Remembered today as “the Homer of Vaudeville” because of two important books he wrote on the subject, Joe Laurie, Jr. is much more important to posterity for his chronicling of vaudeville than his own participation in it.
During the institution’s heyday, Laurie was a sort of mid-level success as a comedian, and he played the Palace several times in his lifetime. However, it was his Variety column “Letters to Lefty” that made him a person of consequence to his contemporaries and his two books Show Biz: From Vaude to Video and Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace that make of interest to posterity. These two books are among the first written to attempt to communicate the story of vaudeville in its entirety, and you can be sure that any book written on the subject subsequently relies on them as major sources.
Yet the books suffer from giving at the same time too much and too little info. Whole pages and sections consist of little more than the names of acts…until one begins to suspect that Laurie has endeavored to list all 10,000 living vaudevillians in an attempt to leave no one out. By the same token, because he was writing within living memory of many of these acts, he assumed a shared knowledge on the part of the reader that no longer exists. Often a reference or allusion tantalizes but does not satisfy. Still, because of his intimate knowledge of the subject, and his breezy voice (the voice of an actual vaudevillian), I’d be lying if I said his books weren’t indispensable to the vaudeville lover.
As a performer, he billed himself as “the Pint-Sized Comedian”. From the early teens through 1917 he worked as a team with his first wife Aleen Bronson. In 1919, he played the Palace with a sketch called “Whatika” (a pronunciation of the phrase “what do I care?”) His Broadway shows included Over the Top (1918), Plain Jane (1924), If I Was Rich (1926), and Swing Your Lady (1934). From 1950 through 1951 he was one of four panelists on the game show Can You Top This? He passed away in 1954.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including Joe Laurie Jr, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.