James T. Powers: Digesting a Jokester

James T. Powers (James T. McGovern, 1862-1943) was a great 20th century stage clown, as well as a songwriter and playwright.

Born in New York City of Irish-American parentage, Powers fell in love with the theatre as a kid when his father brought him to see Dan Bryant’s minstrels**. As a teenager he performed in variety theatre (a sort of proto-vaudeville) with various partners. His teams included Fagan and McGovern, the Acrobatic Micks, and Kearney and Powers. From 1879 through 1883 he performed with various stock companies around New York, then acted in London and the English provinces through 1885. That year, he came back to the States and was in the Boston production of Charles Hoyt’s The Tin Soldier, where he met Rachel Booth, who would come to be his frequent stage partner and his wife in 1892. They are reported to have performed together in blackface** in comedy sketches called A Messenger Boy and A Runaway Girl, that were later adapted into Broadway shows.

Powers cracked Broadway in the early 1890s, appearing in over two dozen productions there over four decades. Powers was also a fair hand as a comedy writer. He co-wrote many songs in shows that he appeared in, such as The Messenger Boy (1901-02), The Jewel of Asia (1903), A Princess of Kensington (1903), and Two Little Brides (1912), and co-wrote the scripts for Havanna (1909) and Lady Butterfly (1923). He had key roles in the Broadway productions of the Asian-themed London musicals (Mikado knock-offs) San Toy (1900 and 1905) and The Geisha (1913 and 1931), which relied that his stereotype repertoire extended beyond African American. During his earlier years, he also made one short film, a 1905 Edison production called Digesting a Joke.

In later years, Powers turned to classics for prestige, including three productions of Sheridan’s The Rivals (1922, 1923 and 1930), one of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem (1928), as well as Becky Sharp (1929), and even some Shakespeare. His last stage performance was an all-star revival of George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate in 1935 featuring Cohan, Walter Hampden, Zita Johann, James Kirkwood and Irene Rich. In 1939, he published his autobiography Twinkle Little Star: Memories of Seventy Years. 

The biographical notes for the New-York Historical Society’s James T. and Rachel Booth Powers Collection was an invaluable source on Powers’ early years for this post. Duke University is the repository of the James T. Power Papers.

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

**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.