Today we’d like to acquaint you with vaudeville and burlesque comedian Sam Goldman (Samuel Isaac Goldman, 1883-1945). The bulk of this post is drawn from pre-eminent Marx Brothers scholar Robert S. Bader’s website marxbrothers.net. His post on Goldman, representative of Bader’s thoroughness, would be somebody else’s master’s thesis. For Bader, it’s just another day at the office. If the topic interests you, I urge you to peruse the schmear here — but set aside an hour for it!
I’ll merely give you some facts in brevis. Originally from Buffalo, Goldman broke into show business in minstrel shows** as a teenager, notably with Al G. Field’s show, where for about a year he was teamed with Billy Murray. In 1904, he joined Lew Dockstader’s company. The following year, Dockstader produced him in his solo turn which debuted at Tony Pastor’s, and this was young Goldman’s pathway to vaudeville.
In 1906 Goldman performed his Hebrew specialty and eccentric dancing in a touring show called Down the Pike, which also featured a young Ford Sterling, who did his German specialty. Dancing and Hebrew schtick were primarily what Goldman was known for over the next couple of decades, in vaudeville (mostly small time), burlesque, and musical comedy, and with stock companies, all over the country. Goldman was constantly praised in reviews, mostly for the freshness of his material. The Hebrew was a stock stereotype, of course, but Goldman gave a new spin to what audiences had grown accustomed to regarding as tired business. He generated his own original material, churning out hundreds of plays, routines, sketches, monologues and the like. Some argue that he originated the sketches that evolved in the burlesque mill into the “Who’s on First?” and “Slowly I Turned” routines known to every Abbott and Costello fan.
In 1920, he landed one of his more high profile engagements in the role of Perlmutter (normally Alexander Carr’s) in the road edition of the Potash and Perlmutter sequel Business Before Pleasure. Then, towards the end of the decade, he got so close to the Big Game he could taste it. He was hired to be Groucho Marx’s understudy for the stage versions of The Cocoanuts (1926-27) and Animal Crackers (1928-30). In the case of the latter show, he even got to go on for the star several times, and got great notices for it.
But though it was steady work (and — think about it — a job that required a comedian of rare ability) his work with the Marx Brothers didn’t lead to anything bigger, or really anything at all. In 1930, the Marx Brothers went to Hollywood, meaning no further understudy work for Goldman. And vaudeville died around the same time. While still occasionally being booked to perform and still producing his own shows from time to time, he earned his daily bread for the most part as a dance instructor in the midwest. Sam Goldman died of TB in 1945.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube