The fame of vaudeville performer Gus Visser (1894-1967) is ironically perhaps greater now than it was in his own day. This is because footage of Visser’s hilarious act wound up in the PBS documentary about vaudeville that aired on The American Experience in 1997. In his act Visser sings “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me”. The partner in the act, a duck, quacks every time Visser sings “Ma”. The film of the act was taken by Theodore Case, a former collaborator of Lee Deforest, a couple of years prior to The Jazz Singer, making it one of the earlier motion picture records of a vaudeville act with sound. Surprisingly, he was not the most famous vaudevillian who worked with a duck. That would be Joe Penner.
IMDB informs us that Visser was born in Venebrugge, Hardenberg, Overijssel, in the Netherlands. His Dutch accent is perceptible in the clip. He died in North Bergen, New Jersey, a nice central location for a vaudevillian (or a retired one) to live. Throughout the internet, you’ll find a zillion references to this notorious few seconds of film, but I believe this post now contains the only peek BEYOND that limited reference.
A 1926 issue of the Vaudeville News contains the following item:
“Peggy Johnson, formerly with Jean Gordon, has married Gus Visser of the Visser Trio…Mr. and Mrs. Visser will do a double act now, in a professional as well as a domestic sense”.
Vaudeville America gives us an account that describes the Jean Gordon Players act: “a novelty skit with songs and dances… It consists of two men and two women, all in Scotch dress, and has a slight plot, just enough to make it interesting. The straight man has a sweet tenor voice and when he sings he thrills the audience.”
As for the “Visser Trio”, the act was actually billed as “Visser and Company”, and billed as such I have found numerous references to them throughout the 1920s. This 1925 review in Billboard reports on this appearance at the Pantages Theatre in San Francisco:
“The opening act. Visser and Company, two men and a woman, offered a medley of songs, dances and acrobatics, with a singing duck as an original feature. A corking good opener replete with clever entertainment.”
The New York Clipper tells of a 1923 performance at the Palace in Chicago:
“Visser and Company opened with some unusual acrobatic accomplishments which has some splendid surprises in connection with the presentation, including the duck, which does some jazz”.
Ha! More biographical detail than that I do not have, but at least now we know that Visser was not dropped out of a flying saucer by aliens just to make that one film, much as it may seem that way. I hope he was kind to the duck, though I’m not sure how he could have been, in order to make it quack on command.
As for the two act he later formed with his wife, I’ve not turned up anything. If I had to guess why a couple married and then vanished from show business, my educated guess would involve a bassinet and a need for steady employment.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and nutty novelty acts like that of Gus Visser and His Singing Duck, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,