Much is made of the ethnic stereotyping in vaudeville, frequently committed by people of the very ethnicity being satirized. African Americans, Irish, Germans and Jews in particular were satirized but so were Italians, Chinese, and even Swedes. Another stock archetype, less evident because it has been with us from the very beginning and concerns a dominant sub-group, is the rural “cracker”.
Chic Sale was perhaps pre-eminent in that line (he actually used the expression “landsakes” in conversation), but he was also important for another reason. He has been called “the greatest character comedian in vaudeville”. He was a sort of one man Winesburg, Ohio, essentially playing enough characters in his act to represent the key citizens of a small town. One thinks of him as a sort of Jonathan Winters of the vaudeville era.
Charles Sale was born in Huron, South Dakota, in 1885. There can’t have been many others that year! Soon thereafter the family moved to Urbana, Illinois where Chick worked up an act with his brother Dwight. It inevitably sounds like The Little Rascals—two kids putting on old hats and coats and impersonating the neighbors. Dwight died in 1907. Chick grieved no doubt but it didn’t stop him from developing a new act as a single. He changed his name to Chick Earle, moved to Minneapolis, and started working the Gus Sun Circuit. His success lay in his philosophy of truthfully enacting familiar characters, without any serious effort to exaggerate or satirize them. The characters themselves were funny; Sale’s commentary on them at most was mild.
Audiences responded enthusiastically. By 1916 he was playing the Palace. By now his repertoire had grown to 27 different country characters, although he could never fit them all into a single vaudeville turn. ). His 1929 humor book The Specialist (which was told from the point of view of a man who built outhouses) sold over 2 million copies. Yes, children, even your great grandparents thought poop was funny.
Sale was in many films in the 30s, including The Star Witness (1931), The Gentleman from Louisiana (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). It will come as no surprise to learn that while in Hollywood, one of his best friends was Will Rogers. Sale died an unfortunate and untimely death of pneumonia in 1936.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville including stars like Chic Sale, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.