May 1 is the birthday of Charles K. Harris (1867-1930). A master of the banjo, Harris sang in minstrel shows** and early variety and vaudeville. His importance to posterity however lies in the over 300 songs he wrote. An early success was “Since Maggie Learned How to Skate”, written for Nat Goodwin in 1885. But the song that he wrote that broke all precedents of popularity was 1891’s “After the Ball”. The song was added to the 1891 Broadway show A Trip to Chinatown (from which also comes the song “The Bowery”) and popularized by John Philip Sousa at the 1893 World Columbia Exposition and then performed by EVERYBODY in vaudeville after that, at least until jazz came in. The song eventually sold 5 million copies of sheet music (the measure of success before record albums) making it the most successful Tin Pan Alley song in history. Then it kept getting revived in later shows and movies that wanted to evoke the 1890s: Show Boat, San Francisco and the Lillian Russell bio-pic all use it. And now it’ll be stuck in my head today!
And now a very special treat. Harris sings the song himself:
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 my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.