James Barton (born this day in 1890), was, like George M. Cohan, a song and dance man, and the son of vaudevillians, who rounded out his career as a well-respected old thespian. He was Jeeter in Tobacco Road, the original Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, and “Kit Carson” in the cinematic adaptation of The Time of Your Life staged by his old vaudeville pal James Cagney. During his last few decades he was often cast as a crotchety old cowboy or other rural type: he played Rumson in the original production of Paint Your Wagon, and had a bit role in Arthur Miller’s rodeo drama The Misfits, and played many such parts on the small screen during the Golden Age of television (the photo above is from his last such role, in the series Frontier Circus, which I have been dying to get my hands on for obvious reasons!)
It was that eight year stint on Broadway in Tobacco Road (1933-1941) that forever redefined him. Before that, he was considered a song and dance man second to none. Some said that as a singer he was as great as Jolson and as a dancer as great at as Bill Robinson. He joined his parents onstage in the family vaudeville act at age four, and learned his craft along the way. In addition to his skills as a dancer, he acted in melodramas from childhood, and spent some time in old style burlesque. He also starred in Broadway revues in the 1920s and early 30s, including a couple of editions of The Passing Show and Billy Rose’s Sweet and Low. He passed away in 1962.
To find out more about 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.
Hi Bob-My Grandfather, Jack Eldridge was a good friend of James Barton. He lived in Port Washington, Long Island. He started the Police Athletic League in Port Washington. I am not sure how they met but will ask my Mom.
I have a lifetime pass that is signed by James and made out to my Grandfather allowing him to attend all ball games at Barton Stadium which he built for the kids and the town (but it does not say what town).
The only other thing I remember is that James Barton had an injury to his face and wore a mask to cover it. The story was there was a fire on a Broadway stage and he pushed the other actors out of the way and was burned. Did Mrs. Barton ever talk about this?
Anyway-I am going to try and get more information from my Mom. Would love to talk to you about your book. I have always hoped there would be a book about him and then a movie. He was so famous on Vaudeville and Broadway but most people have never heard of him. Thanks for writing the book.
Randie Harmon (Ms.)
I have been a James Barton Fan since I was 14 when Katie Barton, Jim’s widow, came into my life. I lived in New Hyde Park, L.I. and my parents and Mrs. Barton became friends shortly after Jim died in 1962. The dancing sequence in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady is incredible. It’s hard to believe he is not on skates and slippery ice doing his dance. And he was 59 years old when he did it. You Tube has a scene from a short he wrote and danced in while in blackface. He looks like he’s made of rubber and does steps that I have never seen anyone else ever do. It is said that he rarely copied anyone else even though many tried to copy him. As an aside to Rosie O’Grady, Katie proudly told me that Jim was responsible for getting Debbie Reynolds the part of the younger daughter for which, Debbie was forever grateful, never missing a Christmas with a card and long letter updating her about her career and how the kids were doing. It’s also common knowledge that he introduced Babe Ruth, one of his best friends, to his second wife. Katie and Jim were also close friends with the Cagney’s. Katie’s friendship with them lasted well past her husband’s death until the Cagney’s passing. I’m currently writing a historical novel that features Mr. Barton and his incredible career with the hope of getting younger people to find out more about him. He is a very important figure in American stage and film that somehow fell into the shadows. I made a promise to Katie that he will not be forgotten and now I have some time to fulfill that wish.
Thanks so much for this, Bob! Yes, it’s an injustice that he’s not better known. Isnt there an anecdote about him where some ignorant tv flunkie said in his presence “who the hell is James Barton?” and Barton, who was in the room, responded by singing a version of “You Made Me Love You?” that would have put Jolson to shame, and then said “THAT’S James Barton!”
I just saw the movie “Daughter of Rosie O’Grady” in which James Barton played the father, Dennis O’Grady. He was remarkable in both the scene in which his character is drunk and then again when he dances as though he is ice skating…I just wanted to know more about him.