This is part three of the series on the show biz ancestry of writer-actress Cynthia Fujikawa, which we launched here two weeks ago. It’s in her own words.
My grandmother Marion Finlay (see last post) was born into vaudeville. My grandfather, Charles Breckle, did NOT come from a show biz family, however. His story was the American Dream with a vaudeville twist. He was a Brooklyn kid from a German American family at the turn of the century when immigrants were still streaming into New York City. Charlie could sing and make people laugh and he saw that there was opportunity to be had entertaining people. He saw others around him getting in on the business of parodying immigrants and making them laugh at themselves. If he could just avoid getting “the hook.” So he tried his hand at a local theatre, telling jokes and doing impressions, and braced for being yanked off stage, or hit by a flying tomato. Instead there was applause and accolades. He was 15 years old and everyone told him to go and get his fortune.
He got a job at Coney Island as a singing waiter. One of the other waiters, a kid named Irving Berlin, wrote all their material. Another Brooklyn native, Mary Jane West, was his girlfriend, and she also aspired to a career in show business. According to Charlie, his colorful childhood sweetheart always had a penchant for being different and it made Charlie’s father Fred nuts. She was unconventional and gimmicky. She bleached her naturally dark hair blond and wore crazy hats with fruit on them, appearing terribly trampy. When they became engaged, Fred Breckle said absolutely not and that was the formal end of Charlie’s romantic relationship with the girl who later became Mae West.
Charlie found an agent to represent him in vaudeville, but was told he needed a partner. Why he chose Fred Breckle instead of Mae West is a mystery. Charlie Breckle became Charles Gates, and their act was known as Gates and Blake.
In their double-Dutch act (a stereotype of 2 German immigrant knuckleheads speaking in broken English), Charlie only referred to his father as “Mike.” Fred/Mike was not an actor at all, but was completely stage struck now. Maybe now he realized that Mae West was creating a brand for herself, but I’m probably giving him too much credit. In fact, he was mainly known for standing in front of the theatre and introducing himself to patrons as a real live actor in the show. For Fred, however, there were no accolades. Fellow vaudevillians on the same bill would bluntly tell Charlie to dump his partner; that Fred was a dreadful ham actor, and was holding Charlie back from a brilliant career, not realizing the actor “George Blake” who played “Mike” was his very own dad. And eventually did dump his father (Fred aka George aka Mike).
Charlie’s character morphed from a German immigrant into a Jewish one, and this became his own self- branding. (Charlie was not Jewish). He was frequently on the bill with a young George Burns who used to tell him “you do a better Jew than I do and I AM a Jew.” Here is the politically incorrect truth of the matter:
My mother notes in her journal that he would modify his act when playing Southern states however. She also noted that growing up, everyone insisted to her that she was Jewish because her father was well known to everyone as Jewish by the local community, and that Charlie did not bother to correct people (this was the 1940s).
Eventually he did find a new partner: Marion Finlay, and Charlie’s final act became Gates and Finlay. (Yes, he played a Jew, but his brand appears to have evolved sans prosthetics):
But more about Gates and Finlay next time. Till then, I’ll leave you with this:
Family legend has it that:
- Fred Breckle stormed into Mae West’s dressing room after a show and introduced Miss West to his male buddies as “the woman who wanted to marry my son!” And Mae, having the last word, replied, “Yeah, and you didn’t think I was good enough for him”;
- Miss West contacted her friend, my grandmother (Marion Finlay), and asked permission to say in her autobiography that Charlie was the only man she ever wanted to marry (note: this is NOT in West’s autobiography, so perhaps the request was denied);
- Charlie kept a picture of Mae West in his wallet his whole life.
- On the day of Charlie’s funeral, his grief-struck, drunk son burned many of the family photos and memorabilia, including all of the original Irving Berlin material from Coney Island.
- Young George Burns had an act with a live gorilla. Whenever Charlie walked by the cage, the gorilla would go crazy, and George would say “he’s watching you.” The gorilla must have known Charlie wasn’t Jewish.
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.