Sir Harry Lauder: Vaudeville’s Favorite Scotsman

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Believe it or not, one of the top five vaudeville acts of all time, up there with Houdini and Eva Tanguay, was this token Scotsman with bushy eyebrows, who came on stage in full kilt regalia and sang sentimental songs in a thick burr. His biggest hit was a song called “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”. To modern eyes and ears he seems a Warner Brothers cartoon’s idea of a Scotsman. Ah, but perhaps we have it backwards—maybe Warner Bros. got their idea of a “Scotsman” from him.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1870 and got his first working experience in a coal mine. But a coal mine is no place for canaries. He made his debut 1882, in Arbroath. Today Arbroath, tomorrow the world! He debuted in London in 1900, and quickly became one of the most sought after entertainers in music hall, touring also Australia and South Africa before reaching American shores in 1907. His debut at the New York Theater was so successful, the audience held him over an hour.

Americans loved Lauder so much he toured the country 25 times. (His last was 1934). In an era when 17 minutes was a long time for an act to be on a vaudeville stage, Lauder usually did an hour fifteen, slaughtering the throngs with songs like “Wee Hoose ‘Mang the Heather” and “It’s a’ Roon the Toon”. His success extended to a very lucrative recording career (1902-1933) and numerous films, including several early talkie experiments. He was knighted in 1919 for his work entertaining troops. His last radio broadcast was in 1942, but  retired officially in 1949. He died the following year.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



  1. I met Hirschfeld when he was a mere 86. I put together a show at the NYPL for the Performing Arts on theatrical illustration and of course, he was one of the stars. We hit it off and I was asked to organize his archive. I spent a day or two many weeks over the next 13 years in his studio compiling a database of everything he ever did. We worked on a couple of books and exhibitions together, and I am proud to say that I may hold the record for the most free lunches at his home.

    I now work for the Foundation that bears his name. Over the last 7 years since his death, we have organized 15 exhibitions and installations of his work all over the world. This fall we will debut a deep content website at that will allow vistors to search the database and see more than 2,500 images to start. The idea is to eventually have all of his work online. I’ll let you know when it is up.

    We will also open a new exhibition in New Orleans to celebrate the centennial of Tennessee Williams that will bring together 50 years of Hirschfeld’s drawings to give visitors a contemporaneous account, literally drawn from life, of the work of Tennessee Williams on Broadway and beyond. and yes there will be a catalogue. We hope to be doing more in NYC very soon.


    • Hm, I appear to have been taking coals to Newcastle in the Hirschfeld department. when is the williams exhibition?


      • Not to worry, and forgive me if I appeared to be one-upping you. the two of you would have gotten along famously. As a kid, he was a vaudeville junkie, skipping school for a week to see Houdini at the Palace. In typical Hirschfeld fashion, Houdini took a liking to the kid and invited him backstage where he showed him some of his tricks. And the performers who made it legit and to the movies were some of his favorites to drawing. He described them as “overactive thyroid cases”, “the kind that don’t close a door, they slam it.”

        He was most certainly did not live in the past. He lived completely in the present, but I am sure he would have loved to see some of your performances. He liked a good show and characters, so I know he would have been at home at one of your soirees.

        And to answer about the Williams show, it will open on January 12th in NOLA and run through the end of April.


  2. As always, a great quick hit fromt he past. Folks might be interested to know that it was a drawing of Harry Lauder in one of his regular farewell tours in 1928 that was Al Hirschfeld’s first contribution to the NY Times, the beginning of a 75 year relationship with the paper. Hirschfeld has been drawing professionally since 1920 (for movie studios), published his first caricature in April 1925 (Warner Bros films), published his first theatrical caricature in December 1926 (Sacha Guitry) and made his first appearance in the Times on 1/29/28. Hirschfeld would eventually draw Lauder for MGM to publicize Lauder’s short films.


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