This story — like most of the stories in the history of the world — begins far away from Des Moines, Iowa.
It starts with two men — one thin, one fat — dressed in tuxedos, walking down a black-and-white street arm-in-arm. The fat man keeps stumbling. At one point he falls and manages to land on his high silk hat. The fat man will always land on his hat, and the thin man will always help him up, whack him over the head, and replace it.
“I don’t want to do this, Professor,” the fat man pleads in a childish voice.
“You’ll be fine,” says the thin man, who, befitting his name, wears a mortarboard instead of a top hat. He drags the fat man up a set of stairs into a white church and through the flung-back doors and down the aisle to a sudden wedding march. Though both men are rotten marchers, they make it to the altar, where a minister opens a Bible in a chiding way: there’s no good reason to be late to your own wedding, even if your bride is a pony. Which she is, a chubby, swaybacked roan pony whose hindquarters keep shifting — she’s not thrilled about the match either. In this world, everyone wears a hat: the pony’s is straw, trimmed with a net veil thrown over her shoulders. The fat man sneaks sugar cubes to his intended. The pony has a history of bolting.
“We are gathered,” intones the justice of the peace, which is when the fat man howls, “Oh my fucking God!”
The cameras — there are cameras here, and a boom mike, and a director who hates the pony, and a script girl and a prop guy and dollies and grips — stop rolling.
“What is it?” the director asks.
“That fucking pony!” the fat man says. “That fucking pony bit me!”
“Okay, that’s it,” the director says, but he laughs. “We need a new pony.”
“Jesus Christ.” The fat man is trying to shake the ache out of his hand, but he’s milking it. “Get me a better-looking one this time, will you? I want a Shetland. I’m sorry, sweetheart,” he says to the pony, “but a pony like you, and a guy like me — take my word for it. I’m saving you a lot of heartache down the road.”
The director shrugs, but it’s 1946, and the fat man is famous. He can hire and fire any pony he wants. He’s already walking off the set, pulling off his white gloves, tossing his high silk hat at the wardrobe girl, who carries a torch for him. Everyone on the set carries a torch for him; either he doesn’t care or doesn’t notice. “Come on,” he tells the thin man. “I’m hungry.”
The thin man follows. (When the cameras stop, the thin man always follows.) “Don’t insult the pony. The pony is high-strung. You try being a pony in this town.”
“That fucking pony,” the fat man says gravely.
“Oh, Rocky. We both know the pony only wants to make you happy,” says the thin man, the other man, the straight man: me.
Here’s what I think: when you’re born, you’re assigned a brain like you’re assigned a desk, a nice desk, with plenty of pigeonholes and drawers and secret compartments. At the start, it’s empty, and then you spend your life filling it up. You’re the only one who understands the filing system, you amass some clutter, sure, but somehow it works: you’re asked for the capital of Oregon, and you say Salem; you want to remember your first grade teacher’s name, and there it is, Miss Fox. Then suddenly you’re old, and though everything’s still in your brain, it’s crammed so tight that when you try to remember the name of the guy who does the upkeep on your lawn, your first childhood crush comes fluttering out, or the persistent smell of tomato soup in a certain Des Moines neighborhood.
Or you try to recall your wedding day, and you remember a fat man. Or the birth of your first kid, and you remember a fat man. You loved your wife, who died decades ago; you love your kids, who you see once a week. But facts are facts: every time you try to remember anything, the fat man comes strolling into your brain, his hands in his pockets, whiskey on his breath.
At which point you decide to write your memoirs, hoping to clear space for the future, however long that is.
Maybe you’ve seen our movies. A chubby guy in a striped shirt whose head is a magnet for coconuts, shot puts, thrown horseshoes, upside-down urns, buckets of water. A thin man in a graduation cap and tweeds who is afraid of everything but his partner. Carter and Sharp, briefly the number-one box office draw in the country, now an answer to back-of-the-magazine quizzes. I don’t think we even show up on late-night television these days. In the 1940s, you couldn’t avoid us. We made twenty-eight movies in thirteen years, every one a love story, no matter what anybody says. We were two guys who so obviously belonged together you never had to wonder whether we’d end up arm-in-arm by the final frame: of course we would, we always did. Even with Astaire and Rogers, you had to wonder. Not with us.
Here’s What You Do
His regular straight man turned up drunk, is how it started. I was a young man backstage of the Minneapolis Pantages Theater in the second year of the country’s Great Depression and the third of my own. It was 1931, and I was a vaudevillian, though vaudeville was dying. I hardly noticed. Everything was dying: it was hard to figure out what would rise from the ashes, and what was sputtering out for good.
I’d been summoned to Minneapolis to sub for a Dutch comic with a bum appendix. When I arrived, the stage manager handed me a bright red wig that smelled like the tail of a golden retriever. I painted freckles on my face and went on in a borrowed checkered jacket. I looked demented, not Dutch, and told jokes in my usual mournful way.
Some audiences liked the deadpan delivery. Not this one. I could hear several hundred programs opening, several hundred fingers sliding down the bill to see who was next; I could feel the damp leavings of several hundred sighs of boredom, puffed up from the house one at a time to pop like bubbles on my cheek. So it wasn’t a surprise when I stepped off the stage and the manager handed me my publicity photos, which was how you got fired in vaudeville.
He was a parsnippy-looking guy, scraped and pale, but he wasn’t heartless. He saw the look on my face. “Listen, kid,” he said. “God never closes a door without opening a window.”
Good news if you’re a bird. I was twenty years old and out of work; I believed that if God opened a window, He meant me to jump. A flash act had taken over the stage, a bunch of pretty girls dancing as they warbled some song about the weather: they predicted rain, and wore cellophane slickers and carried mustard-colored umbrellas, which, of course, they twirled.
I rolled up my pictures and stuffed them in my jacket pocket. Then I felt a finger tapping my shoulder.
My first impression was of an overwhelming plaidness. The guy’s suit looked like a worked-over full-color crossword puzzle, smudged and guaranteed to give you a headache. His face was worse: he’d applied his makeup in the dark, apparently, pancake layered on so thick you could’ve stuck candles in it, rouge smeared in the neighborhood of his cheeks. I couldn’t tell what he really looked like. Heavy. Snub nosed. Agitated. Still tapping me with one hand, rubbing his stomach with the other. Behind him, a sharp-faced man was vomiting into a lady’s purse.
“You a straight man?” the tapping guy asked.
“Sure,” I said. Of course I was. I was whatever he needed. If he’d been short a poodle for his trained-dog act, I would have dropped to the ground and wagged my tail.
“You know the Swiss Cheese Bit?”
He continued to tap my shoulder. Suddenly I reached up and snagged the offending finger with one fist. I was an Iowa boy. I knew how to catch pests. I could feel his finger wiggle in my hand, trying to tickle my lifeline.
“You’ll do,” he said.
“I’ll do what?” I asked.
Then I saw that beyond all that pie-brown makeup, his dark eyes shone like the rich, sweet filling in a Danish pastry: poppy-seed, or prune. He gave me a lopsided smile, as though he already believed I was funny, and right then I began to believe it myself. At least we both knew my reflexes were quick. Rocky Carter, I would find out soon enough, was one of those people who could will light into his eyes, make them gleam and twinkle and shine and glint and sparkle, any number of otherwise indescribable clichés, a knack I now think of as nearly the definition of charisma.
Later, in the cartoon credits of our movies, they always drew me much taller, but that’s because he slumped and I wore lifts. We were about the same height, which is to say short. I let go of his hand, and he snatched the red wig off my head and stuffed it behind the rolled-up photos already in my pocket.
“I’m Rocky Carter,” he said.
I’d studied the bill. I knew who he was. “I’m Mike Sharp.”
“You are not. What’s your real name, son?”
“Sharp,” I said. “Mose Sharp.”
“We’re old friends already,” he declared. “So I’ll call you Mose. Do you drink, Mose Sharp?”
“No,” I lied.
Clearly he heard the deceit in my voice, because he smiled pretty wide when he said, “Wrong answer.”
Carter and Fabian — Freddy Fabian was the guy vomiting into the purse — weren’t the headliners, but they were better off than I was. I tried not to think of this as my big break. I’d had that thought too many times over the past two years, ever since I’d left Valley Junction, Iowa, for what turned out to be the big lights of Duluth, Davenport, Toledo and Wichita, any number of two-bit towns with two-bit theaters. Minneapolis was a step up. By 1931, I’d done everything: acrobatics, eccentric dancing, juggling, ventriloquism. I’d played both juvenile and geriatric roles in tabloid shows, full-length plays cut down to size for the vaude circuit. I’d appeared as a woman and a little boy; I’d tried on accents of every nationality. And I’d told the truth to the first question Rocky ever asked me. I’d been a straight man for a couple dozen acts: a group of hard-boiled kids, a frail old-time comic whose arthritic pratfalls caused the audience to gasp in horror, a temperamental seal, a pair of French brothers, and, for an entire season, a troublesome nineteen-year-old Dumb Dora comedienne named Mimi with whom I’d been horribly in love. I’d thought she’d been in love with me too. When Mimi — her real name was Miriam — handed me my pictures, I thought about getting off the circuit and going home to run my father’s clothing store. Instead, I kept plugging away.
It’s not something that people understand so much these days, how a comedian needs a straight man. They see one funny guy, and then another guy who isn’t so funny. They don’t realize that the comic (Rock, for instance, his pants so baggy they drape like an opera gown) needs a straight man (me, for instance, in my tweeds and mortarboard) standing still, telling him to act right. Getting him into the right kind of trouble. Making him look so dopey he’s adorable. Most people in this world want to be the comic, and why not? You get laughs and love and attention. You get all the best catchphrases. Used to be that a good straight man could get the lion’s share of the salary, sixty-forty, a little money to salve his ego and keep him in the act. I was nobody when I joined up with Rock, so with us it was the other way around. Not that I was thinking of money that first night in Minneapolis. I just followed the guy out onto the dark stage, rubbing my painted freckles off with my thumb, happy I had somewhere to go. The light hit us like a bucket of water, and I said my first line — “Here’s what you do” — and we were off.
It’s like this: Rocky has just been hired at a cheese factory. He’s in charge of making the holes in the Swiss, but he doesn’t know how. I’m the foreman, I say, A hole is nothing! You’re bothering me now about nothing? (Maybe it doesn’t sound funny on the page, but Beethoven on the page is just black dots.) Rocky gets nervous, and more nervous, and downright panicked about the holes, the nothing.
Onstage with Rocky, I was handsomer, funnier. If anyone in the audience recognized the Dutch comic made over into the fierce foreman, they forgave me. The crowd was no longer a squawk box worked by a crank — turn that crank harder! — but what they were: a bunch of gorgeous people who happened to find us very, very funny. Then suddenly Rocky ad-libbed in a big way: he jumped into my arms, all the way off the floor, so I was cradling him. Oof. Like a lady scared of a mouse, and so I said, “What are you, a man or a mouse?”
“Mouse,” he said in his squeakiest voice.
“You’re a mouse in a cheese factory,” I told him. “You’re living the life of Reilly.” I didn’t put him down. I was twenty years old, I could lift anything if an audience was involved.
“I’m scared,” he said.
“Oh, Rocky,” I said dotingly. “Poor Rocky. Shall I sing you a song?”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
So I started Brahms’s lullaby.
“Not that one,” he said.
“Okay.” I tried Rockabye Baby.
“No!” He thumped me on the chest.
Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody? No. Beautiful Dreamer? Worse. You Made Me Love You? Out of the question. Abba-Dabba Honeymoon?
A sly nod, a settling in.
It’s almost impossible to hold on to 180 pounds of snuggling comic, but I managed. “You better sing with me, folks,” I told the audience, “or we’ll be here all night.” So they joined in, and that night five hundred people sang Rocky Carter to sleep for the first time. That’s the bit we became famous for: Why Don’t You Sleep? We did it a million times, in the movies, on radio, on TV. Veronica Lake sang Rocky to sleep, and Dan Dailey, and Bing Crosby. Always a different ridiculous song. Rocky said it was our funniest bit. Rock was educated — Harvard, he said sometimes, Princeton others, School of the Street, he told reporters. Anyhow, he studied things. What made Chaplin great? Keaton? A kind of tenderness and need, he said, not like these jokers everywhere. Why Don’t You Sleep would be how people remembered us, he said. It would be our signature.
Excerpted from Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.