James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett: Pugilist in Vaudeville


James J. Corbett was born this day in 1866.  Gentleman Jim’s profile was far from the usual one of a professional pugilist; in many ways it was more suited to his second career — that of a vaudeville monologist. College-educated and scientific in his technique, he was persuaded to leave his job as the manager of a gym and turn pro. He did, defeating John L. Sullivan for the world championship in 1892. His enterprising agent immediately pursued lucrative opportunities in show business, and the garrulous, gabby Irish storyteller Corbett (unlike many athletes) was a natural in vaudeville. He also acted in farces and several silent films. Show biz wasn’t just a brief fling for him. He became a White Rat (the vaudeville performers’ union), was friends with Eddie Foy and Fred Stone and continued performing through the 1920s. He died in 1933.

Errol Flynn played Corbett in the 1942 bio-pic Gentleman Jim. I watched it on TV when I was a kid; it was my first exposure to the man. Corbett is buried in a crypt in Cypress Hills cemetery. I visited it in 2018:

To learn more about the history of vaudeville including sports figures who dabbled in it such as Gentleman Jim Corbettconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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