Gallagher and Shean and the Most Popular Song in Vaudeville

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

May 12 is the birthday of Al Shean.


Gallagher and Shean were one of the most famous teams in the history of vaudeville and all on the strength of a single song, “Absolutely, Mr. Gallagher, Positively Mr. Shean”.

SHEAN: Oh, Mr. Gallagher, oh Mr. Gallagher.

In New York the girls are wearing such alluring styles.

At 42nd and Broadway

You could find me every day

I used to follow them for miles and miles.

GALLAGHER:Oh, Mr. Shean, Oh, Mr. Shean.

Here in Egypt they have styles I’ve never seen;

All up and down the Nile

The girls wear nothing but a smile.

SHEAN: That’s why I’m here, Mr. Gallagher!

GALLAGHER: That’s why I’m here, Mr. Shean!

The song was introduced in 1921 in the sketch “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean in Egypt” so it was always done thereafter with the actors wearing fezes in front of a pyramid backdrop, though that became a non sequiter subsequently. The original version of the song was reportedly written by Bryan Foy of the 7 Little Foys in 1921 when Gallagher & Shean and the Foys were performing on the same bill at Keith’s Indianapolis. But the roots of the song go far deeper, back to minstrelsy, where there was a rich tradition of such back-and-forth two-man songs.

SHEAN: Oh, Mr. Gallagher. Oh Mr. Gallagher.

There was a tiny baby born last night.

It was just as black as ink

and weighed half a pound I think

How can a baby be so dark and yet so light?

GALLAGHER: Oh, Mr. Shean, Oh Mr. Shean!

That’s the funniest color scheme I’ve ever seen!

I know a hen that’s black as night,

She can lay an egg that’s white!

SHEAN: Oh, that’s nothing, Mr. Gallagher!

GALLAGHER: Can YOU do it, Mr. Shean?

In the best folk song tradition (like “Yankee Doodle” or “La Cucaracha” ) the Gallagher and Shean song has hundreds of different versions, most of which are lost to history. The song was never repeated the same way twice, but constantly tailored to reflect current events, which helps explain its longevity.

SHEAN: Oh, Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Gallagher

Women’s rights is turning out be a joke.

They’ve been given the right to vote

But doesn’t it get your goat

In public places they now demand the right to smoke.

GALLAGHER: Oh, Mr. Shean, Why Mr. Shean.

They also love to gamble on the green.

Why they indulge in games of chance

Where you can lose your shirt and pants.

SHEAN: I’m speaking of women, Mr. Gallagher—

GALLAGHER: That makes no difference, Mr. Shean!

The team was actually together for only a short time. Their relationship was acromonious, and in fact was the basis of the more bilious aspects of Neil Simon’s Sunshine Boys. In reality, Gallagher and Shean were apart far more than they were together.

Abraham Alreser Schoenberg (Al Shean, b. 1868) had been a messenger, pants presser, and butcher boy before forming the Manhattan Quartette in 1888 with Charley Harris, George Brennan and Sam Curtis. The team played Bowery music halls and had at least one engagement at at Tony Pastor’s 14th Street. After a few years of this, he found some legit work. In 1891 he was cast in Apple Orchard Farm, at the Windsor Theatre, which closed after two weeks. His next show The County Fair gave him a run of three years. From 1895-1900 he was in the Manhattan Comedy Four with Sam Curtis, Arthur Williams and Ed Mack of Harrigan and Hart’s old troup. The group sang songs like “Sweet Molly Moran” and “After the Ball” in four part harmony and did comedy sketches, many of them written by Shean. The team was big time and toured the country, but Shean left to from a partnership with Charles L. Warner, with whom he performed through 1904.

Ed Gallagher was primarily a straight man (known as one of the best in the business), and worked in sketch comedy with a man named Joe Barret for 15 years. Gallagher and Shean first worked together in the operetta The Rose Maid in 1912. They then teamed up and worked together until 1914, when they split up the first time. They did not speak to each other for six years. No one knows why.  In 1920, Al Shean’s sister Minnie Marx (the Marx Brothers’ mother, and a capital instigator) convinced them to team up again. They debuted their hit song soon thereafter and rode it to great fame, but only for four years. The team broke up a second time in 1925 while touring with The Greenwich Village Follies. Gallagher went on to form an act with “Mademoiselle” Fifi D’Orsay, with whom he performed for two years. Gallagher’s growing alcohol problem began to overtake him by this point, and he dies in a sanitarium in 1929. Al Shean had a long solo career in vaudeville and movies through the 30s and 40s, and passed way in 1949. The song that they made famous continues to live and breath, and often pops up with entirely new lyrics in entirely new contexts. A relatively recent example can be found in the Tom Stoppard play Travesties. But scratchy old recordings of the real McCoy can still be heard today. Just take a look on Youtube!

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, and important vaudeville teams like Gallagher and Shean, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.


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