Since their birthdays are unknown, I’ve saved this post for St. Patrick’s Day.
The Russell Brothers, John (1856-1925) and James (1859-1914), were a pair of Irish-American brothers who cooked up a comedy two act known as “The Irish Serving Girls.”
They had begun in Lower East Side variety saloons as one of the typical Irish acts of the day, doing knockabout comedy, jokes, a little minstrelsy**, sentimental songs, and clog dancing. Drag was usually one of the specialties such acts would trot out to keep audiences engaged; Tony Hart of Harrigan and Hart, for example was well loved for his comical dames. The Russell Brothers were such a hit with their drag personae that they simply ended up specializing. Their gossipy, mean Irish chambermaids became their permanent characters.
Weber and Fields (whom they’d gotten to know while performing together at Tony Pastor’s) loved the Russell Brothers so much that in the 1890s they hired them to head up their 2nd vaudeville touring unit. In the new century, they became sought after as a stand-alone act on the just-forming vaudeville circuits, and even starred in some Broadway shows.
In the new century, the team was bedeviled by the complaints of Irish anti-defamation groups for their portrayals. (Interestingly the complaints were not so much about their portraits of Irish people, which were mainstream enough as heinous as they were. But the outcry was more about how they depicted Irish women. ) Towards the end, they switched to playing Swedish women, which was no doubt just as objectionable but had no large organized constituency to protest. After James died, one of the replacements John hired was none other than Bert Savoy — that was how the legendary drag artist got his start. After Savoy left the act to form a new team with Jay Brennan, John Russell hung his skirts up for good.
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**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.