Stars of Vaudeville #552: Johnny Wild
Today is the birthday of Johnny Wild (1843-1898). Born in Manchester, England he moved to the U.S. as a child, running off to join the fly-by-night Arlington and White’s Minstrels at the age of 14. For the next few years he learned the ropes at a number of circuses and variety houses in New York city and the upstate region. By 1863 he was an end man with Carncross and Dixey’s Minstrels. Next he formed a team with his wife Blanche Stanley and worked for Tony Pastor and other variety producers.
In the mid 187os he started at the Theatre Comique and became a core member of Harrigan and Hart’s stock company. Here he formed a loose team with Billy Gray (Cornelius O’Donnell, 1844-1882). Billed as Wild and Gray, the two were prized for their more nuanced, three-dimensional delineations of black characters, and so interacted beautifully together. Wild’s most popular character was Simpson Primrose, a barber whose dignity prevented him from knuckling under to to society’s demands for black subserviance. He also specialized in “Kingfish” type “town negroes”, diamond-stud-wearing gambling dudes with an eye for the main chance. (By contrast, Gray’s most popular character was a minister, the Reverend Palestine Puter).
After Gray’s early death, Wild stayed on with Harrigan and Hart (and after Hart left in ’85, he stayed with Harrigan for a few years.) In the 90s he had a popular show called Running Wild and worked vaudeville as a solo. He has been called vaudeville’s first tramp comedian. He had just undertaken a vaudeville tour with his old H & H colleagues Annie Yeamans and Dan Collyer when he died in 1898.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.