For #NationalViolinDay: The Violinists of Vaudeville

One of my favorite Busby Berkeley set pieces from “Gold Diggers of 1933”: a chorus of girls playing neon violins in the dark

It happens to be National Violin Day!  This seemed a natural and fitting thing to mark here on Travalanche, and what a wonderful surprise I got when I did a search and discovered how many performers played the celebrated instrument. Here’s a little wrap-up. Just click on the name to learn more about the performer and their connection to the violin.

Straight up musicians who played the instrument included Ben Bernie, Miss Patricola, Hazel Dawn, Babe Egan, Rubinoff, Evelyn Kaye, Odette, and Tal Henry. Singer Russ Columbo played violin in his younger years, as did march composer John Philip Sousa and blues man Lonnie Johnson. It was among the many instruments jazz man Lester Young played.  Songwriter Sammy Cahn played the instrument in burlesque and nightclub bands. Gerry Cohan played the violin, and it was George M. Cohan’s first specialty as a child performer. Then there was Violinsky, who played violin and piano at the same time.

Comedians who played the instrument, comically or otherwise, included Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Larry Fine of the Three Stooges, and Roscoe Ates. Joe Cook included it among his countless performing skills; so did Herman TimbergThe Weire Brothers did a comical bit with a violin; William Demarest did a funny physical number with a cello.

Charlie Chaplin played the violin almost compulsively; he demonstrates the skill in several of his movies; later he composed the scores to his pictures on the instrument. I find the fact that as a child actor he was in a West End production of Sherlock Holmes with William Gillette of possible relevance in this regard. The character of Holmes, as you ought to know, plays the violin to think and unwind. So did Chaplin. And get this! Before she was a star herself of the cabaret stage, Marlene Dietrich started out paying violin in variety theatre pit bands!

Frank Whitman billed himself as a Dancing Violinist. Magician Norm Nielsen’s signature illusion involved floating violins. Screen actress Betty Compson started out playing violin in a vaudeville pit band.

Sideshow performers who played the violin included conjoined twins Rosa and Josefa Blazek, armless man Alexander Montarg (played with his feet), albino Rudolph Lucasie, and Krao the Missing Link. As a child performer, Little Person Billy Barty was aided in his act by a fiddle playing sister. And Todd Robbins has sent me this swell picture of Zip the Pinhead scraping a fiddle in a sideshow with what look like Kookoo the Bird Girl dancing and Schlitizie at the piano:

And let us not forget that immortal Irving Berlin classic “Yiddle on the Fiddle”! Clearly the violin was an important instrument in vaudeville.

To learn out more about vaudeville, including many a violin player, consult No Applause, Just Throw oney: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Bo Diddley played violin growing up and was recorded at least once playing violin. It is on a two CD set, The Bo Diddley Story.

    Like

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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 )

w

Connecting to %s