John W. Ransone: First to Call it Vaud?

I chanced to come across the name of John W. Ransone (1852-1929) the other day and recognized it, and was nonplussed to see that I had not yet done an article on this once popular and significant stage performer. I mentioned him in my book No Applause but I got the name wrong. He is mentioned as “John Ransom” there. I believe the error comes from Joe Laurie Jr, who spells the name the latter way in his book Vaudeville. IBDB also makes the error, listing some of his credits under one spelling, some with under the other. Also NYPL ID’S some material as belonging to him, spelled “M” not “N”. To add to the confusion, when copywriting sketches and plays he often did so as “J.W. Ransone”. So we redress both slights, the omission and the misspelling on this day.

Like Laurie, Douglas Gilbert, author of American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times, mentioned Ransone as the first American to start using the term “vaudeville” to describe his show, in the 1880s. That may be so in a specific context, that of the American show biz industry, but as we never tire of clarifying, the term had been in common use to describe light entertainment for centuries by that point. Most of what we know about Ransone comes from Gilbert, and reviews of his performances. Ransone worked vaudeville, musical comedy and legit theatre, and was known as a monologist, a dialect comedian, and an impressionist. As to the latter, he specialized in lampooning contemporary political figures in stump speeches, sending up such men as President William H. Taft, Senator Mark Hanna, and Tammany Hall’s Boss Croker. His turn as the latter character played at Koster and Bial’s for 52 weeks a record at the time.

The 1879 show Across the Atlantic was a showcase for his many dialect characters: an Irishman, a black (in blackface**), and a German or “Dutch” character, among them. He was from Kentucky, so I think it more likely than not that he started out with minstrel shows, though he was to become most associated with Dutch characters, especially the one he played The Prince of Pilsen (1903) with its all too mortal catchphrase “Was you effer in Zinzinatti?” Other shows: In 1887 he was in a Broadway production called The Skating Rink with Nat Goodwin and Loie Fuller. The Supper Club (1901) cast him alongside John Fuller Golden, Junie McCree, Virginia Earle, and Bessie Wynn. The Hurdy Gurdy Girl (1907) had Annie Yeamans and Adele Rowland. In 1909 he as in the Chicago production of The Flirting Princess with May Vokes. He then appeared opposite Renee Kelly in Peggy (1911). Tillie (1919) also featured Patricia Collinge. His last Broadway play was The Love Thief (1927) with Walter Connolly.

When not in a legit show Ransone toured vaudeville as a solo with impressions, stump speeches, ethnic specialties and the like, or with his own sketches, or with partners. In his final months, he was touring the circuits with Charles E. Verner in a sketch called “Happy Dutch, the Burglar”. He died just as vaudeville was fading out and talkies were coming in. If he had lived just a little longer we might have enjoyed him in a movie or two.

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