“It’s like reading that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been caught at a night club,” Will Rogers in the Reading Eagle, August 10, 1934 about Chic Sale’s bestselling book, The Specialist.
Here’s a hilarious, decidedly unglamorous photo of my grandmother, Mitzi Cummings, with Charles Partlow Sale, aka ‘Chic Sale’, once “the nation’s foremost comedian” before his sudden death at just 51 of pneumonia in 1936.
In this photo, Mitzi, a Photoplay columnist, is clearly having a great time yukking it up in costume with Sale, who is holding a photo of himself as Lincoln from his short film, The Tribute (1935), an uncharacteristically somber movie about the president’s dismay at the listless response to his Gettysburg Address.
In true Hollywood style, Lincoln meets a dying and blind Union soldier who attests to how inspiring the speech was. Although I haven’t seen the film, my money is on the soldier dying in the president’s arms.
Though the Lincoln film was not his usual material (and Sale was no Daniel Day Lewis), Sale was enormously talented and was touted as the nation’s funniest man during his hugely successful vaudeville career, including appearances with the Ziegfeld Follies and the Shubert Winter Garden shows. He then parlayed his fame into an instantly profitable film career in 1931. Sale’s premature death, just five years after his move into the motion picture business, shocked the entertainment industry and America.
Chic Sale’s genius was his ability to impersonate anyone from Mae West to “agricultural types” and create “irresistible nostalgia,” as mentioned in articles from the time. In fact, his mimicry even fooled seasoned entertainment journalists, as George Ross reported in his ‘In New York’ column from December 9, 1935 about meeting Sale for the first time: “He gave me a shock when he entered because the wrinkled, cracker barrel philosopher I expected turned out to be a tall, youthful looking, clean-shaven man without even a corn cob between his lips”.
Born in Huron, South Dakota on August 25, 1885 Sale retained a love for rural America and the down-home characters he observed as a child and young man. One such person, Lem Putt, a carpenter who specialized in making outhouses, inspired what became a famous monologue that Sale first told at Rotary lunches in the cities he was visiting. However, he considered the topic suitable only for men – it took some convincing for Sale to perform the material in front a ‘mixed’ crowd, but despite (or because of) the earthy subject matter, it was universally loved by audiences.
Around 1930, Sale transformed the monologue into a book, The Specialist, which became an immediate bestseller. During his lifetime it sold over a million copies. His great-grandson continues to publish the book, now translated into several languages and in its 26th reprint.
Sadly, talent, money and a nation-wide audience won’t save you from meeting your maker if it’s your turn to make heaven laugh. When Chic Sale passed away on November 7, 1936 – probably just months after the photo above – he left behind a devoted wife and four children who adored him.
Not only is Chic Sale gone, but so is the little building in the backyard with the crescent moon cutout in the door, referred to for many years, much to the comedian’s chagrin, as the ‘Chic Sale’ – an unintended consequence of a famous little book about outhouses.
Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.