Today is the birthday of Lee Tung Foo (1875-1966). Born in California, Lee was a Chinese American singer in vaudeville from the mid 1890s through around 1919. Lee was formally trained, and apparently good at what he did, but naturally his gimmick, and the source of most his attention, was his ethnic identity. He didn’t do “yellow face” like many magicians, but he did make a big deal out of going “against type”, as in his Harry Lauder imitation:
Vaudeville was already slowing down by the ’20s thanks to the competition of cinema. Lee opened a couple of popular Chinese restaurants in New York. Then about a decade later he started to emerge from retirement, with some small roles on Broadway and then Hollywood films. He had a decent part in the Warner Bros. short The Skull Murder Mystery (1932) and then was called back for another speaking part in The General Died at Dawn (1936). For the next quarter century he was relegated mostly to uncredited bit parts, as servants, laundrymen, witnesses and suspects in B pictures, visiting Asian dignitaries, and color in crowd scenes, although occasionally speaking parts would come his way. His last film was The Manchurian Candidate (1962). For lots more on Lee Tung Foo, check out this cool article here.
To find out about the history of 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.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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