The Mysterious Zip Monberg

The foregoing is probably my favorite kind of post, what I call an “almost post”. It’s an article concerning a subject about which we have incomplete information, adorned with some hopefully good theories, topped off with an open-ended request to the crowd to, by all means, fill in the gaps. The man in question was a silent comedian billed variously as Zip Monberg, Zip Monty, George Monberg (probably his actual name), and George Williams (an apparent attempt to mainstream, although the pre-existence of a stage and screen actor named George A. Williams must have made that problematic). IMDB tell us our guy was born in Chicago and lived from 1890 to 1925. He appears to be unrelated to Chicago architect Lawrence Monberg of the firm of Monberg and Wagner, who built many vaudeville houses and movie palaces in the 1920s and ’30s, but who was born in Copenhagen, of his son Lawrence Monberg Jr, founder of Monberg Capital who died in a 1985 plane crash. More’s the pity!

Before we get into his screen career, which appears to have begun circa 1917 (when he was about 27), a little speculation about a likely previous theatrical career. I say “likely” of course because most screen actors, even in the silent era, had stage experience. The only possible lead I have found thus far is a 1920 mention of an “R.H. Monberg” performing in an amateur minstrel show in Chicago. Given that Zip’s Hollywood movie career was already underway by that stage and ostensibly he was a professional, I’m thinking possibly a brother, cousin, nephew? Also suggestive is his nickname, “Zip”, which instantly calls to mind the minstrel show character of “Zip Coon“. If he was in minstrelsy (this is a pretty late date for such a thing) he is not listed Edward Le Roy Rice’s Monarchs of Minstrelsy, but that was published in 1910, so of course it wouldn’t be. But I do note that he played “Uncle Tom” in a 1920 screen comedy called Uncle Tom’s Caboose, a parody of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and did find this photo associated with him, from the 1922 comedy Upper and Lower, directed by Alf Goulding, and featuring Lee Moran and Alberta Vaughn:

Whether or not that’s him in blackface,** most of Monberg’s known 31 films were made for Stern Brothers’ Century Comedies, and many of them seemed to co-star lions and other animals. (Yo, it’s silent comedy, not Chekhov). His human co-stars included Billy Armstrong, Florence Lee, Billy Mason, Hank Mann, Leo White, Jimmie Adams, Alice Davenport, Bud Jamison, and others. The photo at the top of this post, from the 1921 Century short Vamps and Scamps, shows Monberg surrounded by the “Century Girls”, a clear imitation of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Girls. Another of his notable performances was in the 1921 serial The Adventures of Tarzan, starring Elmo Lincoln. His last movie was the comedy Monkeying Around (1923).

Monberg’s early death at age 34, nearly two years after his last screen credit, raises other questions, of course. Why? Of what? When answers emerge, as they tend to do, we will be sure to share them.

**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. 

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