Born today in 1825, George L. Fox comes way too early to have been in vaudeville, but he is a crucial figure in American variety history as a clown, actor and comedian (not to mention director and producer). He was born into a performing family in Boston (quite rare at the time), playing juvenile roles with his siblings before quitting to be an apprentice tradesman for a time. As a young adult he rejoined the act, which eventually moved to New York. In 1850, he split off on his own and became a low comedian at the National Theatre on the Bowery, where he was popular for the next seven years, playing Bowery Bhoys, Yankees and similar comic types. He also directed what is considered a serious and respectful version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (unlike many that came after), written by his cousin George Aiken.
Towards the end of the decade, he became interested in British style pantomime, becoming one of the crucial figures in transplanting that form of theatre to the U.S. (for a time it was as popular in the U.S. as it was in England). He began building his own company, first at the Old Bowery Theatre, then the New Bowery (which he built). After serving for a year in the Civil War, he returned and performed for a time at Barnum’s American Museum. In 1866, he was hired to manage the Olympic Theatre. The following year, he played the title role in the pantomime Humpty Dumpty, the role for which posterity best remembers him. He died in 1877 following a series of strokes. (Side note: Vaudevillian Harry Fox, supposed inventor of the Fox Trot, claimed to be one of his descendants.)
To find out more about the history of variety, including influential performers like George L. Fox, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.
Dear Mr. Stewart,
I just finished reading your book “No Applause-” and found it totally fascinating, a priceless resource for anyone interested in the history of show business in America. I grew up in the fifties and sixties and was fortunate enough because of television to have seen first hand many of the vaudeville stars you wrote about. As far as I, an old fuddy duddy “baby boomer”, am concerned there is no one out there today who can touch them. For some reason today you can be a singer without carrying a tune, a dancer with two left feet, (Gregory Hines was the last of the truly talented hoofers, Savion Glover on the other hand is about as graceful as a dancing horse, Trigger was more elegant), an actor without a voice or acting ability, a comedian without being funny the list goes on. If I am wrong I would like to be enlightened.
One of the most interesting characters in your book was Eva Tanguay. It’s remarkable how much Lady Gaga resembles Tanguay in her outrageous behaviour and appearance. The major difference is that Tanguay’s audience regarded her as a freak while Lady Gaga is considered a major talented star. Go figure.
Thank you again for the book, I will refer to it often.
Thanks so much; it’s lovely to hear from you. And I can’t argue with you — mainstream show business has degenerated. But take heart. As someone who’s been in the trenches a good long while I can tell you there are still lots of amazing performers out there. Thanks again for writing!