Today is Ned Harrigan’s birthday.
From No Applause:
The two biggest Irish comedians to come out of the variety scene, becoming the most popular stars of the American theatre of the 70s and 80s, was the team of Edward “Ned” Harrigan and Tony Hart. A New York native, Harrigan made his debut in San Francisco in 1867, singing (to his own banjo accompaniment) at some of the principal stages of the Barbary Coast: Butler’s Melodeon, the Belle Union, the Olympic, Gilbert’s Melodeon and the Pacific Variety Hall. Clog dancing was also one of his specialties. From singing and dancing, he worked his way up to comedy sketches, playing an impressive range of character roles: blackface** parts, a Swedish servant girl, Chinese laundrymen, Irish landlords, and so-called Dutch (or German) characters.
His first partner, Alex O’Brien, was such a drunk that Harrigan was forced to bring him to the “House for Inebriates” on a wagon. His next partner Sam Rickey worked with him clear across the continent, arriving in New York in 1871. Advertised as “the noted California comedians” they did their Dutch sketch “The Little Frauds” at the Globe Theatre on the Bowery. Unfortunately, Ricky was an even bigger drunk than O’Brien was, and wound up in the gutter himself.
When Harrigan was 26 he hooked up with Hart, only 16 years old and then calling himself “Master Antonio”. Born Anthony Cannon, in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1855, he was placed in reform school at age 9 for announcing that he wanted to go into the theatre. He escaped and ran away to New York, singing, dancing and doing odd jobs at circuses, saloons and minstrel shows. By the time he and Harrigan joined their fortunes, Cannon had become famous for one particular number, a tear-jerker called “Put Me in My Little Bed”, which he sang dressed as a young girl. Audiences were crazy about Hart. Nat C. Goodwin said: “Hart caused more joy and sunshine by his delightful gifts than any artist of his time. To refer to him as talented was an insult. Genius was the only word that could be applied. He sung like a nightingale, danced like a fairy, and acted like a master comedian.”
Harrigan hired Cannon to replace Ricky as “Fraulein” in his sketch. That was when Cannon changed his name to Hart, deciding that sounded better with “Harrigan”.
A regular gig at New York’s Theatre Comique allowed the team to demonstrate their many talents. The variety show was 3 ½ hours long, followed by an afterpiece of 40 minutes. Harrigan and Hart might do several different turns in this course of such a show: blackface routines, brief sketches interspersed with dancing, juggling and singing. By 1876, when they assumed joint ownership of the Theatre Comique, the afterpieces became so popular that they became the focal point of the entire performance, and variety was dropped…
From 1876 through 1885, Harrigan and Hart ran the Theatre Comique, where they started out by presenting variety shows with an afterpiece (comedy sketch). One of these The Mulligan Guards (which actually debuted in 1873) became a huge phenomenon, spawning a series of sketches…which then blossomed into full length musical shows, all penned by Harrigan. In essence, for about a decade the two men ran New York’s favorite theatre company…where they wrote, directed and starred in all the shows. This is a template that was later followed by Weber & Fields, and a handful of others, like George M. Cohan and Ed Wynn, enjoyed similar God-like status.
At any rate, the day word got around that Harrigan and Hart broke up (they were driven apart by schemers in their respective families) was a day of mourning in New York City, akin in significance to the Beatles’ break-up in 1970. Tony Hart was to die of syphilis in 1891. Harrigan continued to enjoy many more stage successes as playwright and performer. In 1897, he returned to the vaudeville stage where he was a popular favorite for over ten more years (he was a favorite of George M. Cohan, who names a song after him). He passed away in 1911.
To learn more about 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.