I have no recollection of how I first learned of the existence of the fascinating Burtis “Bert” Valjien Brookhart (1881-1942) but not only do I have no regrets, I find myself more interested in learning about him than I do about several vastly more famous people I could be giving my attention to today.
According to his FindaGrave bio, Brookhart was a vaudeville performer, con man, and scoundrel from rural Ohio. He seems to have lived in that wonderful, liminal space between show biz and crimes of deception — the Nightmare Alley place, if you will. Married seven times (with children by at least three of the wives), he operated and performed under a number of different professional names, or aliases, Bert Brookhart, Warnetto Brookheart, Bert LaViere, Bae Pierre Brookhart, Dr. Pierre Valjien and Dr. “X” Brookhart, among them. I find the spelling of Brookhart’s middle name “Valjien” particularly interesting — awfully close to Hugo’s “Valjean”, but Brookhart’s spelling is legit, others use it as well. At any rate, Brookhart worked the Orpheum circuit, among others, as a Native American medium (he claimed to be Cherokee), as well as an astrologer, numerologist and what have you, and it’s claimed that he also posed as a producer of silent movies, soliciting investments from poor innocents, and then hiring other poor innocents to be the “casts”. I haven’t yet found any movies connected with any of his aliases on IMDB; one wonders if there was any film in the camera. I begin to picture something like Harold Hill in The Music Man — guy rolls into a town, kicks up a big stir, turns the whole place upside down, then absconds, leaving everyone to wonder “What the hell happened?”
But I have found quite a bit of concrete evidence of Brookhart’s existence in the form of press clips, and publications that he wrote and sold.
There’s this 1912 publication “The Occult Research Gladiator”, in which Brookhart contributes articles under at least three of his names:
This 1919 item from the Raleigh News and Observer testifies to his movie shenanigans:
There wasn’t a lot fact checking back then. This doozy is from the Albany (Oregon) Daily Democrat for November 20, 1923:
Then this 1926 ad in a San Diego paper:
There’s the 1932 publication, Dr. Valjien’s Astro Numerology: How to Get Success Thru Your Soul Number Character and How to Find It in a Name by Pierre Valjien, Havlin Hotel, Cincinnati:
This notice about an upcoming performance in the December 10, 1939 issue of The Indianapolis Star:
He also penned something called Sciences of Life as “mystic, French-Indian philosopher, Bae Pierre Brookhart.” It’s described as “an introductory amalgam of spiritual, esoteric tidbits, with some of the following topic examples being: Faith, Marriage, Mental Telepathy, Influence of Color on the Mind, Astrology, and Signs of the Zodiac”. This publication also seems to have its origin in Indianapolis. I can’t find the original pub date, but it was reprinted in 2017 and is available to purchase here. For Seekers who are interested in “Knowledge”.
Somehow, all of the angles Brookhart worked didn’t add up to a fortune or friends. He’s buried in an unmarked grave in a suburban Cleveland cemetery. One thing I do note with delight: his mother’s maiden name was “Muterspaugh”. How very like the surname of Devo’s Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, who hail from nearby Akron! Cue the theremin!
For more on vaudeville and related variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent films, which Bert Brookhart may or may not have had a hand in, see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.