Russell Hunting: Made Some of the First Dirty Comedy Records

Russell Hunting (1864-1943) was an actor with the Boston Theatre Stock Company when he got in on the ground floor of an exciting new medium — sound recording. Starting in 1891 he began making comical records for the New England Phonograph Company in which he played an Irish character named Michael Casey. The popularity of these got him signed with Columbia Records and others starting in 1892. The sketches (many of which are available on Youtube) have titles like “Michael Casey at the Telephone”, “Michael Casey Taking the Census”, “Michael Casey as a Physician”, “Michael Casey’s Great Political Speech”, and “Casey as a Hotel Clerk”. He also recorded a version of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” in 1893, prior to DeWolf Hopper’s long association with the poem. Hunting’s Casey was of course a different character from Thayer’s, but they seem to have merged on this one occasion. Hunting also did voices and characters other than Irish ones. In 1898 he even recorded his own version of “Cohen on the Telephone”.

Hunting was nothing if not entrepreneurial. By 1896 he had opened his own phonograph store in New York and started a magazine called Phonoscope, which was the first recording industry publication unaffiliated with any record company. But that same year (using pseudonyms) he also earned money making comedy records that were by the standards of the day considered “lewd” and “obscene”, meant to be played in arcades and saloons in places like Coney Island. He was caught by the notorious Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and he spent three months in jail for his pecadiloes. Some of these recordings may be found on the Archeophone CD Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings from the 1890s. Be forewarned: the sensibilities of the era were delicate; the subject matter (as opposed to the language) of these routines is what got Hunting in hot water. The record is a valuable and useful document I think for the creators of historical novels, plays or films. One of the most common anachronisms I detect when I engage in modern attempts to capture the era is a tendency to underimagine how unlike our own time the Victorian era was about sex, scatology and so forth, even behind closed doors. Euphemisms and a wink were generally employed when the topics were broached, and they were broached rarely.

In 1898, Hunting moved to England, becoming recording director of Edison Bell Records, while also recording for other outfits like Zonophone and his own company the Russell Hunting Record Company (which lasted 1904-1908). He then became director of recording for Pathe, a position that took him all over the world. In the early 20th century, other actors, such as James White and John Kaiser took over his Casey character. When the Second World War hit, Hunting moved back to the U.S., where he died in 1943.

To learn more about vaudeville and early show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.