Frank Shuster obituaries

Jan. 14, 11:06 EDT

Goodbye, farewell, adieu, Frank Shuster

Quieter half of Canadian comedy duo is dead at 85

Alex Barris


Frank Shuster, the quieter half of Canada's most famous comedy team, died of pneumonia yesterday at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was 85.

Mr. Shuster's death brought down the final curtain on the most successful show business partnership in Canadian history. His partner, Johnny Wayne, predeceased him in 1990. 

"He was like someone's grandfather,'' comedian Rick Mercer said last night in a telephone interview from Halifax. "He had no star attitude. His kindness and generosity was legendary in the industry. He was one of those people who exceeded your expectations.

"Careers like that are unparalelled, both by their length and body of work. Shuster gave birth to satire in Canada."

Apart from their considerable success, in Canada and elsewhere, Wayne and Shuster were unusual in another important respect: Most comedy teams, from Abbott and Costello to Martin and Lewis or Rowan and Martin, consisted of a straight man and a comedian. Wayne and Shuster were both comedians, yet different.

Wayne generally preferred the brash, hard-hitting gag; Mr. Shuster liked to use a softer, more subtle approach. But both took pride in the intellectual level of their work.  One observer described their comedy as ``literate slapstick.'' As professionals, they complemented each other, and they won the hearts of audiences from their start at Harbord Collegiate to the heights of TV fame on the CBC, where they appeared for nearly 30 years, and on the Ed Sullivan Show, a record 67 times.

On the surface, it may have seemed as if Wayne was the leader, Mr. Shuster the follower. But that wasn't the case. Wayne's more impulsive, explosive nature led him to sound off a good deal; but it was quiet, gentle-seeming Mr. Shuster who was tough enough to deal with agents, network executives or organizations that made endless demands on their time.

Like other famous comic duos, they weren't the closest of friends.

"We dug each other's humour,'' Shuster told The Star in 1999. "But we didn't hang out together after the show. We knew if we socialized out of the office, we'd just talk shop."

They argued over everything, Shuster said in the interview, including just one frame of a scene.  "Johnny was a perfectionist. I was one, too. But we were equal partners.''

One thing they agreed on: "We never did blue material. We thought of every dirty joke going in rehearsals. But on camera we always wanted that family audience.''

`Careers like that are unparalelled, both by their length and body of work. Shuster (left) gave birth to satire in Canada' comedian Rick Mercer.  Norman Campbell, a former CBC arts producer who produced and directed many of their shows back to the '60s, said last night that Mr. Shuster "will be missed by people who valued language and wit and humour.

"I'm very sad to hear he's gone, because we used to have lunch together and he'd always talk about his adventures in Hollywood," Campbell recalled. "Somebody in Hollywood once told him, `There's more to life than happiness,' and he loved that quote. That phrase was as empty as Hollywood."

"He was a cheerful person, unlike some comics that have a tragic bent. But I felt a sadness from him, that he wasn't as active when Johnny was gone. But he didn't cry a lot. Instead, he got down to editing (old shows) so that Wayne and Shuster were alive again."

When they began their careers, they were billed as Shuster and Wayne possibly an indication of respect by the younger Wayne for the two-year-older Mr. Shuster. But when they landed their first radio program Wife Preservers, on CFRB, in 1941 the advertising agency felt that Wayne and Shuster rolled off the tongue more easily. Neither thought the order was important. So the reverse billing remained for the rest of their 50-year career.

In the 1980s, Johnny and Frank shared an office in a CBC building on Yonge St. It had two doors; the sign on one read: ``1224 Wayne and Shuster,'' the sign on the other, ``1226 Shuster and Wayne.''

Mr. Shuster, born in Toronto and the son of a movie projectionist, boasted that he learned to read ``off movie screens.'' As a child, he spent many hours gazing at the big screen, and grew up loving the movies. Years later, his remarkable memory and encyclopedic knowledge of films made it fun to test him on the name of this actor or that movie, a test he usually passed easily.

The first TV show Wayne and Shuster did was not, as one might think, in Toronto, but New York. At the time (1950), they were doing a popular CBC radio series. Their sponsor was Toni Home Permanent. A high-ranking representative of the company was impressed enough to invite them to New York to appear on a television show the same company was sponsoring on CBS, called Toni Twin Time.

Mr. Shuster later remembered that the host was an engaging young man named Jack Lemmon. Their guest appearance went well and they were invited back for a second appearance. The sponsor told them they should move to New York and get into television there, but they declined.

About 11 years later, they were in Los Angeles, filming the Holiday Lodge series. One day, Mr. Shuster and his wife Ruth were driving along Sunset Blvd. when Ruth noticed Jack Lemmon, by now a big film star, driving the car next to them. When both cars stopped for a light, Mr. Shuster pulled ahead, but not before calling out to Lemmon: ``Hey, I remember you from Toni Twin Time.''

Mr. Shuster loved to recall long-forgotten incidents. Some years ago, he reflected on the time they worked with Jack Benny a long-time idol in 1943, in Toronto. Benny was touring armed forces bases at the time, and his schedule included a show at Camp Borden, Ont. Because he couldn't get back to New York in time for his regular Sunday-night radio broadcast, it was arranged that he would do it from the CBC's McGill St. studio theatre in Toronto for a feed to NBC in New York.

The Jack Benny Show was to air at 7 p.m. and two hours later, from the same studio, Wayne and Shuster were to broadcast their Sunday night Canadian Army Show. Since Benny and much of his cast (including announcer Don Wilson and sidekick Rochester) were to be there, anyway, Johnny and Frank invited Benny to be a guest on their program, and he agreed.

Mr. Shuster remembered that they wrote a sketch that involved Benny trying to enlist in the Canadian Army. Rochester played the recruiting sergeant.

In the week before the broadcast, Frank and Johnny, then in their 20s, met Benny's writers, Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, both veterans of the comedy trade. The two were still working on the script for Benny's show and struggling to come up with a joke about Benny going to the barbershop at the Royal York Hotel.  The brash young Mr. Shuster volunteered a joke that occurred to him, to the effect that the Royal York barbershop was so ritzy you needed to have a haircut to get in. Beloin and Morrow recoiled in horror. They had written that joke (at another hotel), they informed Mr. Shuster imperiously, for Eddie Cantor, back in 1927.

Stories are legion at the CBC about monumental fights between Wayne and Shuster. Most depict Johnny as abusive and Frank taking his verbal lashings stoically. What most outsiders didn't realize was that Frank understood Johnny's nature and never took the abuse personally. Their arguments were always about improving the show, so both were willing to undergo whatever emotional strain was necessary.

For half a century they worked like that for years in the den of Mr. Shuster's home, later in their CBC office. They talked endlessly, arguing, bickering, sometimes shouting, but with a common purpose to make their sketches funnier, sturdier, more entertaining. They were as close as any long-married couple. Yet, away from work, they led separate lives. Wayne was an incurable hockey fan; Mr. Shuster described himself as ``a dedicated bad golfer.''

Like any two people accustomed to each other's company, they developed curious speech patterns. Johnny almost invariably referred to Frank just as ``Shuster.'' And Frank often referred to Johnny simply as ``my partner.''

In one respect they were united: their fierce loyalty to Canada. After they had been ``discovered'' by Sullivan and become the toast of his town, they had innumerable offers to move to the U.S., offers of TV series and specials, Broadway shows, international tours. They accepted those offers that would fit their schedules. But they never seriously considered leaving Canada.

Mr. Shuster's daughter, Rosalind, was married for a time to Lorne Michaels, who started as a Toronto comedy writer and became executive producer of Saturday Night Live. Years later, Michaels in an interview credited Frank Shuster with having been a big influence in his professional development.

In interviews, the question that came up most had to do with their working methods as comedy writers. ``I don't know how people get the idea that comedy writers act like idiots at their writing sessions,'' Mr. Shuster once replied. ``I don't even know if some of them do. But to us, this is a business and we wouldn't dash around like jerks while we're doing something as important to us as making our living.''

Another time, he had a more succinct reply: ``It takes two. One to do the work and the other to push him. Some days you don't have it in you, but the other guy has. That's the way we work.''

Jan. 15, 01:00 EDT

Canada becomes a little less funny

Jim Bawden

Television Columnist

It took several decades as a TV columnist before I summoned up the courage to interview Frank Shuster. "What kept you so long?" he joked, looking trim and dapper at 80. That was in 1996, when he had just finished editing his old sketches into a "new" series called Wayne And Shuster In Black And White.

Shuster died of pneumonia on Sunday, aged 85. Comedy partner Johnny Wayne died of cancer in 1990. CBC plans an elaborate two-hour salute to the team Sunday night at 8.

I confessed to Shuster that I'd heard about the monumental rows between him and cohort Wayne and deliberately stayed away. "We had some beauts" was the way the kindly Shuster remembered it.

Wayne and Shuster, along with a few other CBC icons (think Juliette and The Plouffes), dominated Canadian TV in the early days. They debuted in 1954 after huge success on radio and routinely garnered audiences of more than three million a show. The medium was new, so everybody watched and in many Canadian towns CBC was the only available signal.

A Wayne and Shuster skit was something like a small movie the sets were elaborate, the supporting casts might include 50 extras, and the stories were very long by TV standards. The skits were densely written and there were few ad-libs once the boys got on the floor for the taping. The way the team often deferred to the supporting cast meant everybody got some laughs.

Some knowledge on the part of viewers was assumed. There was this patter during a send-up of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana:

Shuster: "On Smetana ... Didn't he write The Battered Bride?"

Wayne: "That's The Bartered Bride. You don't know your music."

Shuster: "You don't know Smetana!"

Wayne: "As a matter of fact, I did know Smetana. He knew what side his bride was bartered on."

Shakespearean Baseball had one player lamenting: "Oh, what a rogue and bush league slob am I!" Another laments: "A hit, a hit, my kingdom for a hit!"

In 1958, while the duo was having contract disputes with the CBC, the offer came to guest on Ed Sullivan. This helped them double their CBC salary in their next contract. When Sullivan took time off due to illness, the boys substituted as guest hosts. Johnny Carson later asked them to host The Tonight Show on a part-time basis and they refused. They wanted to stick with what they knew.

"We first met Ed at his suite at Delmonico's hotel," Shuster said. "We told him we did long sketches and might go as long as 12 minutes. Our third time we went 16 minutes in rehearsal. He asked if he could cut it and I said we had an agreement."

Wayne and Shuster were the only act Ed Sullivan never cut. "We were on Ed 58 times. The record books say 67, but that's wrong."

Other U.S. offers flowed in. The team turned down a Las Vegas gig because they figured the audiences wouldn't get the jokes. For Jack Benny's company they made the short-lived 1961 summer series Holiday Lodge but turned down CBS's offer of a fall slot because they did not want to be typecast as sitcom stars.

In June 1999, Shuster invited me behind the scenes of what he vowed would be his last ever TV gig, a compendium special called Wayne And Shuster: Their First Hundred Years.

His hands shook visibly and he had to sit down a lot. He spilled his milk on his trousers and wardrobe came up with another pair. But on the floor he was as bright as a button.  After several takes, he quipped, "We've got to get up to mediocre."

"I can live with it," his veteran producer Stan Jacobson replied.

"And I'll die with it," said Shuster, who ordered yet another take.

At the end of that day he recalled what Louis Armstrong had told him behind the scenes on the Sullivan show:

"Me, the Duke (Ellington), you guys the best sh-- in the entire world."

Funeral services for Shuster will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m., at Holy Blossom Temple.