Archive for November, 2009

The Cherry Sisters: The Worst Act in Vaudeville

Posted in AMERICANA, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on November 30, 2009 by travsd

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As far I know, it’s none of their birthdays today, but I’m posting this anyway!

The cruelty underlying the appeal of this act makes it closer to gladiatorial spectacle in conception than to vaudeville. The Cherry Sisters were so awful it was like a car wreck. The difference between them and Fred Allen , who’d billed himself as “The World’s Worst Juggler”, was a complete lack of self awareness. There were five Cherry Sisters: Effie, Addie, Ella, Jessie and Lizzie. Singers without charm or wit, they stood there, sang off key, and were under the mistaken impression that they were actually quite good. [“It would not be too far off the mark, “ wrote one of them,” to say we were one of the best.”]

The appeal of the act appears to have been much akin to the appeal of screening an Ed Wood film today. The difference is the poor Cherry Sisters were live and in person to absorb the abuse of the audience, which not only hooted, howled and hissed, but threw vegetables at them.

A review from the Des Moines Leader was not sparing in its bile:

Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between a danse du ventre and fox-trot—strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mein. Effie is spavined, Addie is string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.

The girls hailed from Marion, Iowa. They started performing to raise funds so that they could attend the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. An enterprising and cynical genius spotted them and realized he could make an act out of it. As such, it was way ahead of its time. It was another 90 years, for example, before David Letterman would present Larry “Bud” Melman. The Cherry Sisters began to be booked throughout the mid-west. Oscar Hammerstein, having read about them in reviews like the one above quoted, brought them to the Victoria, knowing that a sophisticated and, well, cruel New York audience would especially relish this sort of entertainment.

The act the Cherries brought to New York was called “Something Good, Something Sad”. They never knew just how sad.

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The act consisted of moral melodrama, bad singing, and inept comic turns. In addition to being  terrible performers, they also seem to have been rotten human beings, meddlesome Puritans of the worst kind, who couldn’t refrain from disparaging anything pleasurable, such as, oh, every other act in vaudeville. They had a particular animus for Mae West, who got her revenge by badmouthing them in one of her pictures. Their repertoire included a song called “My First Cigar” (a cautionary tale), another one called “Fair Columbia” (in which the singer was draped in a flag), and a tableux called “Clinging to the Cross” in which one of them, dressed as Jesus, was crucified. And then there was their theme song. Dressed as Salvation Army ladies, they banged a drum, rattled a tamborine and sang:

Cherries ripe, boom-de-ay!

Cherries red, boom de-ay!

The Cherry sisters have come to stay!

Hammerstein actually encouraged the audience to throw vegetables at them, explaining to the girls that the other acts, jealous, had hired them to do that. The Cherries were sold out in New York for ten weeks, rescuing Hammerstein’s other theatre the Olympia, from bankruptcy. They then embarked on a highly successful national tour.

By the time the youngest sister Jessie died in 1903, the girls had amassed a quarter of a millon dollars, with which they retired to their farm in Iowa. Comebacks were attempted but the Cherries’ moment was over. (The take of their first night back on the boards was $7). As late as 1935 Addie and Effie, the only ones remaining, attempted yet another comeback. Addie was well into her 80s, Effie was pushing 70. Given how bad they were when they were young, the mind reels, and the heart bleeds, at an idea of what that spectacle was like.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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RUTH ETTING, “SWEETHEART OF SONG

Posted in Hollywood (History), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2009 by travsd

For this reporter, Ruth Etting is the first of the Bland Bombshells, representing the advent of legions of non-descript performers who were to inhabit American popular culture in the 1940s and 50s. Her saving grace is a voice that is to die for, warm, pleasant and likable, and, on record at least, that is all that matters. She sounded like, and looked like, the girl next door, which of course is the origin of her vaudeville handle. The essence of vaudeville prior to this, however, had been the colorful, individual character. Costumed, distinctive, and, yes, mannered. Posh or earthy, the mere mention of the name conjured up a personality: Nora Bayes, Eva Tanguay, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Beatrice Lillie…to name just a few. Henceforth, it was to become an industry where a pretty girl could get up onstage, smile ingratiatingly, and just sing. She might have the best voice in the world…but without that indispensable persona, we would forget about her the instant she walked off the stage. She was disposable.

This seems like a lot of heavy freight to lay at Ruth Etting’s feet, and Ms. Etting, wherever you are, I apologize. By all accounts she had no great designs on stardom, but would have been happy to continue on in the career she studied for in the late teens at the Chicago Art Institute: costume design. She started singing to earn a little money and soon became the principal project of one Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster who became her manager and husband in 1922. (What is it with girl singers and these gangsters, anyway?) She became huge in Chicago before ever setting for in New York, playing the best vaudeville and nightclub jobs, performing on local radio, and starting to cut disks. Her Columbia hits included  “It All Depends On You” “Everybody Loves My Baby” “Mean to Me”,and many others.

Her New York debut was a 1927 job fronting Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra at the Paramount Theatre. In the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies she introduced another hit “Shaking the Blues Away”. The following year she appeared in both Eddie Cantor’s Whoopie! and Ed Wynn’s Simple Simon. While continuing to appear on stage, she went into films in the thirties, such as Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals (1933), and Hip Hip Hooray (1934), Gift of Gab (34) and 30 shorts for Paramount and Warner Brothers.

In 1936, she retired, further proof that she never had the mania for stardom to begin with. The following year divorced her husband/manager for her piano player Myrl Alderman – who soon found himself shot full of holes. You shouldn’t oughtta cross Moe the Gimp. This juicy story was made into a 1954 film, called Love Me or Leave Me starring Doris Day and James Cagney (for once, intelligent casting in a Hollywood bio-pic).

[Note: in addition to being Miss Etting’s birthday today, it is also the birthday of “fourth Stooge” Fred Sanborn. Check out the movie Soup to Nuts, which in addition to being entertaining, is a major revelation. We get to enjoy Ted Healy along with Moe, Larry and Shemp…and a fourth Stooge, Fred Sanborn who is a sort of Harpo-like figure, silent (but for unheard whispers), weaving in and out of the plot doing purely visual shtick. We should have seen more of him!]

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Moran and Mack: “THE TWO BLACK CROWS”

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2009 by travsd

Moran and Mack have the dubious distinction of being the last major blackface team to work in vaudeville. As a boast, that’s sort of like putting “Kappelmeister to the Fuhrer” on your C.V.

Mack had been a stage electrician who told jokes all the time. Alexander Pantages suggested he go on stage. one night he was on the same bill as Garvin and Moran, and – just like that — Mack stole Moran.

Using the formula established by McIntyre and Heath, Mack was the slow witted comical one; Moran, was the straightman, always frustrated by his partner’s stupidity.

MACK: Wish I had a thousand ice cold watermelons.

MORAN: Glory be. I bet if you had a thousand ice cold watermelons, you’d give me one.

MACK: Oh, naw! No, siree. If you are too lazy to wish for your own watermelon, you ain’t gona get none of mine!

Oh, git along, now, you two!

The team had great success in vaudeville and in revues such as the 1917 Over the Top, Ziegfeld Follies, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and The Greenwich Village Follies. In 1927 they recorded their sketch “The Early Bird Catches the Worm” on Columbia records, and it was nationwide smash that boosted their success even more. The team was featured in the 1928 Paramount film Why Bring That Up?

A dispute arose when Mack, who owned the act, refused to give Moran more than a tiny share of the take. Moran quit and another comedian was brought in (though still billed as Moran). This version of the team did 1930 film called Anybody’s War. The film did poorly, so Moran was re-hired at a high salary and the team resumed touring the RKO circuit.

The team also did the 1932 Mack Sennett  feature Hypnotized. They were discussing a deal to do a series of shorts with Sennett in 1934, when tragedy struck. The three men were driving to New York together when they were involved in an accident that killed Mack. Moran continued to perform but there was an ever decreasing market for his work.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Eleanor Powell: Hard Worker

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2009 by travsd

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Dancer/ performer Eleanor Powell (1912-1982) paired off with the best of them (EbsenAstaireBolger) but always worked best when in the solo spotlight. Her intense individualism explains how she got into dancing in the first place: her parents put her in ballet lessons to help her get over her shyness. She started out performing in Gus Edwards revues in Atlantic City as a child. Edwards convinced her parents to allow her to travel with the act to New York. For the engagement, she applied herself with rare, almost masochistic rigour (e.g., tying sandbags to her feet) to learn tap. Scouts spotted her and cast her in the 1929 show Follow Through, which was where her career truly took off. Subsequent Broadway shows included Fine and DandyHot Cha, and George White’s Scandals. She broke into films with Broadway Melody of 1936, and continued with Born to Dance (1936), Honolulu (1939), Lady Be Good (1941), Ship Ahoy (1942) and the Red Skelton vehicle I Dood It (1943). In 1939 she did a brief tour of what was left of vaudeville, dancing and doing impressions of Kathryn Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart. In 1943, she retired to marry actor Glen Ford. She played the role of housewife and mother until an acrimonious divorce in 1959, shortly after which she made a brief comeback, performing at night clubs in Las Vegas.

 

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

Frank Fay: The Comedian Who Inspired Hatred

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2009 by travsd

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“Of all the great vaudevillians, I admired Frank the most”James Cagney.

Almost all of the great comedians speak with reverence about Frank Fay. He originated the stand-up comedy style we associate with Hope, Benny, Carson, Leno and Letterman, the extremely polished “American Institution” style, an unspoken confidence that says “an army of people made me possible.” You might call such performers “comc laureates”, almost branches of the U.S. government. As opposed to the more burlesquey Milton BerleHenny YoungmanRodney Dangerfield approach, these are not men who take or deliver a pie in the face, cross their eyes, or say “take my wife, please”. What they do is tell America the jokes they will repeat around the water cooler at work the next day. While there was no t.v. in Fay’s heyday, he was the king of the Palace, the flagship theatre of the top vaudeville chain in the nation.

There was much to set Fay apart. Unlike most vaudevillians, Fay was no populist. He cultivated the aloof arrogance of the aristocrat – his trademark was the barbed put-down delivered on the spot with dependable lethalness. That is what audiences prized him for.

He was charming, dashing, and impeccably dressed, with a broad handsome Irish face something like the actor Ralph Fiennes’. He had a very distinctive, swishy style of walking that was almost effeminate, but it was so effective that both Bob Hope and Jack Benny emulated it to their dying day.

He generally finished his act with a sardonic version of “Tea for Two”, wherein he would stop every few bars in order to tear the song apart:

Tea for two, and two for tea (spoken: ) Ain’t that rich! Here’s a guy that has enough tea for two. So he’s going to have tea for two. I notice that he doesn’t say a word about sugar!

Well, it ain’t exactly Duck Soup, but with his wavy hair, straight teeth and twinkling eyes, one gets the feeling that Fay sold his jokes through charm.

He was born in San Fransisco in 1897 to vaudevillian parents. He played his first part at age three in a Chicago production of Quo Vadis? His first vaudeville act was the team of Dyer and Fay, but it must have been pretty awful: Fay later downplayed his involvement with it. By 1918 he had established himself as a monologist, and by 1919 he played the Palace. “The Great Faysie”, as he styled himself, was appallingly successful on the vaudeville stage. To play the Palace – at all — was the very highest aspiration of most vaudevillians. A select handful ran a week there. In 1925, Fay ran ten weeks. So he might be a little forgiven if it went to his head.

But there is something to the old adage that what lives longest are not words but deeds. Today Frank Fay lives on in the recorded memory as a notorious S.O.B. and a mean drunk, with nary a kind anecdotal word from anyone who knew him. Milton Berle once said, “Fay’s friends could be counted on the missing arm of a one-armed man.”

An early example of the arrogance that was to overshadow his reputation throughout his career occurred at this early stage. In the incident, which became notorious throughout theatrical circles, Fay let the audience wait several minutes while he struggled to tie his tie in the dressing room. “Let ‘em wait!” he apparently snapped at the stage manager, establishing a tradition that would not be revived until rock and roll was invented forty years later.

Fay didn’t go in for slapstick. He used to taunt Bert Lahr by saying  “Well, well, well, what’s the low comedian doing today?” Fay’s bag was verbal wit, and he pulled no punches, offtstage or on. To Berle’s challenge to a battle of wits on one occasion, Fay famously said, “I never attack an unarmed man.”

Apparently, Fay had one of those smirking faces that’s just itching to be smacked. On one occasion, he attempted to humiliate Bert Wheeler by dragging him onto the stage unprepared, and firing off a bunch of unrehearsed lines at him to which he was supposed to attempt rejoinders. Tired of such treatment, Wheeler unnerved him by remaining silent the whole time. when Fay finally cracked and said “What’s the matter? Why don’t you say something?” Wheeler said “You call these laughs? I can top these titters without saying a word” and smacked him on the face – to howls from the audience. Some run-ins were far less light-hearted. Milton Berle recalled having watched Fay perform backstage from the wings, which is a real no-no with some performers. Berle heard him say “get that little Jew bastard out of the wings” and something about “that little kike”, so (according to him) he grabbed a stage brace and busted open Fay’s nose with it. Lou Clayton also let him have it across the jaw for his smart mouth.

Even when Fay meant to be nice he was rotten. Introducing Edgar Bergen for his first Palace date, he said: “The next young man never played here before, so let’s be nice to him.” As any performer can tell you, such an introduction is patronizing at best, sabotage at worst.

Bastard or not, Fay’s vaudeville success led to several Broadway shows during the years 1918-33. He even wrote and produced two starring vehicles for himself (a la Ed Wynn): Frank Fay’s Fables (1922) and Tattle Tales (1933).

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

Through his friend Oscar Levant, Fay met and married Barbara Stanwyck, then a young chorus girl who’d just gotten her first starring part in a Broadway show (Burlesque, 1927) In 1929 they did a dramatic sketch, as “Fay and Stanwyck” at the Palace. Later that year, they were called to Hollywood, so Frank could star in the film Show of Shows. Fay and Stanwyck’s marriage and their experience in Hollywood later became the basis of a Hollywood movie – A Star is Born.

In Hollywood, as everywhere he went, Fay did not make a lot of friends. A standard joke of the time went “who’s got the biggest prick in Hollywood?” Answer: Barbara Stanwyck. The womanizing, alcoholic Fay’s career floundered, while Stanwyck’s flourished for decades. In 1935 the two were divorced, and Fay continued his downward spiral, until 1944, when he was chosen to play Elwood P. Dowd in the original Broadway production  of Harvey.

Fred Allen said: “The last time I saw Frank Fay he was walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand.” He passed away in 1961, a humbler, and, one hopes, a wiser man.

Here he is, wearing a great deal of make-up, singing “Your Love is All I Crave” in 1929:

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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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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Walker and Williams: Greatest African American Vaudeville Team

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy Teams, Dance, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by travsd

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Today is Bert Williams’ birthday.

George Walker and Bert Williams are important figures not only in show business history, but American cultural history, as well. Williams, the more gifted and longer-living of the two, was the Jackie Robinson of American show business, and in his theme-song “Nobody” (lyrics by Alex Rogers), left the world with a standard that’s still being covered today (e.g. by Johnny Cash on his American III: Solitary Man album).

When life seems full of clouds and rain

And I am full of nothin but pain,

Who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain? Nobody!

When winter comes with snow and sleet

And me with hunger and cold feet,

Who says, “Here’s 25 cents, go and get something to eat?” – Nobody

The supreme irony is that while Williams is the most famous black man to come out of vaudeville (apart from Bill Robinson), he was by ancestry mostly Caucasian. His paternal grandfather was the Dutch Consul in Antigua, West Indies. His paternal grandmother and his mother were both quadroons—one quarter black. This would make Williams something like 3/16 African, but in the racist world that he was to inherit, that was enough to make his life a supreme challenge.

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He was born Egbert Austin Williams in the year 1874. In 1885, the family moved to California. As a teenager, Williams hoped to go to Stanford University. He became an entertainer to raise money to pay for his tuition. Because he had no experience, theatres wouldn’t book him. He started out in the rough-and-tumble world of Barbary Coast saloons instead, where his poise, dignity and class were only handicaps. An 1893 tour of lumber camps where he performed skits and songs fared hardly better. In these years, he gradually had the horrifying revelation that he was the victim of the racist expectations of the audience and that, in order to be a success, he would have to stoop to portraying the sort of low stereotype that white people expected. While Williams was light-complexioned, African features predominated – to the audience he was a “black man”, and in America, “black men” behaved a certain way. The problem was that Williams was well-educated, upper middle-class, and sophisticated. To make a success in show business, he actually had to struggle to learn what was to him an alien dialect and mannerisms.

In these early years, Williams displayed few of the gifts for which he was later distinguished, was no great shakes as a singer, dancer, musician (he played banjo) or comedian, yet his high intelligence managed to carry him through. With his evolving new “darky” persona (which undoubtedly galled him), he started getting his first decent bookings, first a few months at the San Francisco Museum, then with Martin and Seig’s Mastodon Minstrels.

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It is at this early and embryonic juncture that Williams met George Walker, who was a year younger than Bert, but already a veteran of minstrel and medicine shows. The two hit it off and worked up an act. George sang a song “See Yer Colored Man”, while Bert played banjo. Bert was the straight man in their first crude comedy routines. For nearly two years (1893-95) the two performed their songs and skits at Jack Halahan’s Cramorne Theatre (later known as the Midway Plaisance.)

When the pair heard about a successful show in Chicago called The Octoroon that was hiring black performers, they decided to take their chances and move there in hopes they could bluff their way in. Their plan was to work their way east with a traveling medicine show. The scheme was rudely interrupted in Texas by a lynch mob, however, who were offended by Walker and Williams’ flashy, expensive clothes (which, by the way, were a professional necessity for vaudevillians). The mob tore off their clothes and gave them burlap sacks to wear. The good “doctors” of the medicine show did not defend them, and so they were left naked and penniless to make their way to the next town. How they managed to do so is not recorded for posterity. After this incident, the boys vowed never to work the South again, a promise on which they made good.

Miraculously, they managed to make it to Chicago and get a week’s try-out in The Octoroon – but they flopped and were let go. The set-back provided them with an opportunity to take stock of their act and decide on some improvements. In the next few months, they developed the basic characteristics of the act that would make them world famous.

First, Williams bit the bullet and decided to black up. It was common for African Americans to wear blackface in those days. In fact, that was how blacks broke into show business in the first place, by performing in minstrel shows as “genuine coons”. As with so many performers, the blackface seemed to work a miracle on the naturally shy and introverted Williams – it released his inhibitions and freed him up to be funny. He finally let go of his dignity (which is a fine thing for a man to possess, but a handicap for a clown), and started going for the bellylaughs. The character he became known for was a loser, a sort of shabby pessimistic everyman in threadbare clothes, or as he sang in one of his more popular songs, “The Jonah Man” – the guy to whom everything bad happens. In contrast, Walker was a flashy dude in smart clothes, a ladies’ man, a talker, a schemer, the eternal optimist, and the motivating force behind the plots of all their stories. The two characters, of course, were exaggerations of the men’s actual personalities.

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Billed as “Two Real Coons”, the two traveled with their constantly improving act starting in 1896. In 1898 they were spotted by a scout in French Lick, Indiana and tapped to perform in a Broadway show The Gold Bug which lasted one week. A succession of prestige vaudeville gigs followed, though: Koster & Bial’s, Proctor’s, Hammerstein’s Olympia, Tony Pastor’s Music Hall, the Keith Circuit. They were credited with introducing the cakewalk to mainstream America in their act, a popular dance which evolved from the minstrel show walkaround. Comical dancing became a highlight of their act, Walker high-stepping and lively, Williams, shuffling and clumsy.

In 1898, they toured with Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk, a book musical that further helped to legitimize African Americans on stage. They followed this up with a tour of “A Lucky Coon” , a sort of compendium of their minstrel bits, in 1899.

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In 1901, Walker and Williams made history by becoming the first black recording artists, and the cylinders they cut sold well enough to put them among the first black best-sellers. Walker and Williams went on to star in and produce many important musicals over the next few years, including The Sons of Ham (1901), In Dahomey, the first all-black musical to open on Broadway (1902-05), and Bandanaland (1908). In 1903, Walker and Williams became the first African Americans to give a command performance for an English Monarch (Edward VII). George Bernard Shaw said of their performance: “the best acting now in London is that of Williams and Walker in In Dahomey.

In 1905, Williams started singing Nobody, which was to be his theme song.

When I was in that railroad wreck

And thought I’d cashed in my last check

Who took that engine off my neck? Hm…not a soul…

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In 1908, Walker contracted syphilis, which in those days was without a treatment. By 1909, the condition was affecting his performance and though he struggled valiantly to control the symptoms, he began to stutter, forget his lines, and lose his motor control on stage. That year, he retired from the act. By 1911, he was dead.

For a brief while, his wife Aida Overton Walker (a dancer who had performed with the team for years), went on as his replacement in drag. After a period of uncertainty, Williams developed a solo act, and in so doing, revealed himself to be one of the great comic artists of the 20th century. In addition to his classic character songs like Nobody with their distinctive mix of pathos and humor, he also told dialect stories, (or “lies” as he called them) in the great tradition of African American folklore, and pantomime, which he claimed to have learned in Europe from a man named Pietro. His “poker routine”, in which he silently portrayed every player in a card game, conveying several distinct characters right down to what hand each man was holding, was legendary (and, luckily, was preserved on film). He toured the country in vaudeville with this material, almost never receiving the top billing he deserved because of the prejudice of the times, although there times when he was next to closing at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue and Hammerstein’s. From now, through the rest of his life, Williams was in the strange position of being hailed as a genius, universally beloved and respected by his colleagues, adored by his audiences…yet forced to leave the theatre by the back door, stay in separate “colored” hotels and boarding houses (in towns that had them), and avoid local troublemakers (including law enforcement officers) who relished making life hell for “uppity” Negroes. A touching anecdote has Joe Keaton finding himself sitting at the same bar with Williams and noticing that they are opposite ends. “Come down and have a drink with me, Bert,” Keaton offered. But the bar was segregated and Williams was at the black end, so he mumbled an embarrassed but polite refusal, and Keaton, realizing the situation, came down to his end of the bar to join him.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

In 1910, Williams became the first major black star in motion pictures, a series of one-reel silent shorts for Biograph. In 1911, Ziegfeld hired him for his Follies – the first black to be so honored. When most of the cast threatened to leave, Ziegfield is reported to have said, “Go if you want to. I can replace everyone of you, except the man you want me to fire.”  Though getting his foot in the door at Ziegfeld’s was an achievement, it didn’t spell the end of racism in his life. In the show, while given many chances to shine, they were plenty of times when the roles he was given to play were an unfortunate reflection of the attitudes of the times: red caps, cab drivers, or some other type of lackey to his white co-stars were the typical parts given to this grandson of a diplomat. In 1914, he headlined at the Palace, another first for an African American, and the very pinnacle of success for a vaudevillian. Perhaps it was such triumph that gave him the serenity of mind to best a racist bartender in St. Louis. In a not-too-subtle effort to oust Williams from the bar on account of his skin color, the barkeep attempted to charge him $50 for a glass of gin. Williams calmly put a $500 bill down on the bar and said,  “I’ll have ten of them.” On another occasion, Lionel Barrymore was backstage watching Williams work, and a stagehand came up and said, “Like him, huh?” Barrymore said, “Yes, he’s terrific.” Just as Williams got offstage the stage hand said loudly, “Yeah, he’s a good nigger, knows his place.” and Williams said, “Yes. A good nigger. Knows his place. Going there now. Dressing room ONE!”

His last years were spent working the Follies, the Frolics and the Keith vaudeville circuit, but by the late teens his health began to fail. He died of a combination of heart failure and pneumonia while performing in Under the Bamboo Tree,­ a Shubert show in Detroit.   He was only 47.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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Joe Penner: “Wanna Buy a Duck?”

Posted in Comedy, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on November 11, 2009 by travsd

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Joe Penner inadvertently illustrated a vaudeville pitfall by being a one-horse comic, beating the horse to death, and then beating the dead horse. To be more accurate, he was a one duck comic. He struggled along in vaudeville for years without distinguishing himself as a dialect comedian. Gradually he developed a character with the power to amuse by offering to sell preposterous articles, “Wanna buy a [something or other].” Through experimentation, he learned that he got the biggest laugh by saying “Wanna buy a duck?” He was able to milk this shtick for a couple of years in vaudeville, then introduced it on radio on Rudy Vallee’s show, where it made a national sensation. After a couple of years of this, though, no one wanted to buy the duck anymore. Unfortunately, this bit was the only weapon in his arsenal. In 1941, God apparently asked him “Wanna buy a farm?” He did.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult 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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