Coney Island and Vaudeville

Hendersons Music Hall back in the day

(adapted from a talk given at the Coney Island Museum in 2006)

In the early days of the 1870s and 80s, before the trains came in, Coney Island wasn’t a place for day trippers. The two attractions were a) the enormous resort hotels, like the Manhattan Beach, the Brighton Beach and the Oriental, where families would stay for their vacations by the sea. And b) several racetracks, where people would come bet on horses, which I conclude – without making any value judgments – explains the nearby presence of many wild saloons. And in the early days of Coney Island, variety performers would entertain in these two kinds of venues: the very genteel hotels and the very wild saloons.

Naturally, the hotel entertainment was of a certain type, often geared toward children, clowns and magicians and brass bands. The saloons, however, were a different breed of animal. First clustered around an area called the Gut, and later on a strip named after the Manhattan street it most resembled, the Bowery, Coney Island’s saloon scene was just what you would expect in that time and place.

These saloons were the very sum and summit of sinfulness – and proud of it. It was understood from the get-go that the prospective tippler needed to watch his back. Brawls were de rigueur, and there was the risk of being hit by a flying mug, chair, or knuckle sandwich. Pickpockets, swindlers, and out-and-out robbers worked the saloons as methodically as butchers in a slaughterhouse.

Special hostesses called waiter girls worked the halls, socializing with the men and generally encouraging the purchase of more drinks. In addition to their own beverages, the men would buy drinks for the ladies, who wisely only pretended to imbibe them. Waiter girls wore distinctive short dresses and high boots, smoked cigars, and offered to sit in your lap. They were a cross between a hostess and a waitress, but many doubled as performers in the variety show and/or your “date” for the evening back at the hotel.

The show would usually start with an opening chorus by the ladies in the company (whom, if the audience is lucky, might oblige them with a can-can) There would then follow 12-15 acts of a distinctively 19th-century sort: minstrels, jig dancers, banjo players, harmonizing quartets, acrobats, and so forth. Distinctive types of acts that have not survived the era include: the sand jig—something like tap dancing, but the dancer would pour sand on the floor and make shuffling and sliding noises; playing the bones, as in minstrelsy; the egg dance – wildly dancing around several eggs on the stage without breaking any; “tidy tearing”—rapidly ripping and folding pieces of paper into recognizable shapes; and (with the Civil War fresh in everyone’s minds) military acts, such as gun spinners, and drill companies.

Who were some of the acts you might seen out here in the earliest years? The most significant one was a couple of kids named Weber and Fields. I consider them two of the most influential people not only in show business, but in American theatrical history, and their names really ought to be far better known. They made numerous contributions to American culture, only one of them being that they were America’s first great comedy team. The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, etc, etc, etc, none of them would have existed in the way that they existed without Weber and Fields had come first. Now there were many great comedy teams before them: the names Harrigan and Hart come to mind, a team equally deserving of posterity’s attention, for as many reasons. But Harrigan and Hart, and acts like them, were sort of jacks of all trades. They came out and did a little bit of everything: clog dancing, drag, blackface minstrelsy**, and the Irish comedy that was there stock in trade. Weber and Fields started out that way – in fact, that was the sort of stuff they would have done here in the early days – but they became famous when they restricted themselves to a single pair of characters and built a very familiar, very focused act around that. Their characters were a pair of German immigrants (Germans were the second largest immigrant group then, a close second to the Irish), and they did a lot of dialect shtick around that. Dialect shtick is the sort of comedy we associate today with Chico Marx, the best known surviving example, although there were thousands who did and truth be known, still DO it. Larry the Cable Guy does a cracker dialect, and Hank Azarian when he plays Apu on The Simpsons, does an Indian dialect, which is no less stereotypical really than the sort of comedy our forefathers enjoyed when they laughed at each others accents in vaudeville. So Weber and Fields spoke with silly German accents and used funny malapropisms. But they were equally famous for their slapstick, which was vastly more violent then any that had been done before, the sort of comedy we associate today with the Three Stooges. One character says something, the other character slaps him or pokes him in the eyes. They wore large amounts of padding under their clothes, including their hats, and they would just whack the hell out of each other.

Their act became so popular around the country that they not only became producers of their own shows, but they owned their own Broadway theater, exclusively devoted to producing vehicles for them (think about that a minute), while simultaneously sending on the road as many as four other separate touring vaudeville troupes. This is why I said they are pivotal in American theater…in American musical theater, anyway. They helped invent American musical comedy. But years before that, Weber and Fields were an act you would see in the hotels and saloons of Coney Island, where they first performed, believe it or not, when they were in their very early teens. (They didn’t tell their parents) One legend has it that once Weber and Fields booked themselves at two rival saloons, and would run from one to the other until they were caught by the owner of Duffy’s Tavern (one of the establishments), who chased them into the ocean with a bullwhip.

People who did the German shtick were called “Dutch comics”. Another major Dutch comic besides Weber and Fields who played Coney Island in the early years, was a character from the Lower East Side named Sam Bernard who eventually became a star of Weber and Fields’ company. Bernard did his schtick as a monologist. This was a popular type of comic in the years before stand-up…today you might consider it more analogous to performance art or solo theater. A humorous monologue or story told in a funny German accent.

Another important act that performed out here in the early days was an Irishman named Pat Rooney. The Irish dominated the variety scene in the early decades…there were hundreds of performers who did a Hibernian act and Pat Rooney would be way at the top of the list of the most famous and beloved. As we saw with Weber and Fields, ethnic groups were generally reduced to humorous stereotypes. To us, Pat Rooney’s outfit would look like a leprechaun costume, although he was credited with giving one of the more nuanced and human portrayals of his day. Picture knee breeches and shoes with big buckles and a big checked coat and a dented plug hat, and glued on red whiskers, and a big, flowing bow tie of the old fashioned sort that actually looks like a bow. Rooney would clog dance, and sing humorous and sentimental songs like “Owen Riley” and “The Sound Democrat”. He passed away in the 1890s but he was the father of a whole dynasty of Pat Rooneys. His son Pat Rooney, Jr. was even more famous than he was and was a big star in the hey day of vaudeville, and Pat Rooney III was performing as late as the 1960s.

As we approach the 1890s, trains come to Coney Island and the character changes somewhat. Daytrippers come in, and the area will shortly be characterized by amusement parks and side shows. I don’t want to get off topic by talking too much about side shows, but it’s obviously a form of entertainment very much related to vaudeville, and indeed many of the top vaudeville entrepreneurs either got started presenting sideshow style fare in dime museums, or perpetuated a sideshow-style fare in some of their booking for vaudeville houses. Harry Houdini got his start in Coney sideshows, and met his wife Bess there. 

There is one particular sideshow style act I want to mention because it is very much associated with Coney Island and ended up influencing vaudeville.

In 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, you could encounter a pavilion known as “The Streets of Cairo”. There, a dancer known as Little Egypt clad in harem pants and a sheer top that left her midriff exposed, did a sexy, snake-like dance, wiggling her abdomen and writhing her arms whilst beguiling the male patrons with a look of “come hither”. Initially presented with an anthropological rationale, the exhibition’s baser charms became its selling point almost instantly, much as an issue of National Geographic in the hands of an adolescent becomes pornography. Her act, which raised the brows of many, became known variously as the “belly dance”, the “cooch dance” or the “hootchy cootchy”. By the following year it had become a national craze, with scores of Little Egypts to be found in carnivals, dime museums, and amusement parks all over the country.

In 1897, Coney Island got its own “Streets of Cairo”, and Little Egypt style belly dancing forever became very much associated with Coney Island. Sexy dancing was frowned on in vaudeville, but when it did make it the vaudeville stage, it was frequently presented with this faux Middle Eastern rationale that made it seem cultural even while it titillated. And so you can add the people of the Holy Lands to the Germans, the Irish, the Jews and Blacks as ethnic groups gleefully misrepresented in vaudeville.

Even as amusement parks and sideshows were establishing themselves out here, so, too were actual vaudeville theaters. Coney Island’s vaudeville houses were strictly seasonal, and there was a very good reason for their existence. This was decades before theaters were air conditioned. In summer, the New York theaters were empty: you couldn’t even go into them they were so stifling. Think of it: no windows, and the body heat of hundreds of audience members raising the room temperature to 98.6. I think of the ordeal as being something similar to the one the Alec Guiness suffered in the Bridge Over the River Kwai. This was an era when men did not take off their coats in public, and again, women wore dresses that went to their ankles. One response to summer heat was rooftop gardens, a number of Manhattan theaters presented their summer shows at these. Otherwise, people would trek out to theaters at Coney Island.

The Surf Theater was the first theater per se to be built here, opening its doors in 1882 courtesy the Tilyou family, who were soon to make a much bigger splash with Steeplechase Park. Other Coney Island vaudeville theaters included Manhattan Beach Theater, the Brighton Beach Music Hall, and Henderson’s Coney Island.

It was at the latter institution in 1908 that Harpo Marx joined the Marx Brothers. Well, obviously he joined them when he was born, but this is when he joined the act. At the time, the act was a singing act called the Three Nightingales, and consisted of Groucho, Gummo, (the brother who never made it onto film) and a kid named Lou Levy. Harpo and Chico each had separate careers playing piano in saloons, whorehouses and silent movies. Apparently, on one occasion, the boys’ mother Minnie, who did the booking, booked them as a quartet at Henderson’s Coney Island. The theater wanted a quartet so she said the group was a quartet to get the booking. In his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, Harpo writes of being grabbed by his mother right in the middle of playing in the movie theater and dragged out to the gig. Harpo couldn’t sing. He was petrified, and by his own account, he wet his pants.

Like Chico and Harpo, Jimmy Durante started out as a teenager playing piano in saloons. In the summers one of the places where he used to work was a Coney Island establishment called Cary Walsh’s. It was supposedly a very rough place—the kind of place where beer mugs go flying when the action gets too wild. As coincidence would have it, in the summer of 1908 or 1909, at around the same time Harpo was joining his brother onstage, in another part of Coney Island another future star was working at Cary Walsh’s dive at the same time as Durante: Eddie Cantor. He’s sadly almost unknown today, but in the 1920s and 30s there was nobody bigger in show business. He was easily as big as the Marx Brothers or Durante, but nowadays people just kind of scratch their heads when they see his schtick in films. At any rate, at the same time Durante was a piano player, Cantor was a singing waiter at three dollars a day. Their job was to be able to sing any song that any customer named. If they didn’t know the song, the drunken customer would be unruly, and the singer would likely be fired. So Durante and Cantor worked out a scheme between them. If they didn’t know the song, Durante would just vamp in an easy-to-reach key and Cantor would improvise lyrics around the song title. If the customer said, “Hey, that isn’t it!” Cantor would say, “You mean there’s two songs by that name?”

Another important Coney Island export to the world of vaudeville. Just as the Steeplechase Tilyous gave us the Surf Theater (which is really just a footnote), Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, the owners and designers of LunaPark, created two of vaudeville’s most important theaters, the Colonial and the Hippodrome, both built in 1905.

The Colonial was located near what is now Lincoln Center, in a location that today contains a public atrium with a rock climbing concession. The Colonial was designed by Thompson and Dundee to resemble an British music hall. The Hell’s Kitchen audience of the Colonial, became notorious for their unruly behavior. Inventors of the so-called “Colonial Clap”, an unnerving, slow clap delivered by the audience in unison in order to drive a performer from the stage.Only performers with an iron stomach or an irresistible charm could face this audience. Sophie Tucker, for example, spoke to the thugs outside before the show, to persuade them to behave. But as a result of the tough crowd, the Colonial produced some of the finest shows in the business.Only the spectacular could survive there.

At the other end of the scale, The Hippodrome was the most fabulous theatre ever built in the United States. Located across the street from Bryant Park, Thompson and Dundeebuilt it to showcase mammoth fantasy spectacles like A Yankee Circus on Mars and Neptune’s Daughter. According to Nicholas Van Hoogstratten in his book Lost Broadway Theatres, “it would seat more people (4,500-5,200 depending on how the space was configured) more times per week (14) to watch more performers (1,000, give or take a few horses or elephants) on a stage twelve times bigger than a regular Broadway house.” The Brobdinagian Hip was outfitted with a retractable hydraulic floor and swimming pools for water shows of the sort film fans now associate with Busby Berkley and Esther Williams.

In the late nineteen teens, there was a fateful meeting on the Coney Island, boardwalk. Here is where a comedian and singer named Clarence Earnest Lee Nash, stage name Ted Healy met a couple of cutting up brothers from Bensonhurst. A few years, Healy was to hire the Horowitz brothers to be audience plants or stooges to liven up his comedy act. Those brothers were Shemp and Moe Howard, later to be joined by Larry Fine. In the early 1930s Healy and the Stooges went into pictures and soon broke up. The Stooges (with Jerome or Curly Howard replacing Shemp for the first ten years or so) became an enormous hit, and Healy was unfortunately swallowed up by obscurity. But it all started here on the boardwalk, with Healy, Moe and Shemp fooling around for each other and whoever walked by (and would pay them any attention, I guess).

The fact that we know the name of the Three Stooges and not their boss Ted Healy of course has to do with their success in pictures, which of course is where we know them from.

Another major vaudeville vet who performed at Coney and then became a movie star is Cary Grant, who spent a summer on the boardwalk as a stiltwalker. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? We’ve reached the point where the pictures kill vaudeville. It wasn’t the movies alone, of course, you can also blame radio, the great depression, and many other factors.

But I do think it is highly appropriate, highly significant and highly logical that the rebirth of vaudeville largely occurred at Coney Island over the last 25 years. The agency? Dick Zigun’s Coney IslandUSA, and you can learn all you’ll ever want to know about that organization here.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

One comment

  1. Wow! Glad you reposted this! I missed this the first time around! Great stuff! From the Columbian World Exposition came also Professor William Heckler and his flea circus. He performed it there in 1893, same as Little Egypt. His son (Leroy Heckler) later performed the same show both in Coney Island and at Hubert’s on Time Square. Years later, I performed at the Coney Island Sideshow and at the Palace of Variety, which (I understand) were both about two blocks from where Heckler had originally performed.


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