Today is the birthday of Esther Louise Georgette Deere, a.k.a Princess White Deer (1891-1991). A genuine Mohawk Princess and granddaughter of the tribe’s last full chief, Chief Running Deer, she was also a third generation show business professional.
Starting in the 1860s, Running Deer and his family began performing in medicine shows, Wild West shows, and circuses, often masquerading as members of any tribe they were hired to impersonate: Kickapoo, Umatilla, Sioux, Apache, or Shawnee. The members of the troupe would perform traditional chants, dances and rituals, do trick riding. re-enact famous battles — whatever would thrill the crowds. They also played in melodramas in legitimate theatres in shows like On the Trail of Daniel Boone and Queen of the Highway. The Deer family performed in some of the biggest shows of the era: P.T. Barnum’s, John Robinson’s, Texas Jack’s and numerous others. Running Deer’s last performance was at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. The family act continued on for nearly a decade, touring the U.K., Continental Europe, South Africa, and as far East as Russia, which is where Esther (Princess White Deer), who had been performing with her family since childhood, split off and went solo.
For the first several years of her career she performed in night clubs and music halls of Imperial Russia (reportedly even marrying a Count, who died in the First World War). The war sent Princess White Deer back to the States. Starting in 1917, she was a headliner on the big time Keith-Albee circuit, performing with a full company as “Princess White Deer and her Braves”. P.R. copy described her as “the only real American Indian in theatricals who dances and sings”, which probably wasn’t too far from the truth. The 17 minute act boasted an elaborate set and costumes, and a large troupe of performers. She would continue to return to Keith vaudeville periodically through the end of the 1920s.
Meantime, there were also other types of venues, and other acts. She was a frequent performer in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic and Nine O’Clock Frolic. She traveled with the road company of Raymond Hitchcock’s Hitchy-Koo of 1919. She also appeared in the Broadway shows Tip Top (1920), The Yankee Princess (1922), and Lucky (1927). In 1924 she played supper clubs in Atlantic City with a ballroom dance act with an Argentinian smoothie named Peppy de Albrew. From 1928 through 1929 she performed in the cabarets and music halls of Paris.
Upon her return to the States in 1929, she appears to have essentially retired from show business, occupying herself with tribal activities and ceremonial appearances for the next 60 years. More on this remarkable person can be found in the book In Search of Princess White Deer, by Patricia Galperin.
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.