Kathleen Freeman and…Her Parents! In Vaudeville

In her finest role as Mrs. Wellonmellon, supporting a very special friend

Oh it makes me very happy to work on this post. For many reasons.

One: Kathleen Freeman has been in everything. Go to IMDB and you will find about a thousand credits there. You already know her and know her well without knowing her name. I have a special affection for her as Jerry Lewis’s favorite foil — she’s in no less than 11 of Jerry’s movies, frowning at him, bellowing at him, making him squirm. Freeman specialized in battle-axe characters: nurses, mothers-in-law, lady sargeants, and no-nonsense housemaids. She’s definitely the proto Ann B. Davis.

Secondly, her career may have the greatest range and scope across the decades of anyone I’m familiar with, and stretches both farther into the past and closer to the present than anyone I can think of. It starts with her parents, the male-female blackface** comedy and singing team of Dixon and Freeman. Her father Frank Freeman started out in minstrelsy in 1890 and rose to the plum assignment of end man in Lew Dockstaders Minstrels. He teamed with Jessica Dixon, a serious solo singer whose greatest fame had come from entertaining the troops in the First World War, shortly after the Armistice.

Kathleen came along in 1919 (today’s her birthday) and started performing with the act when she was two years old. Dixon and Freeman (and occasionally Kathleen) were a moderately successful vaudeville act throughout the 20s, but the Depression killed the act. Kathleen went on to decades of work as a character actress in film and on television. Her last movie roles were in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Joe Dirt (with David Spade, 2000) and a voiceover in Shrek (2001). When she died in 2001, she was performing in the original Broadway production of The Full Monty.

The woman embodied the entire history of American show business.

Now, here she is in another of her great roles, as the nun in The Blues Brothers:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

5 comments

  1. I worked with her on a Dick Van Dyke Special I co-wrote for Nick at Nite. She was in her seventies then but she had more energy than any of the young people working on the set. She was still hilarious and very nice. I saw her in THE FULL MONTY not long before she died and she stopped the show. So glad I had the chance to know her.

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  2. And in 1945, she wrote a magnificent “Code of Ethics for Theatre Workers” for the Circle Players in Los Angeles that I keep meaning to print out and hand out (or just post without comment) when I have shows up at The Brick:

    http://www.lastagetimes.com/2009/08/a-1945-code-of-ethics-for-theatre-workers-surfaces/

    (later, this received some commentary and a respectfully irreverent modernization: http://www.lastagetimes.com/2011/07/is-the-1945-freeman-actors-code-still-valid-or-does-it-need-an-irreverent-update/)

    I love seeing her show up in old movies and TV — recently, she appeared as a nun in a 1950 noir I was seeing for the first time, and B and I could only joke that this was The Penguin before she was sent to run that orphanage in Chicago.

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    • Thanks, Ian! I wanted to include something about her serious side but couldnt figure out how to reconcile it with carrying Jerry Lewis in her arms! I look forward to reading the Code

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