William Demarest and Estelle Colette: Vaudeville Days


“You kids get upstairs and wash your hands for dinner!”

Yes, Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons was also a vaudevillian, and rather a successful one, at that. William Demarest entered vaudeville as a child, with his brothers Reuben and George. The Demarestio Brothers (for some reason they pretended to be Italian) did comedy bits and a softshoe in blackface**. In 1904 their mother brought them to New York for greater exposure. Bill broke off and formed a single, before hooking up with Estelle Collete, whom he married in 1917. After serving in World War I, he developed the act that merits his inclusion in these annals. In his own words:

The audience settles back and says, “Here comes another straight musical act.” I could play the hell out of that cello, and I get going good on “Zigeunerweisen.” All of a sudden I stop, put the cello down, lie down on the floor and try to do a nip-up. It looks like I’m going to make it, but I don’t. I snap way up in the air and come down flat on my back like a sack of cement. You’d think I’d broke my neck. I don’t say a damn thing, just pick up the cello, sit down an dgo on with “Zigeunerweisen” where I left off.

Music? Comedy? Acrobatics? Anyway, it worked for Demarest. In 1927, Warner Brothers signed him; he appeared in The Jazz Singer and several Vitaphone shorts.

By 1932, he was a Master of Ceremonies at the Palace. (In fact, he hosted their very last two-a-day). He still appeared with Collette, who would play violin along with his cello. But with vaudeville drying up, Demarest quit to become an agent. In 1940 Preston Sturges did the world a service by coaxing him out of retirement to act in The Great McGinty and several other of his films. He does a little of his old material in the 1946 film The Jolson Story. (The most difficult trick Demarest pulled off in that film was to smile in several scenes. As fans of My Three Sons can imagine, it is a disturbing trick, indeed.) Demarest continued to play character roles in films, and of course, was Uncle Charlie from 1965 through 1972. He passed away in 1983 — and he probably growled at St. Peter!

This is why we love him:

To learn about the history of vaudeville, including vaudeville vets like William Demarest, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**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. 

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