Today is the birthday of John T. Kelly (1852-1922). A Boston native, Kelly got his start at age 12 as a jig and clog dancer with a touring vaudeville/ minstrel** company run by M.B. Leavitt. He then toured as a whiteface clown and then joined a singing act called the Mockingbird Serenaders which became popular at Tony Pastor’s Bowery saloon. From here it was on to a series of comedy two acts. First he partnered with Thomas J. Ryan from 1871 to 1885 in an Irish knockabout act. From 1885 to 1896 he was in comedy Dutch, or German acts, first with Dan Mason, then with Gus Williams.
Next, he became a regular company member of Weber and Fields Music Hall, where he was to remain as a star through 1904. From 1906 on, he was back in vaudeville performing in comedy sketches. For much more dope on John T. Kelly, I highly recommend the book Vaudeville: Old and New, the source of most of the facts for this post.
To find out more about the whole 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.
**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.