Eddie Dowling: Giant of the Theatre

A major man of the theatre (Broadway star, producer, director, writer, dancer, songwriter) was Eddie Dowling (1889-1976). He ought to be better remembered for a number of achievements. He produced, co-directed and starred in the original production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1940); was the first director of the U.S.O.’s Camp Shows and was partially responsible for their creation; produced, directed and co-starred in the original production of The Glass Menagerie (1945); and co-directed the first production of The Iceman Cometh (1947). This is pretty serious and heady fare, so it is intriguing to learn that he not only got his start in vaudeville and musicals, but he kept a hand in right along — one of the true few Renaissance men of the American theatre.

Born Joseph Nelson Goucher (he took on his mother’s maiden name for show biz), Dowling began as a singer and song plugger in local small time vaudeville. By 1918, he was so successful as a song and dance man that Ziegfeld booked him for his Follies in that and the following year. In between the ’18 and ’19 editions he married Ray Dooley, with whom he would sometimes perform in vaudeville and in other shows.

Dowling was to star in over two dozen Broadway shows through 1956, ranging from revues, to book musicals, to comedies to dramas. In 1922 he co-wrote the book and appeared in the show Sally Irene and Mary, which was later made into a hit 1925 silent film with Constance Bennett, Sally O’Neil, and Joan Crawford, and later remade in 1938 with Alice Faye, Joan Davis, and Marjorie Weaver (as well as Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen, Tony Martin, Gregory Ratoff, and Gypsy Rose Lee). He appeared in the Broadway production of Kid Boots (1923) with Eddie Cantor. He also wrote and starred in Honeymoon Lane — both the 1926 version and its 1931 screen adaptation, which also featured wife Ray Dooley, though they broke up right after this. In 1931 he was briefly married to Mayor Jimmy Walker’s mistress Betty Compton. 

Dowling also got heavy into politics — a New Deal man all the way, he was a valued supporter of FDR and his policies and ran for the U.S. Senate seat for Rhode Island in 1934. His serious turn grew more marked in 1937 when he co-produced a version of Richard II starring Maurice Evans that became a major hit. In the mid 50s he did some television, including several turns on the Ed Sullivan show. He spent his last two decades in retirement, passing away in 1976.

To find out more about 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.

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