Archive for January, 2010

Eddie Cantor: Banjo Eyes

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy, Eddie Cantor, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by travsd


Though almost forgotten today, there was no bigger star than Eddie Cantor in his heyday. He conquered more media than even Hope, Rogers or Benny: vaudeville, Broadway revues and book musicals, films, radio, tv and – because he was much a singer as he was a comedian – record albums. He was the first openly Jewish male entertainer to mainstream (his characters were always Jewish or “Russian” — a euphemism). The first entertainer of either gender to do it was Fanny Brice.

Cantor was definitely a creature of his times—very strange by today’s standards. Known as “Banjo Eyes” on account of his huge, rolling orbs, he was equally a singer and a comedian. He sang and recorded several crazy, nonsensical songs that were the very soul of the 1920s, such as “If You Knew Susie”, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”, “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me” and the title song from his Broadway show and film Whoopie (which Sinatra later covered). On the the word “whoopie”, Cantor would roll his eyes and grin Groucho-style…although who’s to say Groucho didn’t roll his eyes Cantor-style?

Doctor: On what side are you Jewish?

Eddie: On the East Side.

(From the Eddie Cantor sketch “Insurance”)

He was born Israel Iskowitz, the son of Jewish Belarussian immigrants in 1892. Orphaned at age two and raised by his grandmother in New York’s Lower East Side, Cantor endured poorer circumstances than nearly any other player in this chronicle. He wore rags, had little to eat, and lived in a shabby basement. When his grandmother enrolled him at school as Israel Kantrowitz (her last name), the school thoughtfully took the liberty of shortening it to Kanter. At age 13, he changed his first name to Eddie to impress a girl.


Like nearly all children in the Lower East Side at that time, Cantor stole and hung out with street gangs. He was funny from early childhood, making people around him laugh on the streets (as Richard Pryor would later do) to keep tougher guys from terrorizing him. He was bitten early by the show business bug, although he could seldom afford to see an actual show. Cantor once stole a girl’s life savings of $12 so he could see a production of Billy the Kid.

Teaming up with his friend Dan Lipsky, he did comedy and sang, performing weddings and bar mitzvahs at Henry Hall, which was next door to his house. He left home briefly at 15 in order to shack up with a 19 year old consort, but he was forced to go home with his tale between his legs after stealing the woman’s tickets to George M. Cohan’s, 45 Minutes to Broadway starring Fay Templeton.

In 1908, Cantor took the plunge into professionalism by performing at Miner’s Bowery Theatre amateur night. He was so poor he had to borrow a friend’s pants in order to go on. Despite a rough crowd, Cantor won the amateur contest and took home  $12 ($10 prize money, $2 in thrown coins). Later that year, he got a job in a touring burlesque show with producer Frank B. Carr. Indian Maidens but was stranded with the show in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania (an old story in vaudeville).

In 1909, he became a singer at Carrie Walsh’s Saloon, Coney Island. The pianist was 16 year old Jimmy Durante. They made a sort of loose team, learning every popular song from the past 20 years in order to fulfill audience requests. When they didn’t know a song, they would make one up around the title, and if the requester seemed displeased, say “What, there are two songs by that name?”

Cantor diligently saved his money from this work and invested in a new suit and business cards, so he could make the rounds with agents. Worn down by Cantor’s persistence, small time agent Joe Wood finally sent him out to Gain’s Manhattan Theatre just to be rid of him. The theatre was famous for sending acts packing. Shockingly, Cantor did so well he ended up being retained by the theatre. The impressed Wood started sending him to upstate theatres.

Cantor was working for the third-rate People’s Vaudeville Company when its owner Joe Schenk (later to become a movie mogul) told him if he came with some new material, he would be held over. Cantor solved the problem by doing the same act for several weeks in different ethnic personae: Hebrew, German, Blackface**. The Blackface was a real revelation, as Cantor’s large round eyes read really well through the make-up.

Cantor made the big time in 1911 when he was hired by the juggling team of Bedini and Arthur to join them at Hammerstein’s Victoria. At first, Cantor was little more than a glorified assistant, never on stage, just fetching things for Bedini. After he passed this test for a few weeks, he was given a walk-on part in the show. His job was simply to walk across the stage and hand a plate to Bedini. Yet somehow Cantor managed to get a laugh even at this, walking on with an “attitude.” Bedini, the boss of the act gradually expanded his part with spoken lines, bits of business and even juggling. Essentially Cantor and Arthur were Bedini’s stooges, black-face servants, who supported the master juggler who was the star of the act.

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Shubert Archive

****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. 

As usual, Cantor gave 110% and gradually upstaged Bedini. During this period, Cantor developed a character that would have revolutionized blackface, had blackface survived. His character deviated from all stereotypes. He was a sort of sissified, bookish character who wore glasses (Groucho Marx called the character “a nance”) and would say mincing things like “He means to do me bodily harm!” By defying stereotype, this was a step in the direction  of realism, but of course total realism came thereafter when black parts became exclusively played by real blacks.

Largely through Cantor’s efforts, Bedini and Arthur (Cantor remained unbilled) gradually moved up the bill to better and better spots. After seven months with the team, Cantor got a chance to sing with the act in Louisville when the manager needs them to pad for time. He sang Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Violinand scored a huge hit, not just for his singing ability, but for his hyperactive onstage movements, which included handclaps and a sort of crazy-legged dance. Cantor would move this way on stage throughout his singing career.

In 1912, he got an offer to perform with a Gus Edwards’ revue “Kid Cabaret.” He purposely got himself fired from Bedini’s act so he could take it. Also in the cast of the Kid Cabaret was a young George Jessel, with whom Cantor became lifetime friends. In the act, Cantor played Jefferson, a blackface butler. They worked the Orpheum Circuit in 1913, where Cantor first met Will Rogers, another lifelong friend. Rogers took to Cantor and mentored him, even recommending him to his agent,the powerful Max Hart, who began to represent him.

Upon turning 21, he left Edwards. He performed as a single for a few months, visiting London in 1914 to play Charlot’s Revue while on his honeymoon. The trip was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, however. Back in New York, he teamed up with Al Lee, Ed Wynn’s former straight-man in an act called  “Master and Man”. Lee sang ballads which Cantor interrupted with nutty remarks.

The act stayed together until 1916, when Cantor was hired by Earl Carrol to play the part of the chauffeur in a show called Canary Cottage . In rehearsals, Cantor upstaged the star Trixie Friganza who threatened to walk if he was allowed to keep it up. Silent comedy star Raymond Griffith, who happened to be in attendance advised Cantor to lay off until performance and THEN pull all his stunts. Which he did, to great appreciation from the audience. With such laughs, the producers were forced to back Cantor.


The next step was Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics, his rooftop after-hours follow up to the Follies. Cantor was given a one-night trial, and his appearance was a triumph. He constantly did crazy, spontaneous things (like asking the likes of William Randolph Hearst to hold their hands high over their heads for a magic trick and then ignoring them for twenty minutes while they suffered). He gave an entirely different performance each night, a necessity at the Frolics, for the audience was the same each night, mostly composed of New York’s “400”.

Shubert Archive

Shubert Archive

He was a very New York sort of character, impudent and familiar. His style in delivering a song was kinetic and eye-catching. He even had a signature exit—a little hankie he waved at the audience. In 1917, he was moved up to the Follies where he got to perform with Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. In these early days, Cantor, in his eagerness to please, overdid everything, overplaying, mugging, etc. His newfound friends in the cast counseled to cool it down a little, and he went over even better.

Here’s a rare early film of Eddie in Broadway era prime (pre-Hollywood).

Cantor went on to star in numerous musicals, such as Make it Snappy (1922), Kid Boots (1923), and Whoopee! (1928). His first film Kid Boots (1926) was a silent version of his earlier musical. His second silent, Special Delivery (1927), was a flop. With and without blackface, he was one of the biggest stars of early talkies.

One of my favorite numbers of all time:

Films like Whoopee, Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, Kid Millions, etc. were big hits and remain as peculiar artifacts of a bygone era. The films are very much akin to the early Marx Bros. pictures, extremely unpredictable, almost surreal semi-musicals.

Cantor became one of radio’s first big stars. Starting with the Chase and Sanborne Hour, he dominated the form from 1931-54. He was also big on tv from 1950-55, primarily for his show the Colgate Comedy Hour, which was successful for its first two years, but then a heart attack robbed Cantor of all of his strength and vitality and greatly reduced the energy of his performance. The tv Cantor was very different from the one of the films. Heavier, huskier, he was no longer the skinny “nance” of the 20s and 30s, but a grandfather whose appeal lay primarily in nostalgia.

Cantor’s last recording date was in 1957. Much of his final years were given to causes. Cantor founded the March of Dimes, for example. He had been a founding member of Actor’s Equity, AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild, and was a big supporter of Israel upon its founding. Eddie Cantor passed away in 1964, far, far away from the basement he’d shared with his grandmother.

Interesting tidbit : Cantor had five daughters (who’d he always put on his radio and tv shows throughout the years). One of them, Natalie, was married to actor and performer Robert Clary, known to millions as “Le Beau” from Hogan’s Heroes.

And of course in recent years he’s coming back into the public’s consciousness somewhat as a character on Boardwalk Empire:

To learn about the roots 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.


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


W.C. Fields: World’s Greatest Juggler and Comedian

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jugglers, Radio (Old Time Radio), Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2010 by travsd


Even if he had never made a film, W.C. Fields would have been one of the most important men in show business history. He was a man of several careers: tramp juggler in vaudeville, a star in Broadway revues, a popular radio guest, and star of two separate film careers, both silent and talkie. He spent the last 50 years of his life in show business and almost all of them as a star. For the first twenty or so of those years he was best known as a juggler, and one of the best in the business.

He was born William Claude Dukenfeld, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1880. His father, an English immigrant, had a produce market, and it is said that young Claude got his start juggling his father’s wares. He became stagestruck in his early teens, periodically running away from home to stay with relatives or in a clubhouse he kept with his borderline criminal friends. Despite his seemingly undisciplined life, he made a careful study of all the jugglers who came to town, in particular Cinqevalli and the Byrne Brothers. He  practiced for hours daily, enduring physical pain, boredom and frustration in order to become pre-eminent at his skill. He first juggled balls, hats, sticks and the like but early on he demonstrated his originality by devising his renowned “cigar box trick”. He worked humor into the act as soon as he could, as when he juggled five items then contrived to lose one, just catching it as it started to fly away, as though it were all an accident.

His early gigs were in burlesquecircus, dime museums, amusement parks—the lower order of variety venues. A story, possibly apocryphal has his first performance at a church social, where the Philadelphia puritans refused to let him juggle his cigar boxes on account of their sinful nature. Young Fields responded by stealing all of their umbrellas after the show.


Fields became a “Tramp Juggler” at some risk. Many such characters already existed, such as Nat Willis, The “Happy Tramp” and tramp juggler James Harrigan. His make-up was grotesque and clownish in the early years. By 1898 he was billed as W.C. Fields. In that year he married Hattie Hughes, a chorus girl who became his stage assistant. In 1899 he made his debut at Miner’s Bowery Theatre. He then embarked on a tour with Irwin’s Burlesquers. At this stage he was already getting great reviews. He had tons of amazing patter from the first, delivered in a voice not unlike the one we know from films and radio. He was not only a really good juggler but really funny, and this helped put him over with audiences and with bookers.

He was spotted in 1900 by a William Morris agent in St. Louis and thence booked for the Orpheum and Keith circuits. From 1900-14, he crisscrossed the globe many times, performing not only in Europe but also in such far flung place as Australia and South Africa (which is where he first met Will Rogers). In these years, he literally played before the Crowned Heads of Europe, further adding to the Fields mystique. During the years of the world tour he became a dumb act, to avoid the difficulties of the language barrier. While a non-verbal Fields may seem difficult to imagine, one must keep in mind what an adept physical comedian he was. He was a first rate pantomimist, and that skilled was honed during these years.

These long years of travel were very lonely. He’d separated from Hattie almost immediately after their marriage; she remained in New York to raise their son Claude. Fields’ constant companions during these were Dickens, Twain and Shakespeare – he carried them around in a steamer trunk packed full to groaning with books. Fields was an autodidact. Though he’d hated school, he loved to read. He taught himself to speak by reading these and other classic authors, and you can hear echoes of their voices in nearly everything he said. This love affair with these writers gave Fields his distinctive edge, it made him a sort of living bridge to the 19th century sensibility.

In 1903, he introduced his famous trick pool table, which featured a mechanism that pulled all fifteen balls into pockets at the same time. In 1905, Fields got his first speaking role in the McIntyre and Heath vehicle The Ham Tree on Broadway. The role was tailored for his already well-known personality and allowed him to perform many of his routines.

In 1915, he joined the Ziegfeld Follies where he worked straight through 1921. He performed in numerous other revues and book shows through 1930. Here he did many of the sketches that he later plundered for his talkies, such as The Barber Shop, The Dentist, The Pharmacist, The Fatal Glass of Beer and The Golf Specialist. In the Follies he became good friends with Will RogersEddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, often taking them for picnics and cross country drives in his convertible, which he drove at top speed and three sheets to the wind. Here are some great home movies of him during his Broadway heyday (1928):

His film career had several phases which came in nice discreet bundles. First he did two silent films in the mid-teens that went nowhere.

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One of them, Pool Sharks (1915), survives, and Fields acquits himself admirably in it. Here it is!

After an eight year hiatus he returned to do numerous silent features in the years 1924-28. These films did respectably well but were not blockbusters. A notable project during this time was D.W. Griffith’s 1925 adaptation of Fields Broadway hit Poppy, renamed Sally of the Sawdust. It is the archetypical Fields’ yarn: he plays a much-put-upon circus owner, who is the guardian of a young girl. The girl is in love with a rich young man, whose folks think she is not good enough for it by virtue of her being show folk. Underneath his venal exterior, Fields reveals a few sterling qualities at bottom, and so manages to effect a happy ending by the last reel.

His first talkies, were the aforementioned adaptations of Ziegfeld sketches which he did for Mack Sennett in the early thirties. There are a half dozen of these exquisite, nearly perfect set pieces – and far too few of them, at that.

It is in the talkies that we truly get the full Fields effect. Not only the shiney red face, steely blue eyes, bulbous nose and crooked little mouth, but the raspy voice, alternately shouting or muttering almost indecipherable asides in his distinctive lingo, “Godfrey Daniels” is the way he said “God damn it” in those censorious day. But Fields could leave no phrase alone. “I hit him on the head”, became “I smote him on the sconce” before Fields was done with it. He populated his scripts (and his film credits) with likewise Dickensian character names: Otis Cribblecobblis, Mahatama Kane Jeeves, and Egbert Souse. In some films, such as You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift he portrays a much put-upon family man in a recognizable human situation. Others, like International House and Million Dollar Legs give full vent to total surrealism. It is interesting (and tantalizing) to know that Fields was under consideration for the role of the Wizard in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.

A classic scene from It’s a Gift:

Ironically, the films Fields is best known for today were total disasters in his time. These are his last four starring vehicles, all produced by Universal: Never Give a Sucker an Even BreakYou Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee. Released in the era of Abbot and Costello and Bob Hope, these films were considered passe and even incomprehensible in their day. Today they are considered classics of screen comedy and in fact are the last true examples of vaudeville comedy style to come out of Hollywood.

His last years were plagued by health problems caused by his superhuman consumption of alcohol. He managed to turn in what are essentially vaudeville turns in 4 revue films released 1942-45. These last years also featured his famous verbal duels with Charlie McCarthy on radio.

Fields died on Christmas Day, 1946 with either a wink or curse for those assembled, depending on whose account you believe. There are nearly 100 posts on W.C. Fields here on Travalanche. To browse through them all click here. 

To learn more about W.C. Fields 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.


Joe Cook: “The Greatest Man in the World”

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Broadway, Comedy, Jugglers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2010 by travsd


Almost completely unknown today, Joe Cook was called by New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson nothing less than  “the greatest man in the world”. Cook accurately billed himself variously as the “one man vaudeville show” and the “master of all trades.” His skills were listed as “juggling, unicycle riding, magic, hand balancing, ragtime piano and violin, dancing, globe rolling, wirewalking, talking and cartooning.” “Talking” in vaudeville jargon meant of course delivering comedy monologues. The one he is most famous for is known as the “Four Hawaiians” bit, and it goes like this:

I will now give an imitation of three Hawaiians. This is one (whistles) this is another (plays ukulele) and this is the third (marks time with his foot). I could imitate four Hawaiians just as easily, but I will tell you the reason why I don’t do it. You see,  I bought a horse for $50 and it turned out to be a running horse. I was offered $15,000 for him and I took it. I built a house with the $15,000 and when it was finished a neighbor offered me $100,000 for it. He said my house stood right where he wanted to dig a well. So I took the $100,000 to accommodate him. I invested the $100,000 in peanuts and that year there was a peanut famine so I sold the peanuts for $350,000. Now why should a man with $350,000 bother to imitate 4 Hawaiians?

He was born Joseph Lopez in Evansville, Indiana in 1890. His parents died when he was three, and he took the name of his adopted parents, becoming Joseph Cook. Raised on a farm, young Joe’s dream home was with the traveling tent shows that would come through his county year after year. He started practicing juggling and acrobatics as a child, giving performances in the barn, with the support and encouragement, oddly enough, of his family. He wasn’t even a teenager yet before he was already touring the mid-west with medicine shows. At the ripe old age of 15, he made the jump to New York. A doctored photo showing him juggle 17 balls simultaneously helped him secure his first employment.

Cook’s rise was meteoric. After a brief stint with his brother as “The Juggling Kids” he made his solo debut at Proctor’s 125th Street in 1907. After only 3 months in small time,he was booked at Hammerstein’s Victoria. By 1909 he was headlining.

His style seems to have been a pastiche of possible comedy approaches. One bit cast him as the landlord of a really tiny house. After arguing with the really tiny tenant, he picked up the house and walked away. He developed great sight gags with props and enormous Rube Goldberg style inventions, such as an elaborate, needlessly complicated device for “calling the hired man to dinner.”

Cook’s success in vaudeville led to an even greater career as the star of Broadway book musicals and reviews. Hitchy Koo (1919), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1923-26) Rain or Shine (1928), Fine and Dandy (1930), and Hold Your Horses (1933). Rain or Shine was filmed in 1930. He also appeared as the title character in the western Arizona Mahoney (1936) and in numerous comedy shorts for Educational Pictures. Cook’s stooge in later years was Dave Chasen, later to start a famous Hollywood restaurant and to become a key member of W.C. Fields’ inner circle.

In these vehicles Cook’s character seems to have been an average Joe who turned out to behave as insanely as the Marx Bros., Bobby Clark or Ed Wynn. By 1933, Broadway audiences were tiring of him, however, and Hold Your Horses flopped. Frequent radio shots kept him going through the 1930s. His last show was the first ice show It Happens on Ice (1941), but during its run the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease began to overtake him and he was forced to retire. It took 17 years for the disease to finally finish him off, in 1959.

His great grandson is a chip off the old block. You can learn about him here. 


In May, 2015 we went out to visit the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, which probably has the world’s biggest collection of Joe Cook materials (Cook had an estate nearby, whimsically named Sleepless Hollow, which we also visited). Here’s what we saw:

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To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Florence Mills: Pathbreaker

Posted in African American Interest, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by travsd

NPG x85305,Florence Mills in 'Dover Street to Dixie' at the London Pavilion,by Bassano

While some people in vaudeville were perpetuating stereotypes, others were making inroads in gaining respect and admiration for African Americans. Tiny and frail, but burdened with a sense of responsibility to black America, she literally worked herself to death in its service. Granted, she did it by being a famous star, but the job description for that position includes stress, long hours, constant travel, and almost complete detachment from “normal” life. She was the first black performer to head a bill at the Palace, and the first black woman with her own show on Broadway. Many regarded her almost as a savior. Duke Ellington wrote a piece of music called “Black Beauty” in her honor.

She grew up Washington D.C., singing for friends and family from earliest childhood. By age 5, Baby Florence was performing for diplomats, cakewalking and buckdancing with Black Patti’s Troubadors. In 1906, she was employed as a “pick” for a blackface performer knowns as Bonita. Then the Gerry Society put the kabash on her performing, and actually took her away from her parents for a time.

In 1910, she formed a trio with her sisters Olivia and Maude and worked the black circuit. Her sisters dropped out in the mid-teens, so Florence joined “Bricktop” and Cora Green to form the “Panama Trio”. This was in Chicago around the time of the birth of jazz, and the group was right in the thick of it, playing the wild and chaotic night club scene. Over the next few years, Mills was to alternate her time between the Panama Trio and another group, the Tennessee Ten on the Pantages and Keith circuits. The latter group was hired by Nora Bayes for an act called “The Songs We Love to Sing”.

Her crucial break came in 1921, with Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along, in which the full force of her talent shone forth, making her a huge star. She went on to enjoy a sustained and greater success than Sissle and Blake themselves, booking a series of prestige dates on both sides of the Atlantic until her death six years later. These included The Plantation Revue, produced by Lew Leslie (1922), the Greenwich Village Follies (1923), the 1923 London show Dover Street to Dixie and its New York version Dixie to Broadway (1924), headlining vaudeville engagements at the Hippodrome and the Palace (1925), the debut of songs by African American classical composer William Grant Still Levee Land at Aeolian Hall (1926), and Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1926. It was on her return voyage from London in 1927 that Mills was operated on for appendicitis, and died at the age of 31.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available 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


Ming and Toy (as Transmitted by Jillian Tully)

Posted in Asian, Contemporary Variety, Rock and Pop, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by travsd


Born on this day, a minor vaudevillian who had two great shots of national exposure. The first, when the act she performed with her father “Ming and Toy” was captured for a 1936 Vitaphone short; the second when that short was amply sampled in the 1999 PBS documentary Vaudeville.

If you’ve seen the clip (unfortunately I can’t link to it, the PBS folks keep taking it off Youtube) you’ll witness a pretty clear-cut “Yellow-Face” act, a cute, amazingly talented Chinese couple in silk outfits doing stereotypical ching-chong schtick in between musical numbers. The bombshell is that this father-daughter team were – wait for it – Filipino.

While in terms of international fame “Grandma Toy” might have been a minor figure, in the 30 year old life of Toy’s performing grandchild Jillian Tully there has been no one more major. I sat down with Jillian in a Greek diner in Astoria last night and she told me the whole story.

“The legend is that my great grandfather (real name Jose Paguio) came to the U.S. from the Philippines in about 1915 with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. He settled in Jersey City and did manage to find work as a musician,” says Tully. “One day my grandmother came home from school crying about how the kids at school were teasing her and making racist remarks. And Jose’s response was to form a vaudeville act.”

Whether or not the stereotypical act that Ming (a.k.a Jose) cooked up was meant as a subversive commentary on the prevailing attitudes of the times, or if he was just simply “giving the people what they want” will have to remain an open question. Both partners in the team have been dead for decades. All we have now are some facts. The team toured the world, enjoying particular success in Australia, where vaudeville didn’t die for many years after American vaudeville had passed. They toured in various editions of George White’s Scandals and the Ziegfeld Follies. Later, Toy (whose real name was Margie) changed her name to Hoo Shee, and her brother joined the act. They became “Ming, Ling and Hoo Shee, Three Hillbillies from the Burma Road.” Ming played accordion and ukulele and also juggled; Ling played guitar (and apparently sang like one of the guys from the Ink Spots); Hoo Shee sang and danced (some called her the Chinese Betty Hutton).

The trio played the so-called Chop Suey Circuit for a number of years until they disbanded, at which point Hoo Shee went solo for a time before retiring to raise a family in the late 1940s.

But how could that possibly be the end of the story? When I say “as transmitted by” in the header to this blog entry, I don’t just mean Jillian’s around to convey some oral history, as valuable as that is. Apart from a few old clips and yellowing mementos, she happens to be the family legacy. The oldest in her generation of grandchildren, Jillian spent the first ten years of her life growing up in Grandma Toy’s house.

“She still had a beautiful voice even then,” says the actress-singer-songwriter-costume designer, “She’d be scrambling eggs and singing ‘Mares Eat Oats’, or the Ella Fitzgerald version of “A Tisket, A Tasket.’ She’d play me those Time-Life cassettes of old radio shows like Baby Snooks with Fanny Brice. We’d watch old MGM musicals on tv, and she’d tell me everything about the shows and about the stars. At bedtime, she’d tell me about her adventures during her touring days until I went to sleep.”

Margie passed away when Jillian was 11, but her dad and her step-dad (both musicians) were mentors to her too. She attended a performing arts high school in West Hollywood, where she received further training as a musical theatre geek, (but hated the competition), before bumming around for a few years. She recorded an album of her songs with her group Rainy Day Assembly, which she dedicated to Hoo Shee. (The cover shows a photo of Margie as Jillian knew her – the former glamorous beauty in a California backyard, hanging the wash on the line). The CD is called “Someone Else’s Story”.

In 2005 Jillian started singing in the New York City subways (usually the West 4th Street stop), though she’s also played venues like the Bitter End and Matchless. She’s appeared in shows like Hair (not the Public’s production) and my own Kitsch at Theatre for the New City, which is how I first got to know her.

She says she’s the only one in her extant family even remotely bitten by the show business bug. Whether it’s a matter of nature or nurture (or both) must remain an enigma as mysterious and beautiful as a Filipino father and his school age daughter one day deciding to form a Chinese vaudeville act.

But wait! There just might be another performing family member. Jillian says there’s a rumor that her great uncle Bobby Paguio (a.k.a “Ling”) is alive and living in Northern California. None of her branch of the family is in touch with him. If anyone has any leads, please get in touch via this blog and I’ll pass the news on to Jillian. There are so many questions to ask.

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available 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


Yvette Guilbert: French Chanteuse

Posted in Frenchy, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , on January 20, 2010 by travsd


The French chanteuse had been a star of Paris and London music halls for seven years when she made her American debut at the kick-off of Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia in 1895. She was to return to enchant American audiences several times with her suggestive repertoire of alternating French and English songs — inspiring an entire generation of American songstresses in the bargain (notably, Nora Bayes). The name Guilbert was synonymous with the affecting use of facial expression and gesture to help communicate a song. Her last American appearance was in 1928.

Here she is singing “Quand on vous aime comme ça”:

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.


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


Cary Grant: Archie the Acrobat

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, British Music Hall, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2010 by travsd


Cary Grant was prized in motion pictures for his suave, sophisticated style, a manner of talking, moving and dressing that bespoke, above all, class. However, if you watch his performances closely–very closely–you will note two things. One is a slight cockney (actually Bristol) accent. The other is a surprising facility for physical comedy, whether its face-pulling, tumbles, or double takes. The former has to do with his modest English origins. The latter was the result of his many formative years spent as a member of comic acrobatic troupe in music hall and vaudeville.

Archibald Leach was born in Bristol, England in 1904 to a drunken father and a controlling, mentally ill mother. At age nine young Archie was informed that his mother was “away for a rest”. She was only in a sanitarium, a fact which Leach did not learn until 1935 when he was the famous movie star Cary Grant.

As a youngster he became a production assistant at various Bristol Theatres. In 1917, barely in his teens, he joined Bob Pender’s Knockabout Comedians. The company toured the provinces for the next couple of years. In 1920, they boarded the Olympic for a booking in America. The troupe opened at the Hippodrome in a revue called “Good News”, which ran for 9 months. In 1921 they toured the Keith Circuit, with a final gig at the Palace in 1922.

There is very little photographic record of his acrobatic days, but here he is with the Pender troupe:

cary grant0001

From the Billy Rose Collection of New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Young Archie Leach (a.k.a Cary Grant) at bottom left

He seldom got to display the full range of his skills on celluloid, but someone was nice enough to take this screengrab from the movie Holiday, in which he surprises us with a sudden backflip:


Pender returned to the U.K., but Leach chose to stay in the U.S. He got some work doing stilt walking in Coney Island. Then he went on in “Better Times” the sequel to “Good News” at the Hippodrome,  with some fellow Pender’s veterans. Booked as “The Walking Strangers” the group did a vaudeville act, working the Panatages wheel in 1924. Archie moved into the National Vaudeville Artist’s Club, making himself generally available as a substitute. He was a valuable man to have around. His skills included juggling, acrobatics, unicycle, comic sketches, and (not to be sneered at) he was an excellent straight man. He worked in the latter capacity, for example for Milton Berle at Proctor’s Newark. During these years of struggle, he became good friends with Burns and Allen. He studied Burns and Zeppo Marx as examples of some of the top straight men in the business.

In the late 20s, he began to move into musical comedy. He was cast in the 1927 Hammerstein musical Golden Dawn. In 1929, he did Boom Boom for the Shuberts with Jeanette McDonald. He worked in various Shubert shows for three years. Then his friend and colleague Fay Wray went to Hollywood to star in King Kong. Wray persuaded Leach to make the move himself in late 1931, where he signed at Paramount as Cary Grant. That carefully wrought name and persona was invented—fashioned with all the care and diligence of the old vaudevillian the man always was.

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.


For more on early film history 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


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