Sorry for that tiny photo — writers leave behind much smaller graphic footprints than do performers.
Today is the birthday of Edgar Allan Woolf (1888-1943). Woolf was one of the best known vaudeville writers, and there were only a scant handful (among the many hundreds) who managed to achieve anything like name recognition, usually by going on to bigger and better things (George Kelly and Al Boasberg are two I have written about here).
And the reason why should be plain. I won’t say the word “hack” because what they did deserves more respect than that. Let us say say, these were very practical writers. They were fashioning special material for actors and and comedians and singers in order to earn a living. They weren’t precious about it, they wrote to please customers, and there was perhaps an emphasis on quantity over quality. At one point, Woolf is said to have had 60 sketches on the road with different vaudeville acts. Among those he wrote for were Pat Rooney Sr and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, although dozens of other names pop up in connection with him.
So we vaudeville fans know his name in this context, but his shadow grew longer. He actually had a substantial career as a Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He wrote close to a dozen Broadway plays and musicals between 1904 and 1921. The most famous of which today is Mamzelle Champagne (1906), due to a bit of notoriety unrelated to Woolf. It was a performance of this show that Harry K. Thaw shot Stanford White over the little matter of Evelyn Nesbitt. (The way Woolf used to tell it at Hollywood parties, his mother, who was present, stood up and screamed, “Oh my God! They’ve shot Edgar!” The show, apparently wasn’t very good.)
Another notable Woolf show was 1919’s Roly Boly Eyes a starring vehicle for minstrel man** Eddie Leonard.
Woolf was already writing dialogue for talkies as early as 1928, which has to make him one of the first writers brought out to Hollywood to script talking pictures. He had a hand in over three dozen pictures at MGM, and became a sort of popular, well known Hollywood character. Flamboyantly gay, he gave weekly parties for writers and directors, and cooked Sunday morning brunches at Louis B. Mayer’s house. Most of his movies were forgettable, but he did supply dialogue to Freaks (1932) and Mad Love (1935) and was one of the credited screenwriters on The Wizard of Oz (1939), which is probably what he is best known for today.
His name was in the papers once more in 1943, in connection with his tragic death. True to his generous character, Woolf cared for a blind dog. Investigators pieced together that he tripped over the pooch at the top of his stairs one morning. He was found at the bottom of the staircase with his skull broken.
To find out more 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. 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
**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.