Alfred Latell (born Alfred Lee, ca. 1880s-1951) made a surprisingly good career for himself in vaudeville as an animal impressionist. Wearing elaborate, lifelike costumes, he impersonated monkeys, bears, goats, cats, dogs, and birds (parrots and ostriches in particular). He publicized his long hours of studying the movements of the creatures so that he could get them just so.
According to his granddaughter who was generous in getting in touch and helping with this post, “…he got in trouble with the law when he was a kid til a priest at local parish saw him do his acts on the street corner, so to keep it him out of a boys’ home he hired him for shows at the local churches.” He broke into the business professionally in 1902; within five years his peculiar act was beginning to be in demand.
His most popular character was Bonzo the Bull Pup (above), whom he presented all across the United States and abroad. He usually worked with a partner since his characters couldn’t talk. In the early 20s he headlined on the Keith circuit with his wife Mary Jane Vokes, who sang and danced and introduced his animal characters.
By 1931, his wife/ partner was a lady named Lucille Lee a.k.a. “Sylvan Dell”, with whom he performed for the duration of his career. The act was so unique he was able to work it long past the existence of vaudeville. In the 30s and 40s, he kept it going by touring Australia, where vaudeville didn’t die until the 1950s or so. Amazingly there was also work for him in Broadway shows and movies…I can tell that he was usually cast as a pooch because on IBDB his character names are things like “Touser” and “Jasper”.
I find references to him performing as late as 1948 when he must have been well advanced in age. He obviously needed the work, and it must have been scarce by this point. According to his daughter, he was buried in a pauper’s (unmarked) grave in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1951. After he passed, his widow was so distraught, she threw out anything that reminded her of her husband, including his famous dog suit. Fortunately, the family managed to save some photos including ones in this post which they were nice enough to share. Special thanks to Kimberly Albright.
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.