Born 150 Years Ago Today: Epes W. Sargent a.k.a. “Chicot

Born this day 150 years ago, the great vaudeville critic and chronicler Epes W. Sargent a.k.a. “Chicot” (1872-1938).

Now, some may be curious about the pen name, but I find myself much more interested in his given name, for there were a long line of men of varying significance named Epes Sargent in Gloucester, Massachusetts starting with a colonial leader (1690-1762), whose unusual Christian name was his mother’s surname…and culminating with his great-great grandson, the poet, author, journalist and editor (1813-1880) who was one of the Knickerbocker writers, a group that also included Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, and Fitzgreen Halleck. This last Epes Sargent was the very last in the direct line; he had no children. Still it seems likely that our subject was at the very least a relative, and descended from an earlier Epes. Further cementing this informed speculation is that Chicot’s middle name was Winthrop, which was the Christian name of one of the original Epes’ sons and two of his grandsons (owing to the fact that his wife was descended from Puritan leader John Winthrop). The fact that Chicot was born in Nassau, Bahamas would hardly dash water upon that speculation, for as Gloucestermen, many in the family would have been involved in shipping and other business pursuits that would logically cause such a transplantation. All this goes to say that I am probably related to him. Another descendent of the family is of course John Singer Sargent.

Anyway, our Epes moved to the U.S. when he was six years old. The family initially lived in Washington, D.C. where Sargent worked as an usher at the Bijou Theatre in his youth. In the 1890s he moved to New York and began to write for papers like the New York Morning Telegraph, Germanic News, and the Daily Mercury, where he first began writing vaudeville reviews and using his catchy handle. For a time, he put out his own sheet called Chicot’s Weekly, doesn’t sound worlds away from Zit’s Weekly, which was also vaudeville focused.

When Sime Silverman founded Variety in 1905, Chicot was his first hire. At Variety, Chicot was known for his acid tongue and brutal honesty. He and Sime were often at loggerheads however, so Chicot left Variety after the initial honeymoon, later returning in 1928 and remaining there for the duration. In the interval he worked as a p.r. man for the likes of vaudeville managers F.F. Proctor and William Morris, and the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph film studio. (Chicot was also a movie fan. He boasted to be the first ever film critic, having written about an 1896 screening at Keith’s Union Square. He also wrote for The Moving Picture World starting in 1911, and penned the very early screenplay manual Technique of the Photoplay (1913). Thanks, Joe Eckhardt, for letting me know that Sargent was also a scenario writer for Lubin studios. He has nearly 150 screen credits between 1912 and 1918!

Cinema of course helped to kill vaudeville, but there is one important way that Chicot helped its memory to survive. It was he who encouraged Joe Laurie Jr to pen his indispensable book Vaudeville, from which current show biz historians have been able to draw for decades. Laurie called Chicot’s knowledge of vaudeville “encyclopedic”, and Chicot contributed a chapter to Laurie’s book.

For more on vaudeville history, in which Chicot played such an important part, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and for more on silent film, in which ditto, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.