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.