Bill Briscoe (1886-1949) began his career as a comic acrobat in a team known as Wild and West, which toured internationally.
He and Frank Crossley (ca. 1882-ca. 1942), both from Lancashire, England, developed a carpenter slapstick act as Willie West & McGinty (no comma) around 1900, while en route to perform a gymnast act in Australia, discarding that form in favor of acrobatic comedy. Willie West was played by Briscoe, who later went by the name William, Willie, Bill, or Billy West, Sr.
A third unidentified member joined the original two in the role of Mr. Willie while they were still in Lancashire, and the comma was added to the act's name from that time on, though irregularly. This third role was played by Rue Corré from around 1923, prior to their immigration to the U.S.; he also was from Lancashire.
The trio moved to the U.S. under the auspices of Florenz Ziegfeld for the Follies of 1923. They performed a skillfully choreographed clumsy carpenter act in worn work clothing, with props including tools, boards, pails, and a ladder. Their routine emphasized physical slapstick rather than verbal exchange.
The key to the act was timing, whereby a series of disasters often of a sequential nature (like elaborately falling patterns of dominoes or what used to be called a Rube Goldberg effect) and involving water, planks and various construction materials. After each disaster, some large and some small, the performers would simply go back to work and precipate the next catastrophe. Each performance carried with it a risk of serious injury and constant replenishment of the building materials used up in the previous performance. The act was done deadpan, with the characters interacting without regard for the audience.
The group continued to be successful through the Depression, touring in London and elsewhere in Europe in the late 1930s, as well as in Australia and South Africa. They appeared in several films (both short and feature-length) in the 1930s, beginning with "Plastered" in 1930.
Willie, West & McGinty carried on with second-generation members into the 1950s, and appeared on television, including The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951. Billy West, Jr. (1909-1971) joined the act in 1929 at age 19, and replaced his father in later years. Frank Crossley's son, Frank Crossley, Jr. (ca. 1910 - ca. 1997) replaced his father as Ted McGinty. Ted Corradine (ca. 1896-1975), also from Lancashire, became McGinty in the early 1940s. Donald Keith was playing the third role by 1958. The act was not seriously impacted by the decline of vaudeville because it was considered so surefire and so classic that it continued into television, specialty shows at the Palace Theatre with Judy Garland, World's Fairs, Aquacades and various other venues.
Watch a sample of Willie, West and McGinty doing their famous act in the movie The Big Broadcast of 1938:
Here is their one short Paramount comedy special film from 1930 called Plastered.
Tobacco pipes (2)
Poster - "Willie, West & McGinty", 1940s (George A. Hamid and Son)
(stored in Box 23, Posters and Oversize Items)