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.
EVELYN NESBIT THAW
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 vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.