Today is the birthday of Gus Williams (Gustave Wilhelm Leweck, Jr., 1848, 1915). Born in the vicinity of New York’s Bowery, young Leweck went west as a teenager seeking his fortune and only got as far as Indiana, where he became a farmhand. At age 14 he joined the Union army and wound up stationed with the occupying forces in Hunstville, Alabama, which is where he got his first stage experience as part of J.B. Ashton’s Dramatic Company.
After the war, he returned to his roots, going back to perform at Tony Pastor’s vaudeville house, doing Dutch (or German) comedy routines with an emphasis on original, self-penned songs. Williams was one of the premiere Dutch comics, particularly interesting because he was actually German — a lot of the later ones were Jewish. In addition to comic songs like “Dot Little German Band” and “Kaiser, Do You Want to Buy a Dorg?”, he also wrote popular weepies like “Don’t Forget Mother” and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. In addition to his vaudeville act, he also toured in original German farce comedies.
By the nineteen-teens Williams’ career was winding down. In 1915, he shot himself without leaving a note. The theory was that he had concluded that his career was at an end; the suicide had happened directly after a meeting with his agent. I’ll go the speculation one better: World War One had broken out six months before, making all things German increasingly unpopular.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Gus Williams, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.