Tons about burlesque impresario Sam T. Jack can be learned from his 1895 biography How He Does It: Sam T. Jack Twenty Years a King in the Realm of Burlesque by one M.J. O’Neill (available free online here). Unfortunately tons might best be unlearned as well. Unless I miss my guess the book was produced primarily to sell in the lobby of his own shows: portions read like marketing copy, portions read like a dime novel, and the back section is full of local ads (some cool one, by the way). The most important thing to know about him is that he was instrumental of the metamorphosis of the minstrel show into the burlesque show, and was the first white impresario to hire black entertainers to perform for white audiences. Sam T. Jack’s Creole Show, founded 1890 was the instrument of this breakthrough. Many folks we’ve written about in these annals got their crucial start there.
He also may have been the first person to bring the cooch dance to burlesque. This is quite possible, he was based in Chicago at the same time that Little Egypt made her debut at the World Columbian Exposition. He also presented nude “artistic” tableaux vivant on stage back when such things were mighty scandalous indeed. So he was a very influential man.
Jack had his finger in many theatrical pies, and in the true entrepenurial spririt his principal aim seems to have been making a buck. Born in 1852, he served briefly as a soldier and then was in the oil business in western Pennsylvania before opening the Oil City Opera in 1872. He subsequently opened other opera houses (specializing in melodrama) in nearby Franklin and Titusville,and ran a showboat from 1873-77 before managing the Alice Oates Comic Opera Company, which toured the country 1880-84. His first burlesque show was the Lilly Clay Colossal Gaiety Company (the star of which he brought over from England, claiming Miss Clay was the equal of Jenny Lind). He also subsequently ran the Madison Street Opera in Chicago, the Ada Richmond Folly Co., the 40 Thieves Co., the Mazeppa Co., The French Spy Co, etc, at least according to his flack.
More dubious, but also more entertaining, are portions of his book that tell us about “How Sam and a Lady Spent a Night in a Haunted Tower”, “a Duello in Mexico”, Sam’s bullfight in the same locale, the time he gave a show with no performers, the time he went up in a hot air balloon on the Fourth of July with “almost fatal consequences”, and the time “He Descends in a Diving Bell to See How the Old Thing Works and is Almost Asphyxiated in the Metal Hat”. A lot of things almost happened to him. He passed away ca. 1925.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult 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 Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.