There were ten Dillon siblings, six of whom went into show business, three of whom became quite famous. The family were raised in Cortland, New York, the children of Irish immigrants who in turn ran a saloon and then a grocery. Harry and John were the eldest, born in the mid 1860s. At around age 15 Harry ran off and joined Duprez and Benedict’s Minstrels, performing with them in Connecticut in 1882. John joined him a year later and the pair went into the still-evolving business of vaudeville as a two-act known as the Dillon Brothers. They were popular on the vaudeville stage for nearly three decades. They also wrote songs, such as “Put Me Off at Buffalo Do”, and “Do, My Huckleberry, Do”. In the teens, Harry’s health began to fail and a third brother, Lawrence, replaced him in the act for a short time. Lawrence also teamed up sometimes with the fourth brother —
The fourth brother, William Dillon (1877-1966) has become best known to posterity. Will Dillon became popular as solo act in American vaudeville as well as the British music hall stage, billed as “The Man of a Thousand Songs”. Originally supposed to study law at Cornell, he instead ran away to Boston, home of the nascent Keith circuit, to go into show business. In early years he performed with Gus Hill’s and Al G. Field’s companies. As a lyricist he was a frequent collaborator of Harry Von Tilzer and Albert Von Tilzer. The most popular tune with his name on it was “I Want a Girl (Just LIke the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad)”. He was also pals with Harry Lauder.
In 1910, William Dillon got into a terrible car accident, which caused him to retire from performing, returning to Cortland by 1913. As we said, Harry became ill around the same time or shortly thereafter. John passed away in 1916. It was the end of a certain era in the Dillon family, although gradually William got his health and ambition back and embarked on a new phase. He became a builder of homes in the Cortland area, then moved to Ithaca circa 1920, where he formed the Ithaca Theatre Company, managing the Star, Strand and Crescent Theatres, which were primarily cinemas, with some live performance mixed in. To woo his trustiest audience members, he wrote the song “My Old Cornell”. In 1941 won a national prize for writing a patriotic song called “Me and My Uncle Sam”.
Full disclosure: much of the better information in this post came from this video of Valerie Ross’s lecture for the Cortland County Historical Society. I must admonish the speaker, and caution the reader, however: NEVER use the pernicious and historically non-existent neologistic phrase “on vaudeville”. The true usage has always only ever been “IN vaudeville”. Research it until your fingers are bloody from turning pages and cranking microfilm: no one has EVER used the expression “on vaudeville” until, for some reason, like, a couple of minutes ago. Now I’m seeing and hearing it all over the place. I have no idea why. It’s like a virus. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For the sake of all that is healthy in humanity, please help eradicate it. Vaudeville was not an airwave nor a flatbed truck that you could be “on” it. The Dillon Brothers were IN vaudeville. No one, with the possible exception of fleas, was ever ON vaudeville.
To learn more about vaudeville please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at fine bookstores throughout the known universe.