Billy Rose: Showman for the Ages

Billy Rose (William Rosenberg, 1899-1966) is a sort of honorary vaudevillian. While he never trod the vaudeville stage, he came awful close to it in several different ways. Vaudevillians sang the songs he wrote and co-wrote, e.g., “Me and My Shadow”, “Barney Google”, “Does Your Spearmint Lose It’s Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?”, “That Old Gang of Mine”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, and “I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store”.

He married vaudeville royalty, i.e, Fanny Brice, as is well (if somewhat aimlessly) chronicled in the movie Funny Lady, in which he would have been glad to know he was portrayed by the better looking James Caan.

Starting with Sweet and Low (1930), Rose produced several Broadway revues (akin in form and content to vaudeville), culminating with the 1935 mega-circus musical Jumbo at the sometime vaudeville house the Hippodrome (later made into a movie by MGM). Other notable shows he produced included Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), Carmen Jones (1943-46), and Seven Lively Arts (1944-45).

In 1934 he opened Billy Rose’s Music Hall and later attempted a sort of vaudeville revival in 1938 with his 1890s-themed nightclub the Diamond Horseshoe, which employed many ex-vaudevillians. This too was made into a movie.

Billy Rose’s Aquacade, an all-swimming revue, was a highlight of the 1937 Great Lakes Exposition and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. At this stage he broke with Brice and married swimmer and Aquacade star Eleanor Holm. After a costly divorce, he would later marry Milton Berle’s ex-wife Joyce Mathews, and Doris Warner Vidor, daughter of Harry Warner of the Warner Brothers, and widow of film director Charles Vidor.

In 1943, he purchased the Ziegfeld Theatre. Can you think of a more appropriate owner? I can’t!

And, perhaps his most important legacy of all, the Billy Rose Division at the New York Public Library Performing Arts Branch, an invaluable resource to many a vaudeville researcher, including this correspondent. Rose passed away in 1966.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville and great showmen like Billy Roseconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.



  1. […] Born in Denver in 1890, Whiteman learned to play the violin as a child. His early professional experience did not hint at the direction his career was to take: positions with the Denver Symphony and San Francisco People’s Symphony; Navy bandmaster in World War I. In 1919 he formed his own orchestra specializing in a style he called “symphonic jazz” – that is, large scale orchestrated arrangements of jazz-like pop, but without the noisy and chaotic (and most would say thrilling) improvisation that had been the hallmark of Dixieland. His outfit was the perfect vessel to introduce George Gershwin’s experiments, such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (George White’s Scandals, 1922) and “Rhapsody in Blue” (Aeolian Hall, 1924). Vaudeville provided steady work, and his bands were to play the Palace numerous times in the 20s. In 1925 they played the Hippodrome – one of the few acts to make sense in that cavernous venue. (The band returned in 1936 to supply the music for Billy Rose’s Jumbo). […]


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