Today is the birthday of the great George Gershwin (1898-1937). His own career bypassed vaudeville entirely, going from being a teenage song plugger to composing songs for Broadway revues (although there were occasions when he accompanied Nora Bayes and Louise Dresser). His first hit was “Swannee” (1919) which Al Jolson sang in the show Sinbad, putting Gershwin on the map. For a full list of his Broadway shows see his IBDB entry here, although it’s important to note here that he wrote music for several editions of George White’s Scandals, and that he wrote the music for Porgy and Bess (1935) my favorite American stage musical (or, as he called it “folk opera”). His sole focus was music; he always worked with a lyricist (most often his brother Ira). His classical ambitions resulted in the still popular Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928). His last years were spent in Hollywood. Among his last efforts were the Astaire–Rogers vehicle Shall We Dance? (1936), for which he wrote the hauntingly beautiful “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and The Goldwyn Follies (1937), an interesting revue film featuring vaudevillians Bobby Clark, the Ritz Brothers, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McArthy, Phil Baker et al. A brain tumor stole Gershwin, one of America’s greatest treasures, away at age 38.
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.