Lillian Shaw: Naughty Character Comedienne on the Big Time

Lillian Shaw (ca. 1886-1978) was too important a stage star in her day to be as forgotten as she is now, even among theater buffs. As her outline emerges she seems to have had an act you might place between somewhere Fanny Brice’s and Sophie Tucker’s, and you might compare her to Eva Tanguay for the extent she was often in trouble with vaudeville managers. But she was big time and critics raved about her.

The one piece I’m missing at this point is who Shaw really was, and I’m more than comfortable throwing this out into the ether to crowdsource the answer: whoever discovers her real name and place of birth will get full credit and thanks here. As I often stress (and few people seem to hear), I’m a writer and an actor, not a historian or scholar. There’s no way I’m spending more than an hour getting to the bottom of who this woman actually was, and that hour has been spent! What I have is that she was probably Jewish (given the volume of Jewish material in her act, and the ease with which she accessed it) and that she was possibly from either Pittsburgh or Brooklyn. (A clue as to the former, in one item I found she was billed as a “local artist” who’d returned to Pittsburgh to headline a vaudeville bill. As to the latter, less convincing, she was advertised as “Brooklyn’s Favorite Actress” in an ad. But perhaps she had moved to Brooklyn or was even merely performing there.) But given the amount of ethnic material in her act, my experience tells me it’s a safe assumption that “Shaw” is a pseudonym, and much like Nora Bayes (also Jewish), she took a stage name that was vaguely Irish sounding.

The earliest professional references to her I’ve found were in a periodical called “Book Notes” where references were made to productions at the New York Theatre (formerly Hammerstein’s Olympia) called The Telephone Girl (1898) and The Man in the Moon (1899). These were apparently huge, large-cast extravaganzas, yet Shaw, one of the dancers in the chorus, was singled out by the reviewer for her “physical attractiveness” and “grace” several times. Clearly the reviewer was smitten with her to an almost unseemly degree. She would have been 12 and 13 years old at the time, though he couldn’t have known that from the audience.

Starting around 1902 Shaw begins doing a single on the Keith circuit. She was a singing comedienne who specialized in character types. Among the female characters she played were a glamorous and fashionable French woman, and several ethnic immigrant characters, in particular, Italian, German and Jewish.  Some sources say Irving Berlin wrote “Yiddle On the Fiddle” for Shaw, although Fanny Brice is now more famously associated with it. Another song he wrote for her was “Baby Carriage”. Here’s a publicity still she used to promote that number:

Blanche Merrill also wrote songs for Shaw. After Fanny Brice, Shaw was said to be her second biggest customer. “I Got a Rock” (1911) was an Italian character song. The titular rock was for the head of the hussy who stole the singer’s husband. Another song she sang in her Italian character was named “Angelo”

Shaw also wrote her own material, such as the song “Telephone Your Rivky, Izzie” (1910) which she co-authored with Addison Burkhardt and appeared in the show “Jumping Jupiter”.

As we said, a lot of Shaw’s material was sexually risque. Sometimes (as with the French woman) she played the sexpot herself. Other times, her character had been two-timed by her man (another theme common to Brice and Sophie Tucker) OR, her character had gotten knocked up and was saddled with a dreary life in a tenement. The thing is, Sophie Tucker got away with her double entendre songs because she was comically “unattractive” by conventional standards. As we can see from these photos, and from the testimony of that 1899 critic, Shaw was anything but unattractive. She was often referred to as “dainty” or little” and she had a lovely face. So doing a song with sexual content brought reprimands from theatre managers. Too dangerous! For more on this aspect of her work, see the interesting book Performing Gender and Comedy: Theories, Texts and Contexts, edited by Shannon Hengen.

Shaw’s meat and potatoes, year in, year out, appears to have been vaudeville and one finds innumerable references to her on the Keith, Orpheum and Loew’s Circuits though the 1920s. She also appeared in musical theatre. IBDB lists but one credit for her, a 1906 show called In New York Town. But her NY Times obit states that she also performed in Ziegfeld’s Follies and Midnight Frolic and was later a member of the Ziegfeld Club. It’s possible that she was in touring versions of the show and not the hometown edition. She was also said to have performer in a show called Girl Rangers, also not on Broadway, in which she sang a song called “Down at Coney Isle”.

Other tidbits: her dance partner at one point was someone named Francis Sullivan. And she made headlines in 1912, when she heroically pulled a “Foy”, continued singing to avert a panic when a fire seemed to be breaking out in a theatre she was singing in. Also, she once followed the Marx Brothers on a vaudeville bill in Chicago, on which occasion she uttered the priceless quip, “If there’s anything left to do, I’m going to do it.”

Big time vaudeville died circa 1932. Her last known engagement was a regular singing gig at Leone’s Italian Restaurant in Manhattan in 1935. She died 43 years later, still residing in NYC.

To learn more more about vaudeville and character singers like Lillian Shaw please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

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