A Tip of the Topper to Big Tim Sullivan

Just a few words of acknowledgement for a character we New York City vaudeville fans are especially fond of, Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan (1862-1913).

The son of Irish immigrants, Sullivan grew up in Five Points. His father died of typhus when he was five. Obliged to help earn money, he began shining shoes and hawking newspapers in the financial district when still a kid. By the time he was in his mid twenties, Sullivan had an interest in half a dozen saloons on the Lower East Side, and had begun ingratiating himself with Tammany Hall leaders like Fatty Walsh (father of actress Blanche Walsh). Sullivan served in elected office nearly every year between 1887 and 1912, in both houses of the New York legislature, as well as the U.S. Congress, always representing the Lower East Side.

Why we write about him today is that Sullivan was also a famous sport whose connections to show business were a pronounced part of his personality. He held court at Miner’s Bowery Theatre, the owner of which Henry C. Miner was a crony of his. He backed boxers and race horses, was involved with Marcus Loew in some of his ventures, and leased theatres to William Fox. In 1906 he partnered with western vaudeville entrepreneur John Considine in the creation of the Sullivan and Considine Circuit, spreading his name and his fame to two coasts. He was also one of the investors in Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park.

But the bigger they come, the harder they fall (and Tim was several inches over six feet). Though married, Sullivan was reputed to have cut himself a wide sexual swath through the fields of feminity. Among his conquests were some well known actresses such as Elsie Janis and Christie MacDonald. In 1912, he began showing symptoms of syphilis (sadly common at the time) and was institutionalized. The following year, he was found dead on some railroad tracks in the Bronx, having gone missing for a week. Initially booked as a John Doe, his corpse was held for days before the mystery of his whereabouts was solved, whereupon his remains were claimed and buried in Queens. How the mighty had fallen!

There is so much more to tell about this legendy historical figure, touching on matters of politics (he was progressive in many ways) and of course criminality. But our bailiwick here is the show biz angle. There’s no shortage of sources of additional information about this man’s colorful life. Now have at it!

For more about vaudeville, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.