Ben Welch: Went Blind Onstage

Ben Welch, brother of Joe Welch, had the same kind of “Hebe” act, only with a character less distinctly morose and pessimistic. Born around 1877 in New York’s Lower East Side, the son of German immigrants he, like his brother (and so many others) got a lot of mileage out of playing comical Jews, Germans and Italians. While Joe’s act was well remembered, Ben lived a couple of decades longer, so the researcher is able to uncover a lot more material on him.

Carolyn Caffin in her invaluable 1914 book Vaudeville praises Welch for his economy of movement and his naturalistic approach to his character (even if both Welch’s character and Caffin’s appraisal both carry with them whiffs of anti-Semitism.

Welch worked in both burlesque and vaudeville and had numerous partners over the years, the last of whom Frank Murphy was not only Welch’s straight man but also his seeing eye dog. According to the New York Times, Welch went blind onstage in 1921. It was necessary for him to keep working so he pretended he could still see for the duration of the act, with Murphy leading him on and offstage. Welch passed away in 1940.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of 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.


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