Eddie Foy (whose birthday it is) is remembered today (when at all) chiefly as the father of the 7 Little Foys, thanks largely to the Bob Hope bio-pic (one of my favorite movies), but also due to the fact that the act he had with his children ended up being the climax of his long career. In truth, Foy had been a beloved star in variety, vaudeville and musical theatre for decades before the eldest Little Foy was a twinkle in Mrs. Foy’s eye. Eddie was 57 years old when the 7 Little Foys debuted.
Foy is a true bridge from the world of saloons and variety to jazz age vaudeville. Born Edwin Fitzgerald in New York City in 1856, he grew up in Trinity Place near the Bowery. In 1862 his father joined the Union Army, where he died of syphilis. The 1863 draft riots and anti-Irish bias prompted Mrs. Fitzgerald to bring her brood to Chicago. Eddie became a bootblack and newsboy to help the family out.
But things weren’t any cooler in Chicago. When Eddy was 15, the Great Chicago Fire broke out. The entire family was forced to join the thousands who fled the giant wall of flame that wiped out a good part of the city, including the Fitzgerald house.
From his teenage years through the mid-1880s, Fitzgerald (now Foy) worked with a succession of partners (and occasionally solo) in old variety, touring every corner of the American show biz universe at that time: the east, the mid-west and the far west. His versatility stood him in good stead: he could sing; he did jigs, clogging, and eccentric dancing; performed in drag and blackface, somes at the same time; did impressions; acted in sketches; and did acrobatics.
He talked out of the side of his mouth, which added attitude to his casually tossed-off one-liners. He also noticed that he got laughs when he spit as he talked, so he also cultivated that Foy-ble. His spitting was so well loved by the audience that when Eddie Foy, Jr. portrayed his dad in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, he sprayed his lines for maximum recognition value.
By the early 1880s he and his partner Jim Thompson had become stars out west, but to truly be able to say one had made it, one had to be a success back East. They made the move in 1883, joining up with the Carncross Minstrels** of Philadelphia. The experience was something of a demotion. What played on the frontier didn’t do for a sophisticated “back-east” audience, and the two were given bit parts . Thompson couldn’t take the come-down and returned west. Foy remained, however, and rapidly made good.
When one of the regular company took sick, Foy got his big chance, performing a jig that won over the audience. He rose up the ranks in short order. Character roles in minstrel and comedy companies occupied him for the remainder of the 1880s.
From the 1890s through the oughts of the last century, Foy starred in a series of large-scale musical fantasy extravaganzas for Chicago-based producer David Henderson. These lavish affairs general had casts of 150-200 performers, and were based on fairy tales or popular stories, such as Bluebeard Jr. (1889), Sinbad,(1891), and Ali Baba (1892). The 1896 show Little Robinson Crusoe paired him with the great Marie Dressler.
In 1903, one of the nation’s worst disasters catapulted Foy to national fame as a hero and all but guaranteed his conquest of New York. During a performance of the Foy show Mr. Bluebird at Chicago’s Iroqouis theatre, some sparks from a calcium lamp ignited the curtains. An asbestos fire curtain designed to contain such fires (which were common) wouldn’t come down, and the flames spread. The audience, which was most composed of women and children for the weekday matinee, began to panic. Eddie had been in his dressing room. As soon as he found out what was going on, he went to the stage to calm the audience. As he was doing so, a draft from an opened stage door flooded the theatre in flame. Foy managed to escape through the basement and through a sewer. Most of the remaining audience — 600 of them – were either trampled or burnt to death.
Eddie was now praised as a national hero for his cool leadership in the face of calamity.
Thrown out of work by the fire, he now began to work in vaudeville, which had replaced variety in the years when he had been a star of musical comedy. No matter where he went in vaudeville that first year, he received rousing cheers before he even started his act.
By the way, these are Eddie Foy’s dance shoes. They are on exhibition down at the Library of Congress. It may be grounds for institutionalization, but when I was researching No Applause, I stood staring at these shoes for about 40 minutes as though I were at a Buddhist shrine:
Foy continued to alternate big time vaudeville engagements with musical theatre roles until 1912, when he started the Seven Little Foys. The idea for “Fun With the Foy Family” had occurred to Foy years before he implemented it. He decided the time was not right until his youngest (Irving) turned four. His reason for starting the act was obvious. “There was no family act even remotely like it,” Foy said. Sure, there were four Cohans and three Keatons, but there was no act with eight family members (including Eddie; nine , including Mrs. Foy, who occasionally appeared with them, ten.) The children ranged in age from four year old Irving up to Bryan, who was 16. (Eddie, Jr. was actually the fourth son, because Eddie Sr. wanted to wait for a namesake who would actually resemble him). The kids would come onstage in matching clothes, arranged in descending order of height except for Irving, who would pop out of a small carpetbag. The children would sing songs. Bryan and Charlie would do impressions. Eddie would make jokes like “If I move to [city where they were performing], it will be a big city!” The act was clean and wholesome and appealed to all ages.
They debuted at the New Brighton Theatre, Long Island, and next went to Keith’s Union Square, where they were promptly nabbed by the Gerry Society (the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children), a thorn in their side for the next ten years. This despite the many positive aspects of their experience. First, Foy was including them in his life, teaching them the family business. The act went first on bill for evening shows so the kids could be home in time to go to bed. A tutor accompanied them on tour to teach them their regular subjects. As the name of name of one of their acts suggested, the kids were truly “chips off the old block”. Unlike their depiction in their bio-pic, they could sing, dance and clown around with the best of them. Here’s proof!
The full act of all eight family members only lasted five years. Bryan left to serve in World War I. After being discharged he stayed out of the act, helping to co-write Gallagher and Shean’s theme song, then becoming a scenario writer for Fox, and finally successful Hollywood producer. Eddie, Sr., a senior citizen, began to phase himself out, retiring completely in 1923. He returned to vaudeville in 1927 with a sketch called “The Fallen Star” prepared for him by Frank Fay and Tom Barry. A rigorous touring schedule finally finished him off the following year. Most of the Foy children remained in vaudeville at least a little while, although Eddie Jr. was the only one who remained an actor for the rest of his life. Charlie had a solo act for awhile, eventually owning several nightclubs, palling around with Joe Frisco, and narrating the Seven Little Foys movie. Irving, the smallest, who used to pop out of a bag or a picnic basket, moved to Albuequerque, where he managed a movie house and ice cream parlor. But now… as the great Paul Harvey would say, for THE REST OF THE STORY.
It looks like someone else just popped out of that little bag. Irving’s grandson Ryan has gone into the family business. I first became aware of him in 2008 when I reviewed a new musical about the Seven Little Foys for the Village Voice. Ryan (pictured above) played George M. Cohan, and he was the best thing about the show. The chance to talk to an actual Foy was too much for me to pass up, so I exploited Eddie’s birthday to secure an interview with Ryan over the weekend. We met in Madison Square Park, the heart of what was briefly the theatre district.
Ryan was easy to spot. He looks like a Foy, without being as funny-looking as the older generations. And it turns out he’s a trouper, just like his forbears. He tours with traveling shows a lot (including a recent engagement in China, about which he cannot say enough bad things. The engagement not the country) and makes the rounds of cattle calls and auditions just the regular hoi polloi. He’s what I call a show biz Romanoff, trapped in an industry that doesn’t know its own royalty when it sees it.
Ryan says, “Being a Foy is useful as a conversation starter at some auditions, but that’s about it.”
He says his cousin Eddie the Third, told him, “The Foy name won’t help you. You gotta do it yourself.”
Eddie the Third was a big man behind the scenes for many years as a casting director for Dick Clark Productions (he’s the man who cast Sally Field as Gidget. But who cast her as the Flying Nun?). In contrast with his senior citizen cousin, Ryan is a squirt — fresh out of college and only in the city a couple of years. He studied musical theatre at the University of Michigan, sings, dances, and acts. In fact, he has pretty much the same kind of skills as his famous relatives, only the parts he gets tend to involve dressing like characters from Thomas the Tank Engine and Dora the Explorer. But I am the old-fashioned type that believes both in the clannishness of dynasties, and in the ultimate benevolence of the Prime Mover. This Foy kid is just out of the gate. I predict he has an excellent career ahead of him.
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, 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.