This is part two of the series on the show biz ancestry of writer-actress Cynthia Fujikawa, which we launched here last week. It’s in her own words.
Lottie Burke (1883-1939) was on all fours when she made her stage debut. She crawled out during one of John M. Burke’s performances. Her father scooped her up and threw her into her mother’s arms in the wings. Not long after, John M. Burke, died suddenly while yelling at his stagehands. Lottie was raised in her grandmother’s boarding house for actors (now known as Aunt Nell’s) in Boston and remained in vaudeville and theatre until the mid 1920s.
Raymond Finlay was a 26-year old actor at the Boston Theatre when he met 16-year old Lottie Burke. They teamed up personally and professionally and had a long, successful collaboration as Finlay and Burke. They were known for farce comedies, stage satire, and song & dance. He was a tall, lanky physical comedian, and she his petite, feminine match. Their often troubled but lasting marriage their led to a large measure of fame & money, alcoholism, the loss of a couple of fortunes, and the birth of 3 children. My mom insisted they “played the Palace” and were the family members who achieved stardom. (I’m still on the hunt for the Palace Theatre playbills, and your research assistance is welcome) I am amazed at the amount of things I have found online about their 115-year old act, so it appears they were doing great. The news clippings on Burke and Finlay illustrate an act that lasted from 1897 till at least 1923.
They were colleagues of the Four Cohans. (Lottie had grown up with George M and sister Josie). George M. promised to write a show for the tall, lanky, rubber legged Raymond. Cohan made good on the promise. But Raymond’s alcoholism made it impossible for him to do the part, and that Cohan re-wrote the show for a shorter man, played the role himself, and it brought fame to George M. (The name of the show? Little Johnny Jones).
Both of their daughters weathered their circus upbringing. Like Lottie, my grandmother was also raised at Aunt Nell’s boarding house for actors, and her sister was deposited at a convent. But Lottie trained both girls in the family profession and performed with them as well. Lottie had my grandmother at Keith’s in Boston in the Living Pictures when she was four.
However, their cloistered daughter, Irene Finlay, detoured into burlesque in the 1920s. It was perfectly fine with the libertine Lottie. But when prudish Raymond found out he tried to throw his wife out a 12-story window in a New York hotel.
Despite their differences, despite Raymond’s missed opportunity as “Little Johnny Jones,” Lottie and Raymond lived a complete life in show business until retiring to their summer home in Onset, Mass. Lottie’s Flop House, as it was known, became a part time residence for their vaudeville friends, including Lottie’s gay friends, all actors and “undesirables” who would be unwelcome elsewhere. The party raged on at Lottie’s Flop House until the mid 1930’s. By then vaudeville was more or less over, and so were their fortunes. Raymond Finlay died of throat cancer in 1934. Lottie’s health failed soon after and she passed in 1937.
Shortly before her death, a solicitor from Dublin called upon her with news of a potential inheritance, which she would have to travel to Ireland to claim. This was impossible due to her ill health and dismal resources. The estate had to do with Guinness something or other, and she was encouraged to sign a waiver, which she did, naively (given what we now know about her father John Burke).
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.