Stars of Vaudeville #96: Belle Baker

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Originally posted in 2009

A transplant from the Yiddish theatre of New York’s Lower East Side, Belle Baker combined an extraordinary talent with an honest ethnic sensibility that helped break the unpleasant stereotypes that were still in force then. Eddie Cantor called her “Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland all rolled into one.” Thanks largely to the fact that Irving Berlin supplied her with a lot of her songs, she is closely identified with many of the classics of the era. Certainly her powerful performances may be credited with making many of them hits.

Born Bella Becker on this day in 1893 of Russian Jewish parentage, she started singing at the Cannon Street Music Hall at age 11, where she was discovered by the great Yiddish Theatre manager Jacob Adler.  Adler didn’t have her in his company long. Producer Lew Leslie snatched her up and began to develop her talent with eye to presenting her in vaudeville (and later marrying her). At age 15 she made her debut in Scranton, Pennsylvania – presumably a nice quiet place to make mistakes. Her big time debut was at Hammerstein’s Victoria in 1911, where she was soundly and roundly panned, mostly for her choice of songs. Critic C.F. Zitell (who’d written one of the pans) took credit for helping her turn her act around be selecting some new material. In two years she was a headliner. And what was her big song? “Cohen Owes Me $97”

By 1917, she was a top New York City draw. She dumped Leslie the following year to marry songwriter Maurice Abraham, composer of such hits as “Hitchy Coo” and “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”. In 1925, Sophie Tucker gave her a song that had been sent her way. “My Yiddishe Mama” – the ultimate tearjerker – became Baker’s signature song. It was so popular that later, Tucker started doing it, too. In 1926 she starred in the Ziegfeld-produced show Betsy where she introduced the Irving Berlin classic “Blue Skies”. In 1932 she introduced the Gerald Marks number (often mistakenly attributed to Berlin) “All of Me”. In 1934, she performed at the London Palladium with Beatrice Lillie, and, while there, starred in the film Charring Cross Road. U.S. films included The Song of Love (1929) and Atlantic City (1944). Her last years, following Abraham’s death in 1937 and her marriage and divorce from one Elias H. Sugarman, were marked by increasing withdrawal from the world of show business. She “withdrew” permanently in 1957.

Here she is 1930 doing the classic, “You’ve Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”:

For more on consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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And don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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