One is tempted to think of Owen McGiveney as vaudeville’s premiere quick-change artist, but actually he was more than that. Like his predecessor Leopoldo Fregoli, he was what was known as a “protean” performer, meaning he didn’t just change costumes rapidly, but also acted little monologues and scenes in the various characters. He was therefore an actor as much as an illusionist (although critics tended to disparage his abilities in the former category as compared with those in the latter.)
Born on this day in 1884, McGiveney began as a legit actor at around the age of 20, gradually developing his act. One of his specialties was a version of Oliver Twist in which he played several of the characters. He came to the States in 1910 and played the Palace the first year it opened, appearing on the same bill as Sarah Bernhardt. When vaudeville died, he went back to England to work the halls for awhile, until Ken Murray called him back to perform in his Blackouts in 1946. After that McGiveney worked as a character actor in Hollywood for his last two decades, not only appearing in films like Pat and Mike, Brigadoon and Raintree County, but also television shows such as Batman, The Monkees and Bewitched.
McGiveney shape-shifted into his final incarnation in 1967, but not before passing the act on to his son Michael, a.k.a Owen McGiveney, Jr. The younger McGiveney’s work has been chronicled by the great Jim Moore, and you can find some of that record at his web site here.
To learn more about 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.