Legendary ragtime piano player and composer Mike Bernard (Michael Barnet Brown, 1875-1936) was born of a St. Patrick’s Day. Like Ben Harney, who introduced him to ragtime circa 1896, Bernard was a white musician. In Bernard’s case a serious one — he had actually studied at the Berlin Conservatory in his youth and may have even played for the Kaiser. Upon his exposure to rag, Bernard immediately began performing it in vaudeville at the same venues as Harney, at places likes Tony Pastor’s, billing himself as “The Ragtime King of the World”. Unlike Harney, Bernard had the opportunity to record his repertoire, laying down dozens of tunes composed by himself and others for Columbia Pictures between 1912 and 1918.
Bernard was nearly as prolific romantically as he was musically. He was married thrice, one to Florence Courtney of the Courtney Sisters, and was also linked to Blossom Seeley, and Ziegfeld Girl Dorothy Zuckerman, with whom he is said to have had a child out of wedlock.
As with Harney, Bernard’s career was harmed by the advent of jazz; his bookings got smaller and rarer through the 1920s. One of his last gigs was at New York’s nostalgia themed club, Bill’s Gay ’90s. He died in 1936 at the age of 61.
To find out more about artists like Mike Bernard and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
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