Elsie Janis was so dependent on her domineering stage mother that she remained in some senses a “child star” until well after her fortieth year. Ma Janis did everything for her: coached her on her performance, kept her schedule, made the bookings, selected her material, chose her wardrobe, and chaperoned her dates. Irene Castle called Ma Janis Elsie’s “ringmaster” and “Svengali”. “for pure drive and ambition,” she said, “no mother manager…ever approached Ma Janis.”
Liz Bierboner (Ma’s real name) was a born entrepreneur and a frustrated performer. At first she sold real estate, and gave elocution lessons in the Columbus, Ohio area, but when Elsie came along in 1889, she became her main project. Precocious Little Elsie first performed publicly at age 5, debuting at a church entertainment. In 1897 she went professional, specializing in impressions of famous vaudeville stars, but also singing and dancing well enough to pull them off.
Elsie’s (Liz’s) big break came in 1900, when Elsie was 11. It so happened that she had known President McKinley from his days as Ohio governor. Based on this old connection, Elsie was booked for a “command performance” at the White House. Following that engagement, she was truly in demand. At Mike Shea’s Theatre in Buffalo, she started out in the number two slot. By the following week she was headlining. Her 1905 performance at New York’s Casino Theatre Roof Garden set the town abuzz, with her impressions of Weber and Fields, Faye Templeton and Lillian Russell. later that year she played London and Paris. Her repertoire grew over the years to include: Vesta Victoria, Eddie Foy, Eva Tanguay, Ethyl Barrymore, Anna Held, Harry Lauder, Irene Franklin, Pat Rooney, Frank Tinny, George M. Cohan, Sarah Bernhardt, Nazimova, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers—effectively half the people in these annals.
To say that Janis’s mother was overprotective would be an understatement. Her insistence that “Elsie must not be overworked” ensured that Elsie would be weak, sickly and frail throughout her life. Worst of all, she kept Elsie away from suitors, protecting her career, but insulating her also from the satisfactions of marriage.
Nevertheless, Elsie spent World War I patriotically entertaining the troops, sometimes quite close to the front. “The war was my high spot” Elsie said, “and I think there is only one peak in this life.” You can see a cool re-creation of her wartime act in a 1927 Vitaphone short she did, available in Warner Bros’ The Jazz Singer boxed set.
While she continued to perform after the war, the spark had sort of gone out, and her career was not as successful again. She retired in 1932 upon the death of her mother, without whom she was effectively helpless in show business. When she died in 1956, her good friend Mary Pickford was at her side.
Personal note–I got a burst of local pride in reading Elsie’s autobiography So Far, So Good! when I learned that for a time she spent her summers in my hometown (actually one town over) back when it was a fashionable destination for wealthy New Yorkers. Here are the Narragansett Towers as I knew them growing up:
And here they are as Elsie knew them, when they were part of a huge casino that later burned down:
One of the reasons, no doubt, I spend most of my time looking backwards.
To learn more about the roots of vaudeville, including top stars like Elsie Janis, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous