Stars of Vaudeville #25: May Irwin

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MAY IRWIN, “Madame Laughter”

Mae Irwin spent her career alternating between the legit theatre and vaudeville, but her most lasting legacy is the fact that she is one of the first vaudevillians (make that one of the first people) preserved on celluloid, in the 1895 flicker The Kiss. The film captured her for a brief moment in her starring role in the show The Widow Jones. That was the whole film, just the kiss. Talk about cutting to the chase! And here it is:

Born in Whitby Canada in 1862, she started out singing in the church choir. She debuted with her sister in a straight show at the Adelphi Theatre in buffalo in 1876. The pair worked as coon shouters and toured the Midwest. Tony Pastor spotted them in Detroit and brought them back to work at his Metropolitan Theatre in New York the following year. In 1883, Mae was booked as member of Augustin Daly’s company, where she starred for many years. In 1907 she returned to vaudeville, capitalizing on her skill and reputation as a low comedian, and her commodious, matronly body. She continued to work both vaudeville and the legitimate stage until retirement in 1920.

Douglas Gilbert recounted one notable occasion when she stepped out of retirement, however. At age 70, she was called frantically and begged to substitute for a performer who’d gotten sick at a benefit show. At that point, Mae a wealthy old woman who’d been out of performing for well over a decade. She told three stories and sang a song called “The Bully” and brought the house down.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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6 Responses to “Stars of Vaudeville #25: May Irwin”

  1. [...] Stars of Vaudeville #25: Mae Irwin Mae Irwin spent her career alternating between the legit theatre and vaudeville, but her most lasting legacy is the fact that she is one of the first vaudevillians (make that one of the first people) preserved on celluloid, in the 1895 flicker The Kiss. The film captured her for a brief … [...]

  2. [...] sung by Eddie Cantor), “Play some Ragtime”, “Next to Your Mother, Who Do You Love?” For Mae Irwin, he wrote “My Wife [...]

  3. [...] and most prolific songwriter, penning tunes for the likes of Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Belle Baker, Mae Irwin, and Polly Moran. It’s not surprising then that he also became the songwriter most associated with [...]

  4. [...] for George’s songs, patter and sketches was so great he couldn’t supply them fast enough. Mae Irwin performed one called “Hot Tamale Alley”.By the following year, he was earning more than Josie, [...]

  5. [...] into a skeleton — worked with what she had. There had been many large women in vaudeville: Mae Irwin, Sophie Tucker, Blossom Seelie, Marie Dressler and Trixie Friganza to name just a few. They took [...]

  6. [...] trouble and expense. Women idolized Russell and many of his other famous female singing stars, like May Irwin, Fay Templeton and Blanche Ring. Of course Barnum had set the precedent with Jenny [...]

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