The Barrymores in Vaudeville (Especially Ethel!)

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 familyconsult 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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18 comments

  1. i was very interested in reading your information about vaudeville. I have recently been researching Prudence Gruelle, of the Raggedy Ann family, who I have dubbed the forgotten Gruelle. I have done that because I myself have had a difficult time researching Prudy as she was called and the reason I started was because she was a neighbor/friend of my grandmother and my mother in Florida in the 1940’s. My parents and siblings, before I was born went back to Ohio after a hurricane scared my father so bad he said that’s it, “back to Cincinnati”so back to Cincinnati they went about 1948 I believe. My grandmother became ill in Florida and my mother went to get her to move her to Cincinnati with us and I am not exactly sure of the time but Prudence Gruelle painted two paintings for my mom and grandma; one, a Florida scene of Palm trees, the beach, and the ocean with a boat in the distance was for my grandmother I assume and the other, a midwestern winter scene was painted for my mother. I still have those paintings and Prudy just signed Gruelle, she lived close according to my oldest sister who knew her. Searching for information about Prudence has been difficult even though one of the most told stories about the original doll that Raggedy Ann came from was a doll that belonged to Prudence as a little girl that her mother had made for her. Prudence also was married to Albert Matzke, a n artist that belonged to the Silvermine group of artists that included her brothers, Johnny and Justin, their father also I believe. I found that Prudence was in Vaudeville in an old newspaper; one I found she was called “The singing cartoonist” and the other article I have seen she went by the name of Prudence Grue which I found as interesting since some of the comics her brother did were signed the same way and although you do not hear much of her from what I have found in the 1920 census when she was married to Leonard Brown she had an occupation as an artist for a news service, doing a serial for the news service; Cartoons I am sure but I wonder if they were even done under her own name; perhaps not, perhaps, some people just think all the comic strips were done by Johnny, her brother, or perhaps she helped, as she did when Raggedy Ann first came to be and she and Justin and the entire Gruelle family were hand sewing the dolls. I am really interested in finding out more of Prudence Gruelle on the vaudeville circuit if someone would know where to search. I am having even a difficult time finding a photo of poor Prudence unless she is in my grandmother’s unmarked photos. I believe Prudence is a very interesting character that not enough has been written about for sure and she should not be forgotten so remember if you see anything about the Singing Cartoonist on the vaudeville circuit it could be and most probably is Prudence Gruelle, gone but I hope for her not to be forgotten. She actually made huge dolls for me and my siblings in the very early 50’s and we received them after my mother rmade a vacation trip to florida. Prudence and my family lived in the Dade Co. area during the Florida land boom of the 1930’s and 40’s.

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    • Prudence Gruelle rented an apartment from my sister and brother in law on Santillane Ave. in Coral Gables, FL in the 50s. I have 2 charming little winter scenes in oil that are signed by her and given to my sister. I was trying to find out more when I found your post.

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      • Wow,that must have lived close to my grandmother and my parents. My parents had two little girls and then my brother was born there but because of a hurricane my father wanted to go back north. I have so many photos of that area during the times; my grandmother loved to take photos so I have photos of their cottage they built and it looks so nice. Is the winter scene that you have a miniature because she gave my sister one of those in watercolors that is small and then she gave my mother a midwest looking scene named, A Winter Wonderland and also a Florida scene with a Palm Tree and a small sail boat in the distance and that is titled, “A Perfect Day”. They are both signed too. My sister always said they lived close to her but that was in the 40’s so I do not know if it would be the same place or not. I do know that I just recently saw that someone else has a painting with the same name as the one I have so she may have given a few of us A Winter Wonderland or A Perfect Day. I do believe I saw paintings her father did in a museum and one or both names she used was used as a title of one of his. A relative of hers is going to write a book and try to give Prudy more exposure then you really see. I have researched her and she must have been something. She was a singing cartoonist during Vaudeville, she wrote the good night stories in a serialized newspaper colum or one of the writers anyway. I have found quite a few and have read them. Her relative feels that she is the one that is lacking in receiving any type of credit since she had such famous brothers and father. I am going to give him my info to help in any way I can. My mother and my sister always talked about her and what a wonderful lady she was. It seems she must have given her paintings to people she cared about. It was not long after we got the biggeer paintings that my grandmother left this world and they have hung in every home I have ever lived in. She also made raggedy ann dolls for me and my other sister. I am sure if possible her relative would be happy to include any info or maybe photos of our paintings in his book. She does deserve some recognition. I found a vaudeville bill and she was listed on it with Sid Chaplain.

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    • I have been doing some geneology research for a resident at the assisted living where i work. Her name is Murielee Brown Kurtze, the daughter of prudence and Leonard. She just celebrated her 90th birthday last week. I so hope you are still active to this site and will reply! You will have all of your questions answered! Look forward to hearing from you!

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      • O.K. now this was meant to be as her relative mentioned trying to contact her but to no avail. Did she go by Lee by any chance and live in New York? I have talked to one of Prudence’s daughters a few years back. I will definitely attempt to contact Bill because I know he wants to put more about Prudence out and that would be so nice that all of us could help him. It seems Prudence has touched us all without even knowing it. My sister adored her. I hope Murielee Brown is still healthy. It is funny because my maiden name translates to Kurtze. I hope we can keep in touch. Please email me or I will keep looking for comments.

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      • Sorry to write again but I have already been doing research on the family myself for quite awhile myself on the Gruelle family or at least where it relates to Prudence. I hope we can all get Bill to contact you or you can contact him with info and maybe Murielee would like to add something about her mother to a book being written. this is a very nice man that thinks a lot of the Gruelle family also; he was closer to Justin then the others but still feels pretty much the same about them all.
        RJ
        Cinti

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  2. […] * Another special treat was some VERY early comedies by the likes of John Bunny and Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Drew. These are comedians who were popular before Keystone even came on the scene. Bunny was the first American comedy star (a sort of Yankee Falstaff), and the Drews were the aunt and uncle of the three Barrymores. […]

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  3. i saw rose marie on utube and i could not believe her voice
    at 6 and 7 years old i got to following her on utube and i think
    at the age she was then the most talented person i have ever heard

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