Stars of Vaudeville #32: Nat M. Wills
Originally posted in 2010 and adapted from my liner notes to Nat M. Wills: The Famous Tramp Comedian, available to purchase at Archeophone Records here
Nat M. Wills was one of the most prominent in a long line of a now-extinct breed of performer known as “tramp comedians”. A leading star of vaudeville and musical comedy from the turn of the century until his untimely death in 1917, Wills was also among the first and biggest stars of what we now call comedy albums. A half century before Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce were finding their way to people’s turntables, and 75 years before Weird Al Yankovic, Wills was laying down his distinctive act of funny monologues and song parodies on cylinder and disk, and Americans lapped it up.
The biggest surprise on these tracks for folks who’ve long read about Wills, or seen photos of his silly, toothless visage, is his characterization. One might reasonably expect this kind of character to sound something like America’s most famous modern iteration of the tramp tradition, Red Skelton’s Freddie the Freeloader, an ignorant naïf with little on his mind but the next stolen piece of pie. Tramps of Wills’ own time such as Bill “Old Hoss” Hooey and Bert Williams tended to affect a slow-witted mein that implied that their penury was the result of a deficiency of grey matter. Instead, Wills’ tramp has the air of a gentleman. The contrast between his costume and his manner of speaking must have been especially preposterous to audiences in live performance. Alan Dale, writing in the New York American in 1904, comments on this quirk: “In these days when comedians do dialect and dialect does them, the ‘unique and inimitable’ Mr. Wills is not ungrateful. He tells funny stories in English, as it is spoken, and he has a fund of lively spirits at his command…”
One explanation for the incongruity between the voice and the mask is that, in the welter of niche markets that was vaudeville, tramp garb (much like the less benign blackface) was a convention, a jumping-off-point, allowing for an infinite variety of interpretations. (Other examples included W.C. Fields, who first gained fame as a “tramp juggler”, and Joe Jackson, vaudeville’s top trick cyclist, also dressed as a tramp.) Offstage, Wills cut a dashing figure, not unlike that of Adolph Menjou. Onstage, dressed in the floppy shoes and dirty rags of a Bowery Bum, he kept his real voice. And yet there was a method to that madness. In 1906, he told the Brooklyn Eagle, “My success as a stage tramp, perhaps, is due to the fact that I do not make this character repulsive, but give to it some of the attributes of humanity.” In a 1908 interview with the Pittsburgh Leader, he went still further: “Some of the most charming gentlemen it has been my good fortune to meet were tramps…these men have been quick witted humorists, deep thinking philosophers and profound students. The funniest tramps I have seen were off the stage.”
In an odd way, by diverging from the stereotype, Wills may have arrived at a characterization more realistic and more human.
Sadly, Wills was all too happy to embrace stereotype in certain other of his portrayals.
An unfortunate racial tone mars some of this material. Not only was such humor a much cherished staple of those less enlightened times, but Wills himself was a Son of the Reconstruction South, and a former minstrel. He leans into his “darkie” jokes pretty hard, and the effect can be somewhat jarring to modern ears.
But such material was a small portion of his output. In his eight years of recording, Wills preserved 26 separate routines, some of which he repeated at different times and in different formats. Archeophone’s recent release is essentially the entirety of his available work.
Nat M. Wills was born in Fredericksburg, Virginiaon July 11, 1873. In an era when facts about the private lives of performing artists are uniformly scarce, details about Wills’ beginnings are especially sketchy. In some places his real name is given as Edward MacGregor, in others it is Louis McGrath Wills. Birth records in Fredericksburg mention neither, although most sources give the latter name, including his hometown paper the Fredricksburg Daily Star, which also confirms that time and place for his birth.
In 1915, Wills told the New York Dramatic Mirror, “Years ago, I was a kid in Washington. The folks had lived in Fredericksburg,VA, and I was born there. But my parents died, and a youngster, I went to Washington to make my way.”
He began his working life in boyhood as a messenger and a printer’s assistant. Then, when still a child, he made his theatrical debut at Ford’s Opera House, with Minnie Palmer (one of the top soubrettes of the day) in a production entitled “My Sweetheart.” In the mid 1880s he appeared with Neil Burgess (brother-in-law of the famous Lotta Crabtree) in a played named “Vim”. Wills, displaying an early knack for broad comical delineations, portrayed a little girl.
It was in Washington, too, that Wills worked as an end man with the Ideal Minstrels. This was a valuable education. In minstrelsy he would have developed his comic timing, improvisational skills and the ability to convey character through a grotesque costume and mask. End man was the plum role in any minstrel company, requiring the corked up comedian to bounce jokes off “Mr. Interlocutor”, the straight man. Another Washingtonian, Al Jolson honed his own comic chops doing the very same job at around the same time. For better or worse, Wills’ experience as an end man informs many of the characterizations you can hear in these recordings.
Yet Wills’ time spent in the legitimate theater proved just as formative. In the 1890s he was a member of the stock company at San Francisco’s Grand Opera House under the management of Walter Morosco, where he appeared in countless “blood and guts melodramas”. This, too, would have been exceptional training for the performer, an opportunity to play different roles every week. But even in legit fate decreed that Wills should be a clown. While playing the juvenile in a play called “The Block Game” at Washington’s Globe Theater in 1891, Wills was called upon to switch to a comic part when a performer was injured by a piece of falling equipment. The role called for Wills to outfit himself with blacked out teeth, stubble, and patched clothing. So successful was he in this, his first outing as a tramp that he would ever after be associated exclusively with the role.
The Happy Tramp
Wills discovered his new character at a fortuitous time. By the 1890s, the popularity of old-school melodrama was beginning to wane; the nation was flocking to a brand-new form of theater, one that would flourish for a mere handful of decades before it too went the way of the dinosaur: vaudeville. In the mid 1890s, just as the foundations for what were to become the national vaudeville circuits were being laid, Wills and his partner “Bony Dave” Halpin crisscrossed the country with an act entitled “The Tramp and the Policeman”. The team would engage in the typical two-man crosstalk, then climax the act with footwork: the very skinny Halpin performing a graceful dance which Wills would travesty in his clownish slap shoes. Halpin and Wills seem to have made a hit. When they played Halpin’s hometown of Kansas City in 1896, the Kansas City Star reported “an ovation and a bouquet of roses across the footlights.”
By 1898, Wills had thrown over Halpin to perform with his first wife, Mademoiselle Loretto, known as “The Society Belle”. The partnership proved to be short-lived, however. In 1900, they were booked to play the New York Roof when Loretto fell ill, forcing Wills to go solo as “The Happy Tramp.” His topical monologue and songs were such a smash that he was held over for six weeks. (Loretto was to pass away four years later.)
On his own, Wills became one of the first headliners in what was only then coalescing into the vaudeville industry. Like all the best vaudevillians, he excelled at more than one skill. His act was an admixture of several elements which combined to create a magical, indefinable whole. A clown in appearance, Wills was also a beguiling story teller, an expert joke teller (quite a different skill), and a comical singer and dancer. The very breadth of such an act meant that you couldn’t lump it into a single category; you had to remember the unique performer with whom it was associated.
Then, in June 1900 Wills joined other headliners like George Fuller Golden and Montgomery and Stone in forming the White Rats, the vaudeville performers union, a precursor to today’s Equity. Wills was not only one of the first members but an officer in this path-breaking organization. In February of the following year, the performers went on strike to protest the creation of the United Box Office (UBO), a syndicate of top vaudeville managers which had begun to charge performers a fee for the privilege of being booked. In a matter of weeks the managers capitulated, only to reinstate the fee piecemeal over the next several months.
Perhaps as an outgrowth of these struggles with vaudeville management, we see Wills concentrating his efforts on musical comedies over the next few years, working with such producers as George Broadhurst and Charles Frohman in the oughts on such long-forgotten shows as A Million Dollars (1900), The Girl from Up There (1900), A Son of Rest (1903), The Duke of Duluth (1905), and A Lucky Dog (1907). He appeared in the latter show with leading lady May Harrison, who became his second wife in 1908. Wills’ performances were frequently the most beloved element in these productions. Alan Dale of the New York American wrote of his performance in A Son of Rest: “Wills is greeted by laughter the instant he appears…it is quite impossible to resist laughing at him.”
In a 1905 interview with the Chicago Sun-American, Wills claimed to have turned down an offer of $1200 to appear in vaudeville by top manager Percy Williams because he preferred to do musical comedy. However, by April of 1907 he succumbed to Williams’ offer with a seven week engagement at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem, followed by numerous tours as a headliner on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, the most important vaudeville chain in the country.
Before long, Wills was one of the highest paid “single” acts in vaudeville. The money was not all his to keep, however. To create one of the winningest acts in show business, he had hired early vaudeville’s top jokemeister James Madison (editor and publisher of vaudeville’s premier joke periodical Madison’s Budget) to beef up his topical stories with gags. And Vincent Bryan, a top vaudeville songwriter, penned many of Will’s popular musical parodies. Having these men and others on his payroll was expensive, but it also ensured his success.
“No entertainer on the American stage today is more popular with the public than Nat Wills” crowed the Victor Talking Machine Company when they released his most popular monolog on disk in 1909. Wills’ voice, a harsh but gentlemanly honk somewhat like the actor Joseph Cotton’s (with a little of “Froggy” from Our Gang mixed in), was particularly suited to the crude recording machinery of the time, which was indifferent to subtlety. Such a star was Wills at the time that Victor crowed: The popularity of his cylinders and disks was such that he was still recording them just a few months before he died.
Highs and Lows
The years of Wills greatest success coincided with a succession of personal woes. In 1909, Wills’ second wife May Harrison, passed away. The tabloids were soon reporting that his third wife would be plus-sized singer Trixie Friganza, but in May of the following year he married yet another vaudeville star, La Belle Titcomb, who was famous for singing French opera songs perched atop an immaculate white stallion.
Like Wills, Titcomb employed a stage handle. Her real name was either Nellie McNierney and Heloise McCency, depending on each source you believe, making her as French as a pint of Harp. Like Wills, Titcomb was a vaudevillian to the core. It is characteristic of them both that they turned their extended European honeymoon into a working vacation, performing at London’s top music halls before steaming back home.
But the honeymoon waned quickly. As Wills later joked in one of his routines “I should have married the horse”. An anecdote circulated that the morning after their wedding, while sitting at the breakfast table, Wills sat with a newspaper reading the comics page. Enraged, Titcomb heaved a plate of pancakes at his upraised paper, shouting “Say! Have I married one of these here bookworms?” On another occasion, witnesses claimed to have seen her push him through a dressing room door.
More troubles began to pile up. In January of 1914, a fire destroyed much of Wills upper west side home, including several valuable paintings. In May 1914 Titcomb sued Wills for divorce, claiming that he’d had an affair with a woman named May Day, a chorine whom he had met on the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. Wills vehemently denied it, a somewhat disingenuous declaration given that a daughter was born to him and May two months later. Meantime, Titcomb and 26 other creditors forced Wills to sue for bankruptcy. Many were shocked to learn that one of show business’s highest paid entertainers owed $17, 540 to a long list of creditors, one of whom was his estranged wife, from whom he’d borrowed money. As an ex-wife, Titcomb added to his woes by costing him $500 a week alimony – on top of the hundreds more he was said to routinely pay out to his writers.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, Wills managed to shine as a performer, perhaps more than ever. In June 1914, right in the thick of the worst troubles he would ever know, he performed at the Lambs’ Club’s annual star-studded benefit the Gambols, which inspired this account in the New York Dramatic Mirror: “Nat Wills was the real blown in the bottle, dyed in the wool, knock-down and drag-out hit of the ‘million dollar show’”.
In February 1913, the New York Telegraph wrote “As a single, no male entertainer in vaudeville has such a following or has achieved such a degree of success as Nat Wills.”
Wills was one of the very first performers booked for the newly opened Palace, the crown jewel of big time vaudeville theaters, in 1913. His engagement at the Follies occurred just a few months later, where he performed on a bill with Leon Erol, Frank Tinney and Ann Pennington and sang If the Table at Rector’s Could Talk. His last three years were spent as the star comedian of revues produced by Charles Dillingham at New York’s most fabulous (and biggest) theater, the Hippodrome. The first of these shows Hip Hip Hooray was called by the New York Star “the greatest spectacle New York has ever seen”. Of his performance in 1917’s Cheer Up!, the New York Times wrote “Nat M. Wills succeeded better than any of his predecessors in defying the space of the Hippodrome.” Wills was no doubt helped in doing so by the box car he emerged from, which was pulled onstage by a real locomotive.
While the character he loved to play hopped freight trains, Wills’ offstage passion was automobiles. It was this hobby which killed him on December 9, 1917. While working on his car in an enclosed garage on a freezing cold day, Wills suffocated from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Without any real evidence, some have succumbed to the temptation of claiming that the performer known as “the Happy Tramp” (whose last show was called Cheer Up!) was a suicide. And with his many problems – alimony, debt, an expensive act – Wills did have plenty of reasons for despondency. In photos taken out of make-up in the months before he died, Wills looks a mighty old 44. Yet, while his personal woes were great, there were thousands of positive factors to buoy Wills’ spirits: his legions of fans. At the time of his death, he’d been a star for almost two decades. More than one obituary referred to him as “America’s Foremost Comedian.” Present at his funeral party were the show business royalty of the day, among them Charles Dillingham, Bert Williams, the Dolly Sisters, Mr. and Mrs. Pat Rooney and Fred Niblo. None of the dozens of obituaries published upon his death even suggests suicide. And while self-inflicted death by this means is fairly common nowadays, this was not the case in 1917, when automobiles were new and few people had ever heard of carbon monoxide poisoning. There is every reason to believe that his untimely demise was no more than what commentators called it at the time: “a tragic accident.”
At any rate, the loss was great. Not only to his friends, family and fans, but to posterity.
Wills was still young when he passed away. If he had lived out his natural life he might have participated in radio or talkies, in which case we’d have more to measure to him by, and Wills today might be as well known today as Al Jolson, Marie Dressler, or the Barrymores, all of whom were his contemporaries.
As it is, we must content ourselves with the extant early recordings, and the testimony of those who remembered him, as in this encomium published in the New York Journal American in 1938: “I wonder if I would roar today as I used to at Nat Wills, with his ridiculous tramp outfit and blacked-out teeth. He had me on the edge of hysteria several times—especially when he would look about furtively, edge over slowly, talking swiftly all the while, and reach down for what seemed a lost coin. And then, in utter disgust, quickly wipe his fingers on his trouser leg.”
It is this latter account which may help to explain Wills’ subsequent obscurity, for it sounds like nothing so much as the pantomime shenanigans of the most famous gentleman tramp of all, Charlie Chaplin. Whether the fame and fortune enjoyed by the little clown during the last four years of Wills’ life added to his despondency, we cannot know. But what is plain that in the public’s mind, Chaplin’s tramp has eclipsed all others for close to a century, Wills included. On the other hand, Wills’ art was as verbal as it was visual. While we can’t see for ourselves whether Wills bore any similarity to Chaplin we can observe a relationship with another rustic monologist who was just coming into his own at around the time Wills passed away: Will Rogers, who would then pass the torch to generations of joketellers. As for song parodyists, the legacy is smaller, but a close listen to the recordings will show the art of Alan Sherman and Weird Al Yankovic in embryo. How to order them? Go here.
This is probably my favorite track of Wills’, describing the travails of travelling performers, a theme I spun out in my book No Applause. (I wish I’d known the song when I wrote it; I definitely would have quoted it.) The number also happens to be funny! Although I’m afraid you’ll have to listen to a man talking for a few seconds before he puts the needle to the disk.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, 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 check out 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