Hjalmar Peterson and The Swedish Vaudeville Circuits

Well, here’s a new slice of information about which I was not previously aware. I’d long been aware that America had Yiddish and Italian vaudeville circuits for immigrant audiences where only those languages were spoken; and I’d known that mainstream American show biz had certain Swedish dialect comedians, like El Brendel and Yogi Yorgesson who performed in English with comic Swedish accents. What I did not know was that the U.S. also had an all-Scandinavian vaudeville circuit early in the 20th century, with venues from the midwest (naturally) to New England, where performers spoke and sang in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish for the entertainment of recent immigrants.

My pathway to this knowledge was through the existence of a performer named Hjalmar Peterson (1886-1960). The Minneapolis-based Swedish American comedian was known for playing a character named Olle i Skratthult (Olle from Laughtersville). Olle was a “bondkomiker”, a Scandinavian version of a rube comedian, with a blacked out tooth, a messy wig, and farmer clothes. He began touring the circuit with this act circa 1910, and by 1916 had built a whole orchestra and comedy company. They performed songs, danced, and did funny sketches and monologues. Peterson published songbooks for the audience to sing along, which also included the texts to some of his tall tales, which people could keep as souvenirs. His orchestra also cut nearly four dozen records for major labels between 1916 and 1929.

The Swedes were among America’s most assimilationist immigrant groups; over time there was less demand for all-Swedish performance, and the circuits dried up. Peterson took his act to radio for a time, and operated his own venue in Marquette, Michigan (a remote port city on the upper peninsula). After his second wife died in 1949 he devoted himself to the Salvation Army and his vocal talents were channeled into Christian song.

I am delighted to report that there is an entire website devoted to the life and career of Hjalmar Peterson, with terrific pictures, lots of documents, and more. Discover it here.

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.