Although London’s hit revival of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” starring Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths closed on July 28, a possible fall transfer to Broadway has been announced. That’s a good excuse to shine light on a neglected Jewish vaudeville great who inspired Simon’s play.
In his 1996 “Rewrites: a Memoir” Simon describes how in the late 1940s as an aspiring gag-writer, he tried to sell jokes to vaudevillian Willie Howard, a “pint-sized man with a huge head of hair” whose home at Broadway’s Astor Hotel was a “drab room with bath.” Howard wore a “faded bathrobe over pajama tops, blue pants with suspenders, argyle socks and slippers,” much like Willie Clark in “The Sunshine Boys.”
The vaudeville routines revived in “The Sunshine Boys” are mediocre, unlike Howard’s. Born Wilhelm Levkowitz, the son of a cantor in Neustadt, Silesia, Willie (1883–1949) and his brother Eugene (born Isidore, 1880-1965) were singing onstage in New York by 1897. Their act pleased astute insiders such as comedian Fred Allen, who recalled in his memoir “Much Ado About Me”: “Willie Howard was a great artist. He was a fine comedian, an accomplished dramatic actor, an excellent singer, and a versatile mimic.” Allen added that Willie “wasted most of his professional life impersonating actors who didn’t have a fraction” of his talent.