W. C. Fields, and the use of other performers' material

The Editor of the Juggling Hall of Fame

Thou shalt not steal - only from other comedians
Fields was quick to protect his material when he felt that others might get credit or financial gain for it. On May 4th, 1912 he placed the following ad in Variety:

To Those Interested be it known


W. C. Fields was the first

to take the curtains in the following manner, i. e., walking off the stage as the curtain rises and walking on as it descends.

I can prove I did this first, over three years ago, by Stage Manager Malloy, of Shea's Theatre, Buffalo; Bud Burke, Stage Manager of Colonial, New York; Johnny Hall, of the Orpheum, Brooklyn.

During my absence from the country (having been in Europe for two years) I am informed that another single act has been making use of this mode of taking curtains. While it may be a coincident (which I do not admit nor believe) I am not in a position to state positively that this act has taken that portion of my stage material, but I do wish to stamp my prior right to it, and to recall to those in the profession that the bit belongs to me under the accepted code of ethics in vaudeville.

This notice is published by me for the purpose of compelling the artist now using this matter to also give the date when he first employed it, and where, unless he cares to rest under the imputation of unprofessionalism which must follow silence on his part.

I have suffered much from acts in my own line of work; I don't feel like remaining quiet while another and a foreigner may be using my material in my own country, and asking credit for originality upon it.

Stage managers, who know me and my act are respectfully requested to carefully read this statement. And they will confer a favor by asking anyone using the "curtain business" if he has good right to it, also by informing me of the circumstance when it occurs.


Yet Fields himself owed a lot to a juggler called Harrigan. H. M. Lorette, talking about Fields' boyhood said, 'We were both able to do about all that Harrigan did with cigar boxes.' In 1901 a reviewer discussing stage character as well as tricks said 'Take Richie, Harrigan and Fields - the last-named the subject of this article - place them in a row, and lo! "Tom, Dick and Harry!" As like as three peas.' When writing to O. K. Sato, another performer, in 1904, Fields described seeing some of Sato's material performed by somebody else. In a light hearted and probably not too veracious letter, Fields claimed to have gone backstage, broken the props involved and knocked the thief unconscious. Sato's response was to tease Fields about his relationship with Harrigan:

And did You pass anything else excepting the back door at Miner's Bowery theatre, the night that Harrigan was waiting so patiently in the front of the house for You, so that he could aim a few little pouts in Your direction? And did You put only a pair of scissors and a hammer on Your clothes as a little precaution should he happen to catch a glance of You, or did You as rumor has it have a whole hardware shop concealed on Your clothes?

So for Fields, it appears, stealing material was unethical, unless it happened to be W. C. who was doing the stealing.

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