Sammy Burns: Vaudeville Dancer and Silent Screen Comedian

This one is a work-in-progress, and yet I suspect it is a fuller portrait than is elsewhere available of stage and screen performer/ producer/ teacher Sammy Burns. Notably, I lack the details of the beginning and the end, the birth and the death, but the middle has come together more than I assumed it would have.

Burns was often referred to in the press as a British or English dancer or comedian. Given his last name and the fact that he included a Laddie Cliff impression in his act, though, I suspect his origin may have been Scotland, but that’s just a logical speculation. But this is show biz, so who knows? After all, George Burns‘ real last name was Birnbaum.

In 1907, Variety reported on a trio who performed at Keith’s Union Square, consisting of Eddie Mack, Jack Goldie, and Sam Burns. According to the writer, “One sings and whistles [this would be Goldie], the other does acrobatics, and the third delivers quite the cleverest bit of eccentric dancing that has been seen in a long time.” Thanks to Arthur Frank Wertheim’s footnote in The Papers of Will Rogers, we know a little something about Eddie Mack. It may illuminate Burns a little. Wertheim tells us Mack lived from 1879 to 1944. And this sounds about right. The Variety piece refers to the members of the trio as “boys” a couple of times — I’m picturing exuberant young men in their twenties, and I think its a safe assumption that Burns was around the same age as Mack. (That said, I’m less certain about Wertheim’s assertion that this is the same Ed Mack who performed with the Manhattan Comedy Four. If he was born in 1879 he’d only be 11 in 1890, the time of that team’s heyday. Lou Shean of that team was born in 1869 and that’s more like it. Also, the MCF’s Ed Mack was also supposed to have been a veteran of Harrigan and Hart’s Company and you’d want an even earlier birthdate for someone like that. Also, Wertheim described him as an Irish tenor and dancer but also says his real name was Eddie Hoffman, which is a German or Jewish surname. I just think they’re two different guys). However, his description of Mack’s career after this trio sounds like the guy from the Union Square performance: in 1909 Mack partnered in an act with his wife Dot Williams, who played the piano and sang and did impressions. Then the pair of them danced on a staircase outfitted with bells so it would play a tune as they stepped up and down. And in his later years, Mack taught dance to movie actors.

Back to Sammy Burns, who I figure to be around the same age, and who also teamed up in an act with his wife a few months after the Union Square date. In September, 1908 Variety reports: “Alice French, who impersonates Anna Held in ‘The Parisian Widows’ will be married next spring to Sam Burns, of the same company.”

Soon after this, Burns began appearing in vaudeville with a woman named Alice Fulton, who was his partner for about six years. I think she’s the same gal as Alice French, for a couple of reasons. One is that The Parisian Widows was a burlesque company. In vaudeville, there was a certain amount of stigma attached to burlesque performers. One strategy for avoiding that, or for getting hired in vaudeville at all, was to change your name.  Two, as to where the name Fulton came from: in 1908, Sam Burns was in the Broadway show Funabashi which also featured the husband-wife team of Rock and Fulton. I’ve looked into it, and I don’t think Alice Fulton was Maude Fulton’s sister. So it wasn’t a case of Burns meeting Alice because he was working with Maude. I think he and Alice just appropriated Maude’s last name, which was also very common at the time.

The stage at Henderson’s. Harpo Marx’s first performance with his brothers occurred here the previous year

The New York Dramatic Mirror reviewed Burns and Fulton’s first local performance at Hendersons Coney Island in 1909. The review said the pair opened with a rube song and dance number. Then Burns did an eccentric soft shoe while Fulton did a high kicking specialty . Then Burns did his Laddie Cliff imitation and the team finished with an acrobatic dance.

I found many positive reviews of their act over the next few years. Here’s a typical one from Variety in reference to their engagement at Young’s Pier in Atlantic City in 1911:  “Here is an act that is going to be heard of. Burns and Fulton are well known in the west, having played the Orpheum, and also appeared abroad. They have never played extensively in the east. Sammy Burns and Alice Fulton do an act of clever dances that puts them in the class of the best. Their setting consists of brown velvet hangings which gives a simple, though rich effect. They showed class dancing together and in their specialties. Burns won favor giving an idea of how an Englishman sang and danced to a coon [sic] song, while Miss Fulton gave an excellent eccentric dance. For a finish the two do a corking acrobatic dance that took them off to big applause. As a dancing duo Burns and Fulton may be placed on any bill.”

In 1912 the team was in the Broadway show The Girl from Brighton. They are still going strong in 1914 when Godwin’s Weekly reports that they played at the Orpheum in Salt Lake City on a bill with Trixie Friganza.

The act broke up in 1915 when Burns had an opportunity to go into films. The films were my entry point for the subject of Burns. I’d heard about him as a silent comedian, and gradually uncovered this vaudeville career. It’s pretty clearly the same guy. Many of the contemporary press articles mention both his stage and screen careers. And it wasn’t unprecedented for someone like Burns to become a silent comedian. While it’s true that most of them were drawn from the ranks of clowns, acrobats, or plain old actors, I can think of one very significant silent comedy figure whose background was very similar to Burns’ origins in burlesque and musical comedy — no less than Mack Sennett. And later Lupino Lane, would sort of make the opposite journey, going from being a silent clown in films to a major musical comedy figure on the London stage. It’s a less common pathway because, duh, there was no music in silent movies, but it did exist.

In late 1915, the Mutual Film Corporation launched their new Vogue brand, and Sammy Burns was tapped to be their first star. This seems to have happened suddenly and to have caused an instantaneous and acrimonious break up between Burns and Fulton. David Lightner, in his book Winnie Lightner: Tomboy of the Talkies, mentions a 1915 bill at Shea’s Theater in Buffalo on which Burns and Fulton had been advertised to perform, but they cancelled. I can find no reference to Alice, be she French, Fulton or Burns, following this break-up.

Burns’ first film, Sammy’s Scandalous Scheme (1915) paired him with Dot Farley, formerly of Keystone, and that must have made Alice’s blood boil. “There’s a part for a girl? And they didn’t take us as a team???” The very same thing later happened to Stan Laurel’s wife Mae Dahlberg, and she terrorized her way into a few of Stan’s early movies. But Alice had her revenge, of course. Had you heard of Sammy Burns? His silent screen career did not go as hoped. Burns only made ten film shorts during his modest screen career, 7 of them between 1915 and 1917.

It wasn’t for want of trying. Vogue valiantly tried to sell “Sammy” in their film titles as though it were the coming of a new Chaplin, and it’s important to note that Chaplin had only been a star for less than two years at this point. Everyone was trying to replicate the formula. Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd were trying the same thing at around the same time. But Burns’ films did not click with audiences. Critics said he was too slavishly imitative of Chaplin. While this was also true of early Lloyd, Roach believed in him. Rather than fire Lloyd, he worked with him to re-envision his character. Burns wasn’t so lucky. Because, as we said, Vogue was an imprint of Mutual. And in 1916, as you probably know, Charlie Chaplin himself signed a deal with Mutual. After only four Vogue comedies, the services of Sammy Burns were no longer required.

Still, he had a little momentum going at this stage. He next went over to L-KO for three pictures. One of them, That Dawgone Dog (1917) was the first movie directed by Dick Smith, Alice Howell’s husband, who later directed the lost Marx Brothers silent film Humor Risk. Bombs and Bandits (1917) cast Burns opposite top rate talent like Billy Bevan and Charles Inslee.

At this stage, Burns resolved to steer a wildly different path. In 1917, Variety announced that he’d formed a partnership with fellow dancer Ivan Bankoff for the purpose of producing large scale vaudeville novelties, that is to say tab shows. The story announced two of these mini-musicals in the works: Poisoned Kiss with a chorus of 14 dancers, and Midnight Manhattan, featuring 16. The fact that Burns returned to films a few more times indicates to me a method to the madness. Being a contract player in films is to be passive in regard to your own fate. Being a producer can be lucrative, and you get to be your own boss. I think he hoped to be able to combine both and produce his own films.

Meantime, he kept a hand in the movie game. In 1919 he starred in one comedy for Nestor,  which was then a Universal imprint, entitled The Poor Prune. Little is known about it, other than it is clearly named after a song by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse from the 1917 musical Leave it to Jane. What’s a little mysterious is that Nestor is generally considered to have been moribund by about mid-1917, yet the film seems to have been released in 1919. It might be that the film was actually produced in 1917 when the label was still in use, then released by Universal until a bit later.

In 1919 and 1920 it was widely reported that Burns would star in “King Cole” comedies, with a number of actors announced to be his collaborators including his producing partner Ivan Bankoff. The films were to be produced at Dongan Hill Studio on Staten Island, although if these films were completed all knowledge of them seems buried. Another comedian, the similarly named Bobby Burns, also made some King Cole Comedies; much more information is available about those.

In 1921, Sammy made Oh, Buoy for Reelcraft. According to Laura Petersen Balogh’s book Karl Dane: A Biography and Filmography, Dane (uncredited) played the comic heavy in that one. According to Balogh, the film was made by Burns’ own production company, Sammy Burns Comedies, located on Fifth Avenue. Reelcraft must have been involved as the distributor. It is worth noting that they went bankrupt the following year. Burns’ last film is even more of a mystery than the rest of them, a five reel independent picture called Fun on the Farm (1926), possibly made in New York. This could well have been something that he produced himself, as well.

Starting around the mid 1920s he began to earn his living as a dance instructor, and he seems to have become a highly respected and legendary one, in addition to being a New York show biz “character”. I find many references to professionals (performers and teachers) stating with pride that they studied under him, or listing his tutelage prominently among their credentials. (Although in one memoir I did see a reference to him harassing all the female students with kisses and pinches on the ass. Perhaps not surprising given his burlesque background — and perhaps another factor in the split with Alice Fulton.) In 1932, the Dancing Teacher Business Association of New York City (later known as Dance Educators of America), was formed at Burns’ studio. The Sammy Burns Studio was located at 1841 Broadway.

The last reference I can find to the living Sammy Burns is in 1949. It’s in a Billboard notice which mentions him among the “celebrities” at the wedding of show biz booker Eddie Ross and his new wife Lee Schwartz. Lew Leslie and Martin Beck were also among the guests.

Burns was a prominent guy, it’s odd not to turn up an obituary for him, but so far I have not. It may be that despite the professional respect, he was not well liked (too much ass pinching!) It may be that he lived to be very old, thus outliving contemporaries who remembered and cared about him. It’s still a question mark at present, but we’ll fill it in as we know more. Meantime, it seemed like there was too much good stuff here not to share.