The Skinny on Frank Tinney

A post today about vaudeville and Broadway comedian Frank Tinney (1878-1940).

Originally from Philly, Tinney started out with minstrel shows, working his way up to the more prestigious vaudeville circuits by the early years of the 20th century. His shtick was to tell the corniest of jokes, implicating others (bandleaders, fellow performers, audience members) in the crime by dragging them onstage and making them the feeder. To make it more bizarre, he did this act in blackface** (without accent) for most of his career. In 1915, he cut a comedy disk called “Frank Tinney’s First Record”, which does a very good job of conveying his act, and it’s quite funny, surprisingly fresh and contemporary sounding. At present, it’s available on Youtube. Definitely check it out!

Tinney’s first Broadway show was the Shuberts’ Revue of Revues (1911) with Gaby Deslys, Harry Jolson, and Albertina Rasch. This was followed by A Winsome Widow (1912, a musical adaptation of Charles Hoyt’s A Trip to Chinatown) with Mae West, Kathleen Clifford, Leon Errol, the Dolly Sisters, and Charles King; The Ziegfeld Follies of 1913 with Errol, Rose Dolly, Nat M. Wills, Ann Pennington, and Jose Collins; Watch Your Step (1914) with Vernon and Irene Castle; and The Century Girl (1915) with Errol, Elsie Janis, Lilyan Tashman, and Van and Schenck; and several other shows, through the 1923 edition of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue. Like most of the other Broadway stars of the time, Tinny also played vaudeville dates during the fallow times between book shows and revues. At his peak he was pulling down $1,500 a week, one of the highest salaries in show business.

A drunkard and womanizer, Tinney’s career ended in the 1920s after a scandal involving Mary Nolan (who was known at the time was a Ziegfeld girl known as Imogene “Bubbles” Wilson).  According to her, they’d been having an affair since she was around 14 years old (circa 1916). Since 1913 Tinney had been married to vaudeville and burlesque performer Edna Davenport, sister of “Spanish dancer” Stella Jones, who billed herself as La Estrellita. Tinny and Davenport divorced after the scandal, which had several chapters: Tinny attacked a reporter who tried to take a picture of him and his mistress; his mistress tried to stowaway on a ship he was taking to England, and finally Wilson reported Tinney to the police after he allegedly beat her. In the wake of all this, Tinney found himself isolated and ostracized, no longer able to work, as no one would hire him. This led to a nervous breakdown, from which Tinny never recovered. His last years were spent in a Long Island Veteran’s Hospital (he’d served in World War One).

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Frank Tinney, 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. 

3 comments

  1. Frank Tinney appeared in many Broadway musicals between 1911 and 1926 and actually scored a Top 10 hit record entitled “Frank Tinney’s First Record” (Columbia 1854) in December 1915.

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