Archive for December, 2009

Three Vaudeville Women with Christmas Birthdays: Belle Baker, Fay Templeton & Evelyn Nesbit

Posted in Broadway, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , on December 25, 2009 by travsd

While many of us celebrate Christmas today, up in show business heaven, certain lovely ladies of the theatre are celebrating their birthdays. Neither Kings nor Wise Men, let us nonetheless contemplate the gifts of these three paragons of the vaudeville era.


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.


Her rendition of “Rosie, You Are My Posie” supposedly inspired Al Jolson to go into show business. Eddie Cantor once stole tickets to see her perform. Elsie Janis did an impression of her. Today, a footnote, but in her day there was no one bigger. Born on this day in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1865 to a pair of successful stage parents, Templeton had made her onstage debut by the age of 3. She had been successful in opera, Shakespeare and contemporary melodrama for nearly three decades when she gained her greatest fame as a member of Weber and Fields’ stock company, and later as the star of George M. Cohan’s 45 Minutes to Broadway. (If modern audiences are aware of her at all, it might be because she is memorably portrayed in the Cohan bio-pic Yankee Doodle Dandy). Most of her time on the vaudeville stage had to do with Weber and Fields reunion tours (Templeton was one of those performers who must have “retired” a dozen times only to pop up again a few years later). One of her last great roles was as the original Aunt Minnie in Jerome Kern’s Roberta. She took her final bow in 1939.


This gal’s fame was similar to that enjoyed by such wonderful recent “entertainers” as Lorena Bobbit, Monica Lewinsky, and O.J. Simpson. Nesbit was an otherwise undistinguished chorus girl, when her husband, insane millionaire Harry K. Thaw shot and killed eminent architect Stanford H. White, her former (and probably current) lover.

Nesbit moved to New York in 1900 at age 16 where she modeled as one of the famous “Gibson Girls”. From here she became a chorus girl, landing a role in the landmark show Floradora. Her distinguished stable of lovers included not only White but also John Barrymore. She dated and then married Thaw who was out of his gourd, but wealthy. Here’s how we know he was insane. He marries a chorus girl, and then dwells upon the fact the she is not a virgin!  At any rate, Thaw plugged White in the Rooftop Garden at Madison Square Garden in 1906, thereby increasing the circulation of newspapers and transforming himself and his wife into “somebody”, and ending the life of someone who actually was. White was the keystone of the firm McKim, Mead and White, responsible for the designs of the original Penn Station, the Morgan Library, and the Washington Square arch, among countless others. Now White was food for worms, and Nesbit used his grave as a foundation for a new career. Oscar Hammerstein nabbed her for his Victoria Theatre in 1913, offering her a whopping salary to do three dances, but really just to be Evelyn Nesbit Thaw. This engagement gave her a career enough boost to keep her working in vaudeville and films through the mid-20s. In 1955, she was the subject of a bio-pic called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, starring Joan Collins! But Elizabeth McGovern portrayed her far more memorably in Ragtime. 

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.


Jimmy Savo, “The Midget Strong Man”

Posted in Broadway, Clown, Italian, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2009 by travsd

so little he is

— e.e. cummings

Jimmy Savo’s success was the living embodiment of the evolutionary principle known as neoteny.  With his large, soulful eyes, and dwarfish body, as a grown man Savo might have made an acceptable Oliver Twist. Savo was neither a dwarf nor a midget, just a person of smallish stature, which he accentuated with oversized clothes and a derby hat. And lest one get the impression that he was one of those performers who coast on their physical attributes, no less than Charlie Chaplin called him “the worlds greatest pantomimist”.

Born the son of a poor Italian cobbler in 1895, Savo grew up in the Bronx. He made his debut as a boy, singing “Wait Til the Sun Shines, Nellie” to his dog at an amateur night. Such pathos was to remain a hallmark of his artistry throughout his career. Inspired by W.C. Fields, he started to juggle at age 6, eventually mastering such feats as chair juggling and balancing a wagon wheel on his chin. In 1912, he made his Big Time debut at Hammerstein’s Victoria, alternating his bookings for several years between vaudeville and burlesque. One of his specialties was using his abilities as a mime to illustrate the songs he was singing, as in “River Stay ‘way from My Door”, where he was able to convey rising floodwaters, or in “One Meatball”, an interchange between a hungry poor man and a stingy waiter.

His greatest success came on Broadway. Shows included: The Vogues of 1924. Strike Up the Band (1926), Murray Anderson’s Almanac (1928) Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1930), Parade (1935), The Boys from Syracuse (1938), Wine, Women and Song (1942), and What’s Up (1943). 1940 saw his greatest triumph, a one man pantomime show called Mum’s the Word.

In 1946, he lost a leg to cancer, but continued to work in nightclubs and on television (mostly from a stool) until his death in 1960.

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleincluding stars like Jimmy Savo, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Dan Leno, “The Funniest Man on Earth”

Posted in British Music Hall, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on December 20, 2009 by travsd


This legendary music hall artist was a major influence on all subsequent British comedians. Born George Galvin in 1860, he made his stage debut at age 4. He became a star of the English panto in such productions as Jack and the Beanstalk (Surrey Theatre, 1886) and Babes in the Woods (1888, Drury Lane). In the 90s, he became a solo artist in music hall. His act would usually involve a little song followed by a character monologue.


He was great at pantomime dames, as when he portrayed this gossipy female:

You know Mrs. Kelly?…You know Mrs. Kelly?…don’t you know Mrs. Kelly? Her husband’s that little stout man, always at the corner of the street in a greasy waistcoat…good life, don’t look so stupid, don’t – you must know Mrs. Kelly!…Don’t you know Mrs. Kelly? Well, of course, if you don’t, you don’t – but I thought you did, because I thought everyone knew Mrs. Kelly. Oh, and what a woman – perhaps it’s just as well you don’t know her…oh, she’s a mean woman. Greedy. I know for a fact – who’s got the sore eyes, he came over and told me – she had a half dozen oysters, and she ate them in front of the looking glass, to make them look a dozen. Now that’ll give you an idea what she is.

In 1897, he played his only American vaudeville date, at the Olympia Music Hall, where he stayed for 4 weeks. In 1901, he appeared before King Edward, and thenceforth he billed himself as “The King’s Jester”. His brilliant career was cut short in 1903, when he was committed to a mental institution. He died the following year. While he died too young to have made any film appearances, he recorded several phonograph cylinders, allowing us to hear his vocal artistry a century later.

Check it out! You can actually hear the Mrs. Kelly bit:

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.


To learn more about slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Barbette: Drag Trapeze Artist

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Drag and/or LGBT, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on December 19, 2009 by travsd


It doesn’t get much more vaudevillian than this. Barbette was a female impersonator/ trapeze artist. Born on this day in 1904 (real name Vander Clyde), he spent his childhood practicing trapeze skills as a hobby. At age 14, he answered a job ad placed the Afaretta Sisters, the “World Famous Aerial Queens”. To get the job, he had to dress as a girl.

Soon she was working solo. At her debut at the Harlem Opera House in 1919, she got three curtain calls though only an opening act. She did slack wire walking, rings, and trapeze…then pulled off her wig for the big wow. Soon she was a headliner—what straight trapeze artist ever accomplished that?


By 1923, she was the hit of the Paris cabaret scene and a favorite of the intelligentsia. Jean Cocteau even included her in his 1930 film  The Blood of the Poet. A character in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930 film Murder is also clearly based on her. In 1935, she was featured in Billy Rose’s Jumbo along with Poodles Hanneford, and many other circus/vaudeville notables.

A 1938 bout with pneumonia effectively ended her performing career, and she retired to become a consultant and choreographer for projects requiring drag trapeze artists. You think there aren’t any? What about Hollywood films like Til the Clouds Roll By, The Big Circus, and Some Like it Hot? Barbette passed away in Texas in 1973, having lived a life the best of us might envy.

The Texas Historical Commission has recently approved a historical marker to honor the performer. Read that, and more about Barbette here. 

To find out more about  vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Horace Goldin: First Sawed a Woman in Half

Posted in Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , on December 17, 2009 by travsd


Today, we celebrate the birthday of Horace Goldin (Hyman Goldstein, 1873-1939), the magician who, more than any other, popularized the trick of sawing a woman in half. (The trick was actually invented by P.T. Selbit, but Goldin improved it). Born in Vilnius, he said to have learned magic from local Gypsies before moving to the U.S. (Nashville, to be specific) with his family at age 16. He became a professional in the mid 1890s, and became known as “The Whirlwind Illusionist” because he performed his feats so rapidly and with such flourish.  In promoting his vivisection illusion he became known for driving through town in an ambulance with a sign that said “in case the saw slips”.

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.


The Duncan Sisters: Topsy and Eva

Posted in African American Interest, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2009 by travsd


Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

Vaudeville encyclopediast Anthony Slide calls them “one of the greatest sister acts on the vaudeville stage”. Though they were known and loved for their wholesomeness, reportedly Rosetta (1896-1959) was an alcoholic lesbian and Vivian (1899-1986) was married to a closet gay who wanted to involve her in three-ways. They are best known for their Topsy and Eva act, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which they milked for years past the point it was considered polite to appear in blackface.

The symmetry of their act in theme and presentation was no doubt part of its appeal. Eva, often referred to as Little (or even “Li’l”) Eva, is an unnaturally good, angelic character along the lines of Dickens’ Little Nell. Among other good works, she teaches Uncle Tom to read—before being carried up to heaven herself as a literal angel. Eva was abetted in her portrayal of the character by her fair complexion and naturally flaxen curls. Though Rosetta was similarly endowed, as Topsy, she was corked from head to toe with a black wig done up in pickaninny pigtails. Topsy, by contrast, was, well, to use her words: “I’se mean an’ ornery, I is, mean an’ ornery”. Topsy is a wicked little thing who likes to steal molasses. Just get a load of this dialogue, (actually a title) from their 1927 silent film Topsy and Eva. In the scene, Topsy is praying: “You got plenty of white angels in heaven—hab a black one! stop twangin’ on them harps an’ lissen to me! Ef yo’ let L’il Missy lib Ah won’ lie no mo’ er. Ah won’ steal no mo’ er. Ah won’ do nuthin’ no mo’! Ef yo’ don’ want th’ debbil tuh git me away from yo’—yo’ bettah act quick! An’ Ah won’ ask yo’ to make me white lak snow, but jes’ a nice light tan!”

This act, consisting of a virtuous white girl and a vicious, ungovernable back urchin must have gone like gangbusters in the south. Undergirding it all was a treacly cutsey-ness unfathomable to most modern audiences. Picture (in later years) the 50-ish Duncans tricked up in petticoats, gamboling, skipping and cooing like 6 year olds, one of them in blackface. One of their songs goes “I Gotta Code in My Dose.” Never mind the kleenex, is there a barf bag handy?


At first they were a more or less conventional sister act. (One of their hits was the classic “Side by Side”, perhaps the ultimate sister act song). Starting out in 1916 they did a yodeling act and were discovered by Gus Edwards. In 1917 they played the Fifth Avenue Theatre. From the start, Rosetta was the comedian, Vivian, the soubrette. In 1922, they played the Palace with an act called “’s that alright”.

1923 was the crucial year. That was the year they mounted their full production of Topsy and Eva at the Alcatraz Theatre in San Francisco. For the remainder of their careers they toured some version of this show throughout the U.S. and internationally. They retired in 1942, but started performing again in nightclubs a decade later. When Rosetta killed herself in a car crash in 1959, Vivian went solo for a time. Eva followed Topsy up to heaven in 1986.

To my surprise, I found some film of them playing their famous characters. I feel it is of historical value and thus share it, even if the modern sensibility finds blackface characterizations offensive. Better to look the thing in the face than pretend it never existed.

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


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 etc etc etc


Lillian Roth: From Gus Edwards to the Gutter

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2009 by travsd


Have you ever watched Animal Crackers and wondered why the ingenue was so expansive and arch, as though she were one of the stars? The reason is, she was one of the stars. Though not as big as the Marx Brothers, Lillian Roth was well-known to audiences of her day. At age 9 she and her sister Ann formed a vaudeville singing duo presented by Gus Edwards. By the next year she was cast in the Broadway show Shavings, which thereafter boosted her up the billing ladder to headliner. She alternated vaudeville with parts in revues and films through the mid-30s.

Roth had a level of charm that cannot be bought. Here she is in a Mae West inspired duet with James Dunn called “Come Up and See Me Some Time” from the 1933 film Take a Chance:

Here she is with Lupino Lane in the 1929 musical  The Love Parade (1929):

A drinking problem cut the first phase of her career short, and unfortunately, starting with her 1954 autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow and the campy melodramatic film version the following year starring Susan Hayward, all the attention she got going forward was related to her alcohol problem. Roth was one of the first Hollywood people to go public as an alcoholic. And she wasn’t just a drunk – -when she bottomed out it was all the way down (use your imagination). Still, she was and always will be a star.
Roth in the horror movie "Alice, Sweet Alice", released around the same time as the Boggs interview

Roth in the horror movie “Alice, Sweet Alice”, released around the same time as the Boggs interview

The attached interview, from 1977,  is atrocious. At one point, interviewer Bill Boggs quips that a nurse who introduced Roth to booze should be sued for “ex post facto malpractice”, though the purpose it had been used for was a legitimate one. On the other hand, Boggs DEFINITELY should be sued for malpractice for conducting such a shoddy, craven interview, ghoulishly dwelling on only the negative aspects of Roth’s life, probing her wounds with a dull scalpel. At one point he asks her, “Do you have any friends?” It isn’t until 10 minutes into the 18 minute interview that we hear anything good about her wonderful career – – a 30 second tour through her scrapbook, before we return to another 7 minutes on her substance abuse. The main reason I enjoy watching this clip, is that every ounce of her charm (and confidence apparently)  is still there. Roth sits there and absorbs this hideous drubbing on live New York television and treats it like so much…attention. Well, there you go. It’s a crazy business we’re in. We’re pointing the camera at substance abusers more than ever for entertainment these days. How much better to point them at singers, dancers, actors, and comedians.

Lillian Roth passed away in 1980.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and stars like Lillian Rothconsult 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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