Today is the birthday of Marshall P. Wilder (1859-1915). A hunchbacked dwarf, Wilder was a clerk at a commercial firm around 1879 when he began performing humorous monologue for extra money, initially at the homes of rich people, then at Chautauquas, in vaudeville and before the British Royal Family. In his day, he also appear in ten silent films (1912-13), published three humor books, and recorded several of his monologues on cylinder and disk.
Groucho Marx used to tell this anecdote: “I knew a fellow named Otto Kahn. His close friend was Marshall P. Wilder, who was a hunchback. One day they passed a synagogue on Fifth Avenue and Kahn turned to Wilder and said, ‘You know, I used to be a Jew.’ ‘Really?’ said Wilder. ‘I used to be a hunchback.’
Perhaps most significantly at all, Wilder never marketed or presented himself as a freak, or used it in his material. He truly was a pioneer in changing modern attitudes about people born different.
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, including Marshall P. Wilder, 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 don’t miss 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