchers was good. We played mechanics in a mythical country who are hired to repair a 300 year old clock in time for a big festival. There was a great climax in the clock as Bobby gets tangled in the workings and the whole thing begins to come apart. We did Okee-Dokee immediately after it in 1935. It was our Africa movie. We played vaudevillians hoodwinked into joining an African safari. It was a big break from our usual stories and it had some pretty exciting bits. Bobby played a scene with a real lion and I got to handle a boa constrictor. Bunny hated doing that picture because of the snakes but she was a pretty good sport. We kept cranking them out, one or two a year for Millennia. Our popularity kept going up and up. We had games, books, toys, and even managed to get a radio series in 1936 for Ipana Toothpaste. Ipana Presents Farnsworth and Katz. Then 1941 hit and we found ourselves without a studio.
TA: How did you lose your contract with Millennia?
SF: A dispute with management. Tom Petrillo retired and was replaced by a guy named Andy Smallhausen. He never liked our work and that was really a shame because we were supporting the studio single-handedly. Smallhausen thought what we were spending on our pictures was more than the studio could afford. Which was ridiculous because we were spending a fourth, a sixth, what bigger studios were spending on the same kind of feature comedies. We made Latin Holiday in 1940 and our budget was half of what we'd usually spend. I think Columbia was spending as much on a single short what we spent on that picture, and it showed on the screen. The whole thing took place on a cruise ship and it could have worked but it just looked cheap and crummy. So we tried to find another studio only to find that that scumbag Smallhausen had blackballed us. We had to accept work from Jules White over at Columbia, making two-reelers. I think we made seven. All rotten rehashes of the Stooges' stuff. And White kept telling Bobby how to play his scenes which drove him up the wall. We left pretty fast. Anyways, we were all getting rather tired of the whole thing so we all agreed to give up film and just do special appearances from then on.
TA: But your Columbia shorts weren't your last film work.
SF: No. Bunny, Bobby, and I did some USO shows for the war and when that was over, Bunny and I went into semi-retirement and just did the occasional radio guest spot. But we got an offer in 1953 from an independent producer named Moe Levitch who had seen my guest appearance on the Colgate Comedy Hour on TV. The money was too good to pass up so we did one last movie together. It was called Frantic Freeway and it was just awful. People were happy we were back on the screen but everyone had to admit it wasn't very good. We were all in our mid-fifties and we couldn't do the slapstick the script called for. I played an automobile designer who tries to sell this wild idea for a flying car with wings to a manufacturer. We had a big chase at the end with Bobby, Bunny, and myself flying the vehicle after some crooks who've stolen the blueprints. We were all so appalled by ourselves when we saw the rushes that we swore we'd never do another movie. And we didn't. We did come back to do those Farnsworth and Katz TV cartoons, though. They were a lot of fun to do the voices for and some of the stories were as unpredictable as our old Millennia pictures. After all, you can do all sorts of things in a cartoon that you can't do in real life. Apart from that, I understand Bobby did some of those teen beach pictures before he died. Those cartoons were the last bits of work for Bunny and me. We're pretty happy to stay here at home and answer our fan mail.
(above) A frame from the animated Farnsworth and Katz Show (1960)
TA: What would you say the difference is between your team and other comedy teams of the period?
SF: We tried to inject a little bit of humanity into our pictures. Maybe not as much as Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, but a lot more than the Marxes and the Ritz Brothers. Especially Bobby. Everybody felt sorry for Bobby. He seemed like such a helpless little guy and that touch of pathos helped set our pictures apart. There was plenty of slapstick and gags, but there was a little bit more, I think.
TA: Do you still watch your films on TV?
SF: I'm an old man and I can't tell you what it's like to watch a younger me dancing around on the screen, doing things I just can't do anymore. It's kind of funny but sad, especially watching Bobby. I wish we could have been there when he died but I understand it was pretty sudden. I miss him. So does Bunny. But I guess you never really die when people still watch your movies, right?