Percy Williams: A Pussycat Among Lions

 

A long overdue tribute today to one of the more colorful and humane of the major vaudeville managers, Percy G. Williams (1857-1923).

The son of a doctor, Williams initially studied medicine himself, but ended up spending several years acting with stock companies in his native Baltimore and in Brooklyn, performing in Tom Shows and other melodramas. In 1880 he merged his two interests by creating a medicine show, where he performed minstrel numbers and hawked “liver bags” duing intermission. The bags were stuffed with herbs and outfitted with some sort of convincing electrical contraption. He rapidly expanded his operation until he was touring tented shows and managing dozens of performers, making a pile of money in the bargain.

By the end of the decade Williams had amassed quite a pile and partnered with chewing gum millionaire Thomas Adams in several lucrative real estate projects. The largest individual one was the development of Bergen Island, Brooklyn into an amusement park. Located off the coast of Canarsie (separated only by a narrow channel that was later filled in), this marshy tract probably looked unpromising to most developers (it was owned by a single farmer, John C. Bergen at the time), but Williams and Adams saw promise when they looked at what was happening at Coney Island and Rockaway Beach to the South, and North Beach (Queens) to the North. They filled in some of the marsh land, installed a boardwalk, piers, a casino, a beer garden, theatres, rides, concessions, a scenic railway and such attractions as an “Irish Village”, a “Moorish Maze”, and an “Egytian Encampment”. Hundreds of performers were employed, and naturally there was sea bathing, at least in the early years.

The Bushwick Theatre, built by Percy Williams in 1911

The addition of his casino and theatres to the park represents Williams’ first experimentation with professional vaudeville, although his 1895 purchase of a plot of land in downtown Brooklyn shows he already had big plans. On that plot of land, in 1901, he opened what was then considered to be the most beautiful theater in the world, the Orpheum, at Fulton Street and Broadway in Brooklyn. In the meantime, he had taken over the old Brooklyn Music Hall (later renamed the Gotham) and made it his own. Over the next few years he continued buying vaudeville theatres in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and a couple in Boston and Philadelpia, very rapidly becoming one of the most important vaudeville impresarios in the nation, more important in New York than even the formidable and ruthless Keith and Albee. He set a new standard for class. His theatres were the poshest. And most infuriatingly (to his competitors), he was generous to his employees. He refused to join the Vaudeville Managers Association, which aimed to fix salaries and control the lives of performers in other ways. Williams held out for as long as he could, but eventually (1907) the other managers got him to sign on as general manager of the United Box Office (UBO), essentially the monopoly that ran big time vaudeville. By 1912 he was in failing health, and he sold his theatres to Keith and Albee, permitting them to consolidate their power even further.

Meanwhile, the amusement park at Bergen Beach was also in descent. By comparison with Coney Island and the Rockaways, it was not well served by public transportation. There was a major fire in 1910. Pollution from a nearby waste dump made swimming unattractive. Williams closed the park in 1919. The area was later developed for housing. Williams passed away in 1923 of cirrhosis of the liver. He donated his house in East Islip as a home for old, infirm, and destitute actors. 50 years later, it was sold by the trustees, the proceeds going to the support of a similar home in New Jersey.

To learn more about vaudeville including the crucial role played by Percy Williams, consult 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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