Stars of Vaudeville #488: Hackett and Delmar
Originally posted in 2012
This piece has involved more than my usual (and preferred minimal) amount of research, but it has been rewarding and I (or someone) would do well to do still more and get it out there. Mostly for entertainment value; the story of Hackett and Delmar involves an amusing game of he said/ she said, with each claiming to be the real talent of the act, and that the other one was just no good. Harry Delmar’s (1892-1984) interview is in a book called Reel to Real: 25 Years of Celebrity Interviews by David Fantle and Tom Johnson. Janette Hackett’s (1898-1979) is in Bill Smith’s The Vaudevillians. At the time of each of their interviews both were near the end of their lives, with each living all alone in respective run-down fleabag hotels.
It’s Delmar’s birthday today (the occasion for this post). While both dancers have become footnotes, Delmar’s name has been longer remembered because of the Broadway revue that bore his name Harry Delmar’s Revels (1927-1928), which starred Bert Lahr, Frank Fay, Patsy Kelly, Winnie Lightner, William Gaxton et al, with songs by Billy Rose (including “Me and My Shadow” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”). Hence Delmar’s name appears in the bios of all of those artists, who all went on to exceed him in lasting fame.
Yet, ironically, more information is readily available on Hackett. Her mother was a silent movie star (Florence Hackett), and her brother was married to Blanche Sweet, another silent movie star. She became a chorus girl as a teenager and her first job was in the Shubert’s Passing Show where she was taught to dance in spare moments by Kitty Doner. After studying Hawaiian and “Oriental” dance, she toured for five weeks in an act with Nora Bayes, and then replaced Billie Shaw in the established act of Seabury and Shaw. Hackett got terrific notices for the 20 week engagement, so William Seabury generously helped her start a new act, for which she hired Delmar, whom (by her account) was “good looking but couldn’t dance”. (He says the same things about her, BTW). Delmar was a Missouri native who ran away from home at 15 and moved to Chicago where he began working as a busboy. While employed as a “3rd cook” on the Rock Island Line he fell off a train and badly injured one of his legs, which would thereafter always be two inches shorter than his other one, a handicap he would hide all his life. Hackett and Delmar (he calls it Delmar and Hackett) debuted in 1919 and headlined the big time for eight years with a large scale flash act that starred the team but also featured a large ensemble of other dancers. From what I can glean, Delmar more was more of a hoofer, doing tap and buck-and-wings (which by his account, Hackett couldn’t do). The beautifully built and scantily clad Hackett did more “artistic” dancing, and choreographed the act. The two were also an offstage item and were married for several years. Harry Delmar’s Revels seems to have put the kibosh on the team. While his name is all over it, she claims she was the brains behind the entire show. They split when the show closed.
Hackett had a notorious, highly successful solo act in which she danced with Death, played by Caesar Romero, and then tumbled down a flight of stairs at the climax. In 1930 she married Broadway singer John Steele, and continued to dance and choreograph for many years. Among her leagacies are several of these “soundies” featuring the “Janette Hackett Dancers” or the “Janette Hackett Girls”. Perhaps “Girls” is better, since in the clips I’ve seen, the girls don’t manage to stay in step with each other very well. I’m not sure if Janette is one of them; that’s why more research is needed.
Delmar went out to Hollywood, where he wrote, directed and produced several musical shorts from 1929 to 1930. I have no info on the next 15 years. He does relate an anecdote in which he was shot in the back by a gangster’s gun moll, and showed the scars to his interviewer to prove it. This may have taken him out of circulation for awhile. But in the mid 40s he directed and produced a major Broadway hit Follow the Girls, which ran two full years from 1944 to 1946.
To learn more about the history of show business, 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 please 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