We’ve spilled a good bit of ink, virtual and otherwise, on the topic of silent screen comedian Larry Semon over the years. Much like his better remembered rivals Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Semon was a second generation vaudevillian, and as with them, this background should always be taken into account when analyzing the comedian. So today a shoutout for Zerubabel Semon (1847-1901) often billed as “Zera the Great”.
Zera’s father Emanuel Seamon (1798-1871) was an immigrant from the Netherlands who settled in Richmond, Virginia, and worked as a customs collector and merchant. This Southern orientation might be one of the factors informing Larry Semon’s comedy. Zera grew up in Virginia. Larry had been born on tour in Mississippi. The family was on the Confederate side in the Civil War. As an outgrowth of this past, you will find a much greater percentage of comedy material contemporary audiences would find racist in a Semon comedy in comparison with the films of his rivals.
Following the Civil War, Zera and his wife Irene toured the States with an act that incorporated magic and ventriloquism, a full stage set of working marionettes, and a seance routine like that performed by Robert Heller. Zera was said to have been born with one leg shorter than the other, one possible partial explanation for his having gone into what was an unusual line of work for his time and place. Zera was also notable for offering audiences door prizes (dishes and hams etc) at his shows, an innovation at the time.
Larry (born 1889) participated in the act when he was old enough, though on his deathbed, Zera made him promise he would concentrate on his talent for drawing rather than follow him into show business. Larry honored that promise initially but ironically his path led him to being a cartoonist…to being a silent movie gag man…to being a comedy director…to being a comedian himself. You cannot avoid your fate.
To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube