Frank Shuster

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The Independent Online

Frank Shuster, comedian and writer: born Toronto, Ontario 5 September 1916; OC 1997; married (one son, one daughter); died Toronto 13 January 2002.

"Hey, bartender – gimme a dry Martinus."

"Don't you mean dry Martini?"

"When I want two, I'll ask for 'em!"

This exchange, from a Dragnet-influenced sketch set in ancient Rome, neatly represents the off-beat style of Wayne and Shuster, "The Kings of Canadian Comedy", who performed together for more than 50 years. Frank Shuster once said, "We clicked as a team because we have opposite senses of humour. Johnny's style is very broad, and mine is subtle. He overplays, I underplay, and we meet halfway."

While in high school in Toronto, Shuster met Johnny Wayne, another teenage, Toronto-born student, and they soon formed a double act. They later graduated from the University of Toronto together, and began broadcasting on Canadian radio in 1941. During the Second World War, they made their name with the CBC series The Army Show. They entertained the armed forces in Canada and abroad, putting on the first stage show seen in Normandy after the D-Day invasion.

The team continued to perform for Canadian audiences after the war. In 1950 they successfully managed the move from radio to television, but longed to break into the American market. To the rescue came Ed Sullivan, who brought them to New York to appear on his prime-time Sunday-night variety show.

They performed, in Roman garb, "Rinse the Blood Off My Toga", their "Julius Caesar-meets-Dragnet" sketch. When Caesar's chief assassin escapes and hides in the temple, the avenging Mark Antony shouts to him "OK, Brutus – we know you're in there! Surrender or we'll smoke you out. We'll throw incense!" Another choice line in the sketch was the laconic "She was a vestal virgin, but she wasn't a fanatic about it". Over the years, Sullivan invited the team back to his show no fewer than 66 times.

During the Korean War the team again travelled abroad to perform for the troops. In 1961, they departed briefly from sketch comedy to co-star in CBS's short-lived sitcom Holiday Lodge. They came to Britain three times in the 1960s to make special television shows. On their second visit, in 1965, their BBC1 programmes also featured Una Stubbs and the Dudley Moore Trio.

Their second American series was CBS's Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look At . . . (1966), in which the two Canadians saluted some of their favourite American comedians. Wayne and Shuster supplied the material linking film clips of the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, George Burns, Hope and Crosby and W.C. Fields. In 1983-84, Wayne and Shuster, a 26-week series, compiled from their 1960s Canadian shows, was seen in the UK on Channel 4.

Johnny Wayne died in 1990. In 1997 Shuster was made an officer of the Order of Canada. In 2000 the team were inducted into the Canadian Comedy Hall of Fame.

Dick Vosburgh

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