It was tempting to include the silent era’s greatest comedy mogul in my Stars of Vaudeville series. His brief theatrical career brought him awfully close, but technically, to the best of my knowledge he was not in vaudeville per se. By his account, between the years 1902 and 1908, he performed in Bowery variety theatres alongside sideshow performers such as Little Egypt; worked in old school burlesque (very different from strip-ease era burlesque); and was in the chorus of several Broadway shows.
His entree into show business was interesting. Born on this day in 1880, he was working as an ironmonger in Connecticut when he asked local lawyer and town mayor Calvin Coolidge for a letter of introduction to fellow Canadian Marie Dressler, who in turn wrote Sennett a letter of introduction to David Belasco, who then directed him toward some entry level jobs. Shows he claims to have been in included King Dodo, starring Raymond Hitchcock; Piff! Paff! Poof! starring Eddie Foy; and Mlle Modiste, starring Fritzi Scheff.
In 1908, he went to work for Biograph, which is where he served his apprenticeship with D.W. Griffith. From here it was just a hop, skip and a jump to forming his own company, and discovering the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, and in later years, Bing Crosby, Gloria Swanson, and Carole Lombard. (This is really the tip of the iceberg — one can list scores of others). Among his last films were a series of sound comedy shorts starring W.C. Fields that remain popular to this day. He went bankrupt with the coming of the Great depression and never did bounce back. He passed away in 1960.
As we have said, in his early years, roughly 1908-1914 Sennett was an actor himself; primarily a comedian after around 1910. Here he is in one of his earliest Keystone shorts The Water Nymph, with Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling:
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. Also don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, due out 2013!