“What’s the biggest act in vaudeville?”
In terms of fame, the answer to that is a poser; you could argue about that ’til the cows come home. But in terms of actual physical size, there was always only one answer: Powers’ Dancing Elephants, a.k.a Powers’ Elephants. The act was clearly memorable; all the old vaudevillians speak about it in their memoirs and interviews with fondness. It was legendary with the public as well, so much so, that it became an idiom in the English language, much as “playing the Palace” did. (It was used comically much like we use “everything but the kitchen sink”, e.g., “She brought all her luggage, including Powers’ Elephants”.
The act was founded by one William Powers, then later taken over by his adopted son George, the progeny of two equestrians. It was George who brought panache to the act, dressing them in smart uniforms and teaching them special tricks over and above the usual circus elephant act’s usual paces. They could play baseball for example, and, as advertised, they danced, with a repertoire including the fandango, the hula and the Charleston. They are the only dance act ever to have played on the same bill with Pavlova.
From 1905 through 1922 they were the house elephant act for all the revue extravaganzas at the New York Hippodrome (also they played other dates, Joe Laurie Jr spoke about seeing them at a Connecticut Opera House in 1910); from 1923 through 1926, they toured vaudeville, including the Hip (which was now a Keith house) and the Palace. From 1926 through 1937 they toured Europe, then returned to the states to find vaudeville dead. The act worked fairs and circuses thereafter until George Powers retired due to illness in 1942.
The idea of an indoor elephant act was a novel one. And, for obvious reasons, there weren’t many in vaudeville. Powers was the first and best, but others did arise to compete, including Gruber’s, Lockhart’s and John Robinson’s.
To find out more about vaudeville and present, including Power’s Elephants, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.