Vaudeville was about nothing if it was not about excess. Here was a man who ate, drank, slept and probably shat the mandolin. Well, somebody had to.
Dave Apollon was born in Kiev in 1897. He started out playing the violin as a child until the day his instructor drank too much vodka and sat on his fiddle. Apollon got himself a mandolin, taught himself to play, and more importantly, not to lay his instrument down on chairs anymore. By his teens he’d already formed his own orchestra, which played movie theatres, and had himself a little solo career.
The Revolution chased him out of Russia (Ukraine was then part of Russia). In 1919, he moved to New York, and auditioned for the Palace. His “Gypsy Airs” were a big hit and he was signed by the Keith organization to a three year contract. His climb to the top was abetted by an unexpected asset—his accent. Whenever circumstances compelled him to talk onstage, his mangled English got big laughs. It served the same function as a comedian’s double-talk. Apollon was encouraged by influential people to develop this part of the act and before long he was a headliner at the Palace, and even—incredibly—Master of Ceremonies. Yakoff Smirnoff, eat your heart out. This, on top of being a fantastic musician),
In 1926 he hooked up with an out-of-work Fillipino string band. Apollon fobbed them off as “Russians” and they were his back-up band through the late 30s. After vaudeville faded, Apollon continued to work nightclubs and television, and to cut record albums with names like Mandolins, Mandolins, Mandolins and The Magic of the Mandolin. In 1972, he was cremated along with his very first mandolin, the one he had played as a boy back in Kiev.
To learn about the roots of vaudeville, including stars like Dave Apollon, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.