John W. Kelly was a garrulous Irish storyteller, credited by some with helping to ease Irish stage representation out of the age of leprechaun-looking knockabout acts, into one a tad more three dimensional and realistic. His handle “The Rolling Mill Man” arose from his years spent working in factories in the Steel Belt.
Born John Walter Shields in September, 1857 (only the month is known) he changed his named to the more Irish-sounding Kelly when he went into show business. He spent a few months as part of a Dutch comedy duo before branching out on his own with his patented Irish storytelling, parking himself in a chair and letting the Blarney flow where it would. He debuted the act unsuccessfully at Miner’s Bowery Theatre before moving to Chicago, which town he promptly conquered, making it his base of operations for several years.
In addition to the gab, he also had a way with a song, penning Maggie Cline’s perennial “Throw Him Down, McClosky”, as well as “Slide, Kelly, Kelly”, American’s designated baseball anthem in the years before the advent of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. In his final years, he was a star of Tony Pastor’s theatre, finally putting New York in his pocket before an early death at age 38.
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.