Today is the birthday of Richard George “R.G.” Knowles (1858-1919).
Technically, Knowles was Canadian by birth, though his parents were American and he was raised in America (his mother went into labor whilst visiting relatives in Ontario.) Raised in Chicago, Knowles began his working life at age 12 shortly after the death of his father. When he contracted consumption he moved to the wilderness of Colorado in hopes to benefit from the clean, mountain air. It was there that he discovered a knack for comedy storytelling, making his debut at a western saloon in a town called Leadville. From here he began to professionalize, debuting at the Olympic Theatre, Chicago in 1878. Thence he undertook national touring in vaudeville, minstrelsy** and musical comedy for over a decade. His distinctive comedy costume was a battered top hat, white pants and a wrinkly old coat.
In 1891 he debuted at London’s Trocadero Music Hall and was such a smash with the English that he was to make the Mother Country his home base for the remainder of his life, billing himself onstage as “The Very Peculiar American”. Audiences considered him brash and rude, and he would often tease the audience — behavior considered characteristically American and distinctly un-British. Like most of the big stars who toured the British Music Halls, he also toured the Empire: South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Palestine, Indian and China. He made a small number of short silent films in 1902 and 1905. And he published many popular humor books — several of them are available to download online.
Knowles also published a memoir called A Modern Columbus two years before he died. That book is available to read here. Special thanks to Heather Henson (and Victoria Miller) for making me aware of this interesting show biz figure. Heather is related to Knowles by marriage on her mom’s side. (Her dad is of course the late Jim Henson). Knowles’ wife (and Heather’s great aunt) was the banjo playing music hall artiste Winifred E. Johnson.
To learn 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.
**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.