Joseph Santley: “The World’s Greatest Boy Actor”


Today is the birthday of Joseph Santley (Joseph Mansfield, 1898-1971). Santley was second generation show biz, and grew up on the stage performing and traveling with his mother, stepfather and brother. He was a wunderkind who could act, sing, dance, write, choreograph, direct, and produce for the stage, and later for film and television. In vaudeville he was billed as “The World’s Greatest Boy Actor”. When he was only 17 years old he starred in the title role in Billy the Kid on Broadway in a play he’d written himself. The following year (1907) he starred in the film version. (Originally from Salt Lake City, he came to this western subject matter naturally).

Santley  continued to appear in vaudeville and on Broadway through the early 1930s. Santley was big time; he appeared at the Palace as early as 1914. He devised dance crazes like The Santley Tango. After 1916 he appeared as a dance team with his wife Ivy Sawyer. The apex of Santley’s stage career may have been the 1927 show Just Fancy, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in. He also appeared with his wife in two editions of The Music Box Revue. 

Then the talkies called. In 1928 he began directing shorts for Paramount starring popular stage stars like Lillian Roth, Ruth Etting, and Eddie Peabody. One of these (Book Lovers, 1929) co-starred himself and Sawyer, one of his last outings as a performer. In 1929, he co-directed the film he is best known for today, the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey handled the camera direction, while Santley staged the actual show). He continued to direct and produce films for another 20 years, most of them minor and fairly undistinguished entertainments for smaller studios like Republic and Mascot. He wrote and directed the 1935 Stephen Foster bio-pic Harmony Lane, which we wrote about here. He directed several Gene Autry musical westerns, including Melody Ranch (1940) and Down Mexico Way (1941) . He directed screen versions of Ice-capades (1941) and Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1945), and patriotic films like Remember Pearl Harbor (1942) and Rosie the Riveter (1944).

After 1950, he directed and produced variety shows for television, including The All Star Revue, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Mickey Rooney Show and The Patti Page Show. He retired in 1962.

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.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.