Barrymores aren’t just Barrymores, but come with a whole tangle of Drews and Rankins, making them as close to an old-fashioned aristocracy as we get in this country, barring perhaps the Rockefellers. The Barrymores and their various relations have been in the public eye for 150 years. Drew Barrymore, the latest in the line, continues to have a steady hand on the till, despite having the ghosts of 50 distinguished ancestors looking over her shoulder every performance. Among them:
Maurice (the father of Ethel, John and Lionel), was the first important American legitimate star to appear in vaudeville (as opposed to variety, where all sorts of hams ran around). No doubt for financial reasons, he first stepped onto a vaudeville stage in 1896. One of the great actors of his generation, by the turn of the century he was in an alcohol-induced decline, culminating in an onstage breakdown on the stage of Lion Palace Vaudeville Hall. His son, John, who was in the audience, was put in the harrowing position of having to escort him to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital.
Of the next generation, Ethel was the first to take up the family business. In her autobiography, she reports having no say in the matter. The family needed money so she was drafted for a small part in 1894 under the direction of Charles Frohman (who later died on the Lusitania). She never took a lesson, but her inherited genius was immediately apparent. Her first star turn was in the 1901 Clyde Fitch vehicle Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines at the Garrick Theatre.
Each of her brothers were reluctant actors as well. Both were excellent visual artists. Lionel thought he might like to try scenic design, but his grandmother Mrs. John Drew insisted, so he made his debut in 1900, in a show called Sag Harbor. John, the youngest was actually a successful cartoonist for the N.Y. Evening Journal. He debuted in a 1903 Clyde Fitch vehicle called Glad of It. Soon he was one of New York’s favorite comic actors.
In 1910, Lionel toured vaudeville with a sketch called The White Slave, accompanied by his wife Doris Rankin, and his uncle and aunt Sidney Drew and Gladys Rankin (Doris’s sister). Talk about all in the family! The Drews would go on to become some of the first movie stars, and Lionel was not far behind them. John also toured vaudeville briefly, with two sketches “The Honeymoon” and “His Wedding Morn.”
Ethel was the holdout. She was a big star, of course, and there was residual snobbery from the variety days about vaudeville. But when Sarah Bernhardt was signed of the Palace at the salary of $7000 a week, Ethel’s mind changed very quickly. She debuted during the Palace’s first season with a one act called Miss Civilization. Later that year she debuted The Twelve Pound Look by Peter Pan author James Barrie. She broke all sorts of records at the Palace for these performances. In 1914, she tried another one act called Drifted Apart but it didn’t click. From then on in, for the next 25 years, The Twelve Pound Look was to be her mealticket. When she didn’t have another project lined up, she would simply go back to vaudeville with The Twelve Pound Look.
Of her time in vaudeville, she wrote:
It was demanding — but very rewarding. I learned so much watching the other artists. I found out that you have to be awfully good in vaudeville. It is a real taskmaster because there are so many acts in it, like slack-wire artists, for instance, that require absolute perfection.
As if to prove every prejudice about vaudeville, backstage at the Palace Milton Berle once placed his hand on Ethel Barrymore’s ass. In his autobiography, he claims it was an accident. If it was, it was against character!
The three siblings went on to distinguish themselves many times over on stage, screen and the airwaves in careers that took the Barrymore dynasty to the middle of the twentieth-century.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, including the Barrymore family, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.