Jack Cameron: Lived for Applause

Some hometown pride in sharing the story of today’s subject and his onetime partner.

Jack Cameron a.k.a. Jack Kammerer (Jacques Kammerer, 1883-1956) was born in Noyes, France and moved to Providence with his family when he was about 14. He trained in gymnastics at the Providence Boys Club and became a professional acrobat at Rocky Point Amusement Park at the age of 20. (Rocky Point was the first amusement park I ever went to, highly formative experiences for me. Sadly, after something like 150 years of operation it closed for good in 1994). Membership in a minstrel quartet called the Newman Comedy Four brought him his first professional work as a singer and comedian. From here he went into vaudeville as a singer of illustrated songs.

While performing at the Bijou Theatre in Providence in 1910, he met classically trained pianist and singer Edna Howland, and the two formed the team of Kammerer and Howland. Howland would become Kammerer’s wife — which was something of an inconvenience for his existing wife and three children, whom he left in 1911. From 1911 to 1913 Kammerer and Howland performed with Fred Homan’s Musical Stock Company, which also starred Eddie Dowling. They then toured the Loew’s vaudeville circuit from 1913 to 1917, with an act that featured songs, jokes, acrobatic dancing, and Kammerer’s impressions of Charlie Chaplin, Bert Williams, and Ford Sterling. The team was nationally known, written about in major trade publications like Variety and Billboard. They then went into burlesque, touring with the Gaiety Girls, whose cast also included Joe Yule and Nellie Carter. Howland and Carter both became pregnant, but there was a marked difference in outcomes. The Yule baby joined his parents in show business. He became known as Mickey Rooney. By contrast, Howland and Kammerer broke up after she gave birth. Edna raised their baby alone, while Kammerer continued in show business, now under the name Jack Cameron.

Throughout the ’20s Cameron starred in burlesque, in a succession of shows produced by entrepreneurs like Eddie Dowling, Sliding Billy Watson, and Charles B. Maddock. He also toured the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit with an act called “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” from 1925-27. In 1929, he starred in two early talking pictures, a short called The Spy, with Tom Howard; and Applause, with Helen Morgan, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, in which he played a version of himself. Directly after this he appeared on Broadway in the 1930 revival of Babes in Toyland with Singers Midgets. He was not cast in Hal Roach’s famous 1934 screen version of the show; a bit role in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) starring family friend Mickey Rooney was his last screen appearance.

By the late ’30s, show business had altered radically. Vaudeville and old style burlesque were gone. For another decade or so (through 1947), Cameron performed a drunk act in nightclubs, and sang locally on radio (WPRO out of Providence).

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