Martin and Fabbrini — and “Winnie Winkle”

December 28 was the birthday of Martin “Mike” Branner (1888-1970).

Branner was the son of a New York lacemaker. At age 17 he got a job as a clerk to a couple of vaudeville bookers, providing his entree into show business. In 1905, he met Edith Fabbrini (1892-1966): the pair married and formed a comical vaudeville dance act within weeks of their meeting. For well over a decade Martin and Fabbrini toured the major vaudeville circuits including KeithOrpheum and Pantages; they played the Palace during its second week of operation in 1913.

In 1919, following his World War One service, Branner made a career change. Already a published illustrator (he’d designed ads in Variety), he decided to become a cartoonist. Two early strips (Looie the Lawyer and Pete and Pinto) were short-lived, but Winnie Winkle the Breadwinner, launched in 1920 was a lasting hit. The strip was about a young, single working girl who supported her parents and sibling — a pathbreaking novelty in pop culture at the time. Branner’s years of hatching gags for vaudeville now served him well in turning out a daily strip.

The Branners moved to Waterford, Connecticut and started a family. Branner, the child of Jewish immigrants, converted to his wife’s religion, Roman Catholicism. Their son Robert Branner (1927-73) became an art historian who specialized in Gothic cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts.

Meanwhile, Winnie Winkle was such a success that a series of silent comedy film adaptations was released from 1926 through 1928. The films were written by Branner, directed by Billy West and starred Ethelyn Gibson. A hardcover novel, Winnie Winkle and the Diamond Heirlooms, co-written by Branner and Helen Berke, wa published in 1946.

In 1962, Branner suffered a stroke and production of Winnie Winkle was taken over by other artists. It ran until 1996.

To find out more about vaudeville and acts like Martin and Fabbrini, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,