John F. Byrne, founder of the Byrne Brothers, was born on this day in 1859.
The Byrne Brothers may be the major vaudeville act with origins closest to my own hometown, which is in Southern Rhode Island. The Byrnes were from Norwich, Connecticut, just across the state border. Providence, where the Four Cohans started, is technically closer, but as a small town, Norwich is much more similar to where I grew up, which makes me especially interested in this team.
The brothers were Michael (1856-1913), John (1859-1937), Joseph (1861-1872), Andrew (1866-1938), James (1868-1927), and Matthew (1870-1897). There was also a sister, Margaret (b. 1864), who was not in the act. They were the children of a pair of Irish immigrants. The father worked at a metal engraving plant; John joined him there early in his working life.
But John was drawn to show business, and the family act begins with him. As a child he had won an art contest at a county fair, and taken some drawing classes, but his true love was tumbling and dancing, which he is said to have engaged in almost compulsively. By the mid 1870s he was getting his feet wet in professional performance. He played a date at a vaudeville house in Brooklyn in 1876 with a partner named Seth Enos which incorporated song, dance, and twisting somersaults, which was then considered an unprecedented innovation. He performed in a succession of acts with a series of partners over the next decade, at pleasure gardens, nascent vaudeville houses, circuses, showboats, and minstrel shows**.
In 1887, he was joined by his brothers Matthew and James, who had been performing as a team for a time. In 1888, the trio was booked for the Thatcher, Primrose and West show. In 1891, they were joined by Andrew and Michael. At this stage, John devised the act for which they became famous, and with which they toured for years. Entitled Eight Bells: A Nautical Pantomimic Comedy in Three Acts, it was produced by Primrose and West and showcased all of the brothers’ skills, including acrobatic stunts, pantomime, knockabout, and special effects like an exploding wagon and a capsizing ship. The act was so popular in 1896, they toured companies simultaneously.
In 1897, Matthew died while the company was performing in Appleton Wisconsin. This was a major loss; Matthew had been the juggler of the troupe. It had been Matthew’s performance in a Philadelphia performance of Eight Bells in 1893 that had inspired a young W.C. Fields to become a juggler. There had been a scene where Matthew entered a French mansion and nonchalantly juggled a hat, a cane, a cigar and other items, just as Fields would later do in his own act.
Still the Byrne Brothers soldiered on as a quartet. In 1898, John wrote a new show for the company, called Going to the Races, but response was negative, so they returned to Eight Bells ever after. In 1901 and 1902 John managed the Hanlon Brothers (who’d been a major influence on the Byrnes) in Le Voyage en Suisse. In 1908, Blackstone the Magician became part of the show.
Eight Bells was made into a silent film in 1918, starring John, Andrew, and James.
For more on vaudeville history, 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.