William Morris: Founder of an Agency Empire

Of the two dozen or so agents who worked New York in the 1890s, the most important was William Morris (born today 1873), founder of the eponymous firm, still thriving today. A German Jewish immigrant (born Zelman Moses), Morris sold advertising before prevailing on M.B. Leavitt, a distant relative, to provide him with an introduction to George Liman, then vaudeville’s top agent. Morris clerked for him, quickly becoming his right hand man. When Liman died in 1898, Morris hung out his own shingle: “William Morris: Vaudeville Agent”.

with Al Jolson

Morris booked acts for Poli, Hammerstein, Proctor, and, in the early years, even Keith. His stable would at various times include Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Sir Harry Lauder – nearly every big name in show business. As an advocate for these artists, Morris would grow to be a rich and powerful man – one in direct conflict with the interests of the vaudeville managers. His efforts to start his own vaudeville circuit eventually proved a bust. He also represented movie stars like like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks:

Morris retired in 1929 and passed away in 1932, whereupon his successors branched out further into film and broadcasting, building the firm into the huge national concern that bears his name.

To learn more about vaudeville, including important agents like William Morris, please consult my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous


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