By Rebecca Day
Tell a non-resident you’re from Niagara Falls and the likely response will be, “Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned … step by step … inch by inch …”
Where’d that come from? Some remember it as an old Abbott and Costello or Three Stooges routine. Others may recall it from an episode of I Love Lucy.
They’re all right.
The skit, which was well known on the vaudeville circuit, goes something like this: A bedraggled man buttonholes a stranger and tells him a tale of betrayal and vengeance. A rogue seduced his sweetheart. He trailed the miscreant from town to town, finally catching up with him in Niagara Falls, where he pummeled him mercilessly. The hearer of the story haplessly says the magic words, “Niagara Falls,” causing the man to turn on him and mete out the same punishment.
Sometimes a different town was the red-flag word. Abbot and Costello performed the “Pokomoko” version in their 1944 film, Lost in a Harem. The improbable storyline revolves around the pair traveling to Arabia to recover the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, which has been hypnotized into playing only for the villain. They pose as Hollywood talent scouts. At one point, they end up locked in a jail cell with a lunatic, who does the “Slowly I Turned” routine.
That same year, the Three Stooges incorporated it into their short feature, Gents Without Cents. In this episode, the Stooges are out-of-work actors who meet three dancing girls in similar circumstances. They all get a job in a show, where they perform the routine. The Stooges marry the ladies and honeymoon in (where else?) Niagara Falls. This time, Curly is the Stooge who exclaims “Niagara Falls!” making himself the target of Moe and Larry’s wrath.
The venerable routine reappeared in an episode of I Love Lucy aired in 1952. Ricky needs both a ballerina and a comic to be in his floorshow at the Tropicana. Lucy, as usual, is clamoring to participate. He sends her to a ballet teacher. She klutzes it up, hurts her leg and hires someone to teach her a vaudeville routine instead. In a typical misunderstanding, Ethel tells Lucy that the show needs an emergency substitute performer. Lucy goes and performs a vaudeville routine in the ballet, walloping the dancers and causing general lunacy and mayhem.
This little skit, and its centerpiece phrase, have become so well known that its authorship would seem to be lost in the mists of time, like an old folk ballad.
Extensive research (i.e., Web-surfing) has revealed that comic Joey Faye claimed authorship of “Slowly I Turned” in its many formats. Born Joseph Palladino in 1909 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he appeared in burlesque and vaudeville shows, usually as a sidekick to the star, often Phil Silvers. He was in 36 Broadway shows, including Man of La Mancha as Sancho Panza, and dozens of movies. He had his own series, The Joey Faye Frolics, in 1950, and appeared as well in other television shows, such as The Real McCoys, Perry Mason and Maude. His most recent claim to fame was as the green grape in the Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials. He continued to work until well into his 80s and died in 1997.
Finally, the mystery has been solved. But people will continue to use the phrase at appropriate moments and enjoy its several film performances without knowing or caring about its source. It has become an acknowledged part of American popular culture, and that is a greater accomplishment than having your name appended to a bit of comic business.
[This article previously appeared in the Niagara Falls Reporter]