On Ward and Vokes: The Original “Harold and Percy”

Wow! Okay, I fell down a happy rabbit hole this morning, and it was one of those experiences that assures me that this blog sometimes serves a useful function. Travalanche is the only place on the Internet, or perhaps anywhere, where you will find the definitive complete story on the vaudeville team of Ward and Vokes and their associates.

The members of the team were Harry Vokes (Harry Laughlin, 1866-1922), whose birthday it is today,  and John “Hap” or “Happy” Ward (John Thomas O’Donnell, 1868-1944). Vokes, originally from Quincy Illinois, had been a circus tumbler; Ward (from Philadelphia) had been a dancer in the Washington area. In 1887 they formed a comedy act and Tony Pastor gave them a shot. Their characters were named Harold and Percy. Initially the gag was that they were a pair of tramps, but all of their dialogue was comically posh — they talked like a couple of Ivy League educated layabouts. This is a picture of Ward in tramp gear:

This photo, from the Sobels’ Illustrated History of Vaudeville was how I learned about the team (although the book has a typo — it identifies him as “Hay” Ward.) Douglas Gilbert’s American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times, further clarifies the evolution of the act, informing the reader that the tramp guises were very brief. It seems that another performer advised Ward and Vokes to lose the hobo costumes and just go straight to playing Harold and Percy as a couple of rich fops. The comedians were skeptical at first, as it meant throwing away the whole gag of their act, but they tried the experiment and it worked, chiefly because their dialogue as the rich boys was written so well. So that’s what they did — for around three decades! They were so well known that the phrase “Harold and Percy” became a byword for a certain “type” in the culture

Initially they toured vaudeville and variety theatres. Then they began to tour the country in the leads in their own original musical farce comedies. I’ve identified some of these, although I’m not certain if I’ve caught all of them. They include A Run on the Bank, which opened on Broadway in 1895, in which they play a couple of drunken Lords. In The Governors (1898) Harold and Percy are now Governors of Idaho and South Dakota.

The Floor Walkers (1900) also saw a Broadway production. This one is interesting because their wives were also in the show. Ward and Vokes had married a pair of performing sisters. Vokes had married Margaret “Maggie” Daly in 1893; Ward would marry Lucy Daly. The Daly sisters were siblings too of eccentric vaudeville comedian Dan Daly (1864-1904). The Dalys were from revere, Mass. and appear not to have been related to theatre eminences Arnold Daly, Augustin Daly, or Peter F. Dailey, although it is understandable to come to that conclusion, and many have over the years. Daly (with its many spelling variants) is merely a common Irish name.

Subsequent Ward and Vokes shows included The Head Waiters (1901), A Pair of Pinks(1905), The Promoters (1910), and The Trouble Makers (1911).

Ward and Vokes seem to have broken up a short time after this. In a 1913 show the parts of Harold and Percy were undertaken by performers named Austin Walsh and Jack Dempsey (presumably not the boxer, although that Dempsey did perform in vaudeville too). I’ve also seen a poster for a later production of A Pair of Pinks starring “West and Vokes”, Ward having been replaced. Ward is said to have gone into producing shows for someone called “E.V. Stair” on the “Stair and Havilland Circuit” though I’ve yet found no further reference to what that was.

Both men briefly went to films, separately from one another. Harry Vokes starred in two films for Gaumont in 1915: The House Party and Beauty in Distress. Ward’s film career was much more prolific. He was in nearly 30 films, all but one of them between the years 1918 and 1922. He appears to have come back in 1929 for a bit part in a single talkie, Fugitives, starring Madge Bellamy. 

Of the two, Vokes’ life appears to have changed the more drastically after the break-up. Maggie Daly had died in 1908; Vokes re-married in 1914 to a woman named Marie Francis. This second marriage may have played a role in why he drops out of show business at around this time and for what happened next.

For Vokes died a most unexpected death in 1922. Having retired from show business in 1918, he was now working a blue collar job as a pump tender for the Beacon Oil Company in Everett, Massachusetts (outside Boston) when he was fatally injured in an explosion. Ward was said to have sat by his deathbed as Vokes perished from his injuries. This all comes from the New York Times, so it’s definitely the same guy. What a falling off was there!  Following his own retirement, Hap Ward operated a roadhouse in the Boston area. As we saw, he came back for one film in 1929. He passed away in 1944.

Harry Vokes son, also named Harry Vokes, was also in show business. I see two Broadway credits for the younger one: The Woman on the Jury (1923) in which he played “Otto Schimidt”; and Queer People (1934), in which he played “Pop Schmaltz”. Dutch comedy would seem to have been his specialty.

To find out more about vaudeville and stars like Ward and Vokesconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous; to learn more about silent comedy please check out Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.