Dan Mason: Skipper on the Toonerville Trolley

Stage and screen comedian Dan Mason (Dan Grassman, 1857-1928) was born of a February 9. Originally a Syracuse pharmacist, Mason’s penchant for cutting up got the better of him and he broke into vaudeville locally. With a partner, he developed a Dutch (i.e., German) comedy act called Adolf and Rudolf. The comedy German was to be a mainstay of Mason’s stage years. He often performed his own sketches, and was known for his improvisational ability. (We’re indebted to this great post on the Betzwood Film Archive blog for this valuable information on his early career).

Mason’s first Broadway show was Mr. Smooth (1899) with William Collier; followed by Gay New York (1906). In 1907, he starred (to acclaim) in a San Francisco production of the recent Broadway hit The Prince of Pilsen. Then it was back to New York for The Man from Mexico (1909) and Miss Patsy (1910), the latter with Florence Nash. 

In 1913 Mason made the leap to film working for the Edison company. He made close to 50 comedy shorts for the studio over a three year period, playing all manner of rubes, codgers, janitors, preachers, farmers, fathers, and the like. In 1917 he began appearing in features, starting with an early adaptation of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Others from this period include The Slave (1917) and Wife Number Two (1917) both with Valeska Suratt, Shirley Kaye (1917) with Clara Kimball Young, Jack Spurlock Prodigal (1918) and Brave and Bold (1918), both with George Walsh, The Yellow Ticket (1918) with Fanny WardAll Woman (1918) with Mae Marsh, On the Quiet (1918) with John Barrymore, and Laughing Bill Hyde (1918) with Will Rogers.

Mason’s greatest claim to fame came in playing a character called The Skipper (see photo above) in the first movie series adapted from Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Folks comic strip (1920-22). (Not to be confused with a later series that ran 1927-1936 and gave Mickey Rooney his start). The Skipper was the old nut who actually piloted the famous Toonerville Trolley. These shorts were produced by Betzwood Film Studios in Pennsylvania. When the studio abruptly closed, Mason essentially pirated the idea and got backing for a new series, changing his character’s name to Pop Tuttle and the name of the town to Plum Center. These shorts ran from 1922 to 1923.

Then Mason went back to features, and as before, he was in some notable ones for this last leg of his career. They included: Conductor 1492 (1924) with Johnny Hines, A Self Made Failure (1924) with Lloyd Hamilton, Sally (1925) with Colleen Moore, and another couple of dozen others culminating with The Bellamy Trial (1929) with Leatrice Joy and Betty Bronson, his last. He died later that year while convalescing in Woodstock, NY.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,