Mel Klee: The Prince of Wails

Mel Klee was born Moses Lefkowitz in New York City in 1892.

Klee illustrates a peculiar phenomenon of late era vaudeville, something almost Medieval in a way. Klee started out as a song-plugger for Al Herman. When Herman moved to Hollywood, Klee inherited his act. Some might say “appropriated” but it appears to have fully sanctioned, and fully credited. It was common knowledge that Klee did Herman’s material, and that he had gotten it from Herman. There were others who did this in vaudeville and some credit the practice with contributing to the death of the form. There was literally nothing original about it. Why I call it “Medieval” is that it’s almost like he served an apprenticeship…and the fact that there’s something kind of anonymous about it. The performer is less important than the act.

And yet Klee did attain a measure of fame. He was known for performing both in blackface** (near-universal at the time) and as his own handsome self. His visage graces many pieces of printed sheet music of the day:

Hilariously, Klee’s act (which was really Herman’s act) was once stolen in its entirety by Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. In 1926, Fine got a last minute substitute booking at the Toronto Paramount. Having no material to go out as a solo, he simply did Klee’s act word for word, song for song, exactly as Klee would do it, and it went over big.

In 1929, Klee starred in a Vitaphone short of his blackface act, jokes and songs, called The Prince of Wails. There are snippets available of it on Youtube at this writing. It’s somewhat painful to watch (not too funny), but I can clear up one mystery. Some find it confusing that he wears blackface but doesn’t impersonate an African American. That was quite common, though by no means universal, in minstrelsy and vaudeville. For some performers, it was merely a convention.

In later years Klee was a headliner on the Fanchon and Marco circuit. He died in 1935 at the young age of 43.

Klee’s son Larry frequently performed onstage with his father as a child, beginning at age ten. Larry Klee later wrote for comedian Jack Gilford, and then became a highly successful radio writer, penning episodes of shows like Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons; Backstage Wife; and The Fat Man. 

For more on vaudeville historyplease 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. 

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