Emma Carus: Operatic Headliner


“I’m not pretty, but I’m good to my family.”

So began each of Emma Carus’s vaudeville performances. Born this day in 1879, she moved to the U.S. from her native Berlin during her childhood. Her mother was an opera singer, her father, a manager. She herself got into the business at the age of fifteen when she was discovered while singing at the hotel where she worked. She began playing in operettas and occasional vaudeville dates. Gradually she went from bit roles in Broadway shows to starring ones.  In 1907 she was cast in the very first edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. 1911 marked her last Broadway show. Thereafter, she was strictly a vaudeville headliner until her retirement shortly before her death in 1927.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.


  1. Carus met a young Irving Berlin in his only Broadway appearance, Up and Down Broadway, in July 1910. Berlin was appearing with his songwriting partner and publisher, Ted Snyder in the Eddie Foy musical comedy. In the second act Berlin and Snyder “bounded on wearing sweaters, carrying tennis rackets and trying to look as much as possible like two genteel young athletes considerably surprised at finding a piano there in the middle of the garden,” according to Berlin biographer Alexander Woollcott. Snyder played while Berlin sang two new songs they had written, an ethnic number, “Sweet Italian Love” and a new song to capture the ragtime craze, “Oh, That Beautiful Rag.” One review described how the two worked “first to get on friendly terms with the audience and then to turn them into a lot of college boys rah-rah-rahing for two men who were perfect strangers to them five minutes before, but who had suddenly become personal friends.”

    When the show closed in September 1910, Carus left with the understanding that she wanted to add several Berlin songs to add to her act when she returned to vaudeville. That winter Berlin returned to a tune that he had wrote up as an instrumental. Just before he left for a trip to Palm Beach he remembered it and wrote lyrics to it in under a half hour, intending it to be sent to Carus for her next engagement in April. With its choral invitation of “Come on and hear!” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” would soon start, in Berlin’s words, “the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking.”

    He published the song in March 1911, so confident of its success that above the title it was announced “successfully intruduced [sic] by Emma Carus.” Carus did not sing the song until mid April, but Berlin had been right, it was the hit of her performance.

    Carus brought the song to New York in May and one reviewer accurately predicted that “In a few days ‘Alexander’ will be whistled on the streets and played in the cafes. It is the most meritorious addition to the list of popular songs introduced this season. The vivacious comedienne soon had her audience singing the choruses with her and those who did not sing whistled.” Soon all of vaudeville, and then Broadway was singing the song. It attracted more attention than any other song of the decade, and would be the poster child for the entire ragtime craze that swept the country and Europe following its debut. Yet it was not ragtime song, but in Berlin’s words, “a song about ragtime…I didn’t originate [ragtime]. Maybe I crystallized it and brought it to people’s attention.” Nevertheless, the 23 year old Irving Berlin was crowned the King of Ragtime and feted around the world as a true American voice.


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