Val Harris (Valle Edward Harris, 1882-1961) became known for one particular specialty in vaudeville, playing a crusty old western coot who was full of stories. He worked with a variety of partners over the years and seems to have dabbled in other specialties prior to arriving at his best known act (that is, if these are all the same Val Harris).
Harris was originally from the tiny town of Ava, Illinois, located in the Southwestern part of the state across the Mississippi River from Missouri. The population of this town at present is 662. This was farm country. Harris first attracted notice in San Francisco circa 1910. How he went from point A to point B is a matter of pure speculation. He could have jumped aboard a showboat, or joined a tent show, or made his way to the nearest big city, St. Louis to get his foot in the door of the many theatres there. Somehow he wound up all the way at the Barbary Coast, where he cowrote a song with a guy named Sid Brown called “The Texas Tommy Swing” (inspired by an existing dance) which was used in the Ziefeld Follies of 1911. Around the same time he also cowrote a song named “Kid, You’ve Got Some Eyes” with Walter Van Brunt of the American Quartette. In both cases, he was the lyricist.
Late the following year (December 1914), Harris teamed up with one Jack Manion, who had been with the American Octet in England. Harris and Manion sang songs and did crosstalk. Harris’s old man routine evolved over the course of this partnership. They did a sketch (with songs) called “Uncle Jerry at the Opera” or “Uncle Jerry at the Oprey” in big time vaudeville at least through the early 1920s.
By the mid ’20s he has a new partner, Vera Griffin, who’d formerly been a routine with piano player Milt Feiber. The new act, entitled “The Sheik of ’61”, essentially set the template for all of his various acts over the next decade. In the original sketch, Harris plays a sod buster who tries to romance a vamp, Valentino style.
In 1928, he preserved a version of his act in a Vitaphone short called The Wild Westerner. In this early talkie, Griffin has been replaced by one Ann Howe. Howe was the winner of a radio contest sponsored by KNX radio Los angeles, wherein listeners were asked to vote on descriptions of contestants over the radio. Lucky Howe won and made a tour of the 48 contiguous continental states. It was initially announced that she would make five pictures including Ann of Tin Pan Alley but all that resulted was a bit part in the Charley Chase short Mighty like a Moose (1926), wherein she was billed as “The Radio Girl” and played the thankless part of a housemaid. Mighty Like a Moose was a silent; The Wild Westerner had sound. Howe plays a girl named Remington and sings the songs “The Grass Grows Greener”and “Woba-aly Walk” while he spins his yarns. I don’t know how similar this act is was to “The Sheik of ’61”, or if Harris dropped Griffin out of expediency just for this opportunity or if they’d broken up earlier, but in any case Griffin can’t have pleased to see her role be usurped by an interloper in this highly visible way. If there were any hard feelings, it’s especially a shame, because this short was a drop in the bucket. Neither Harris nor Howe were able to leverage it into a movie career.
Harris did perform with at least one more pretty partner however. In the early 30s he teamed with Chinese-American entertainer Olive Young in a travelling revue called Hot from Hollywood staged by one Bud Murray. It sounds a lot like his previous acts except now instead of a flapper, his partner brought the exoticism of the Far East. A critic of the time wrote:
“Val Harris, as his favorite character, the seventy-year-old cut-up with rube whiskers, gets a liberal Chinese education from the Chinese Mary Pickford [i.e. Young], whose novel act is to sing a torch song in Chinese: the effect being like turning on firecrackers. The oriental maiden also does a Chinese rumba.”
In early 1933 trade papers announced that Harris was writing comedy shorts at Educational for Harry Langdon along with Billy Watson and Dean Ward, but it seems not to have come to pass, as he is not credited on any Langdon films.
The last credit I’ve found is the 1935 Andy Clyde Columbia two reeler Old Sawbones. It sounds like kind of a codger fest! In addition to Clyde and Harris, the cast also has Si Jenks — that’s three country coots! Also in the cast: James C. Morton, Billy Franey, Bud Jamison, and George Ovey, good comedy company to be in.
Harris was only 53 in 1935 but I can’t find any reference to him after that, though he lived another quarter of a century and died in Van Nuys.