Archive for the Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows Category

W.F. “Doc” Carver: The Original Horse Diver

Posted in AMERICANA, Animal Acts, Crackers, Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows with tags , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the great wild west show man William Frank “Doc” Carver (1851-1937). His nickname originated in the fact that he had originally  been a frontier dentist. Originally from Illinois, he moved to western Nebraska in 1872, where he met Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack and learned to ride and shoot with greater than average facility. His reputation grew throughout the 1870s as he won several important western shooting contests and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe giving professional shooting exhibitions. He released his dime novel style “autobiography”, larded with tall tales and phony exploits (as was common at the time)  in 1878. In 1883 he won an important contest against Captain Adam H. Bogardus (then considered the best), thus cementing his reputation.

In 1883, he launched a wild west show with Buffalo Bill: “Hon. W.F. Cody and Dr. W.F. Carver’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition,” starring himself, Bogardus and others. After one season Cody and Carver split, the former to start “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West”, Carver to travel with his own smaller shows and exhibitions. He was to remain one of Cody’s main competitors for several years.


Carver’s most lasting contribution to show biz was his invention of the diving horse act, in which a horse would jump off a tall platform into a pool of water. He began presenting these exhibitions in 1894; the was still doing it when he died in 1927. At which point his son Al Carver and his wife Sonora Webster took the show over. They brought the act to Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, where it was a major attraction for almost 50 years. Sonora Webster Carver’s life story was made into the 1991 film Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. 

For more on the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.  And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

On Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill’s Arch Nemesis

Posted in AMERICANA, AMUSEMENTS, Impresarios, Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows with tags , , , on February 14, 2014 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Gordon William Lillie (1860-1942) better known as Pawnee Bill. Lillie was an actual frontiersman working at the Pawnee Indian Agency in Indian Territory when he was hired as a Pawnee interpreter by Buffalo Bill Cody for his wild west show in 1883.   In 1886 the newly rechristened Pawnee Bill branched off into his own show with his wife May Manning, “The Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West” flourished for over 20 years as Buffalo Bill’s principle competition, bedevilling Cody with the similarity of their names, until the two shows (which were both ailing) merged in 1908. The combined show went bankrupt a few months later. For more about Wild West shows go here.

Pawnee Bill Wild West Show, 1898, Strobridge Litho. Co-500

To learn more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc



On the Brief, Transitory History of Wild West Shows

Posted in Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Native American Interest, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , on November 20, 2013 by travsd


Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month. 

The Wild West Show was a unique and popular branch of popular entertainment, akin to the circus, the sideshow, the rodeo, the Indian medicine show, and the melodramas. It is the immediate precursor of the cinematic genre known as the western. The Wild West Show flourished at the of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Its existence can be laid at the feet of the one and only William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who invented the form, took it to terrific heights, and was much imitated.

Cody was one of the greatest showmen of all time, second only perhaps to P.T. Barnum. He of course held many jobs before he went into show business: Indian scout, buffalo hunter, Pony Express rider, Union soldier, gold miner, etc etc, etc, but our main concern here is what he did in front of audiences.In 1872, under the management of Ned Buntline (who’d previously enhanced his fame with a series of popular dime novels), Cody starred in a number of melodrama plays reenacting his western adventures, often co-starring the likes of Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok. In 1883 he founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (to reinforce the feeling of realism in his entertainments he omitted the word “show” from its title. Sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler (subjects, along with Cody, of the Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun) were among his famous performers, as was Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull. 


Just as Cody kept scores of “cowboys” under his employee to re-enact buffalo hunts, cattle drives, stagecoach robberies and duels, so too did he hire scores, probably hundreds of Plains Indians (mostly Pawnee and Sioux), many of whom like Sitting Bull were essentially playing themselves in re-enactments of famous Indian battles like Custer’s Last Stand. It’s hard to know what to compare this to…the Coliseum of ancient Rome perhaps. Thousands of people watching a vanquished “enemy” play war games. The Natives were fed, clothed, boarded and paid, of course. But they can’t have been oblivious to the fact that it was an affront to their dignity. Arthur Kopit wrote the terrific play Indians about this subject, which Robert Altman made into the 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Wild West’s 1887 trip to London inspired Alan Moore to include Buffalo Bill’s “savages” among the suspects in his Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell. Chief Joseph and Geronimo were also among the famous Native American chiefs Cody employed.

In 1893, Cody pitched his show outside the Chicago World’s Fair, having been denied participation in the fair itself. He drew as many customers as the fair did. It was this incarnation of the show that inspired young Chicago native Flo Ziegfeld to go into show business.

The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West inspired countless competitors and imitators:

Pawnee Bill Wild West Show, 1898, Strobridge Litho. Co-500

The greatest of these was Gordon William Lillie, a.k.a Pawnee Bill, whom for some time Buffalo Bill regarded as something of a turncoat. Lillie became Pawnee Bill in 1883 when he was hired by Bufallo Bill’s Wild West to be a Pawnee interpreter. In 1886 he branched off into his own show with his wife May Manning, “The Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” “Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West” flourished for over 20 years as Buffalo Bill’s principle competition until the two shows (which were both ailing) merged in 1908. The combined show went bankrupt a few months later.


The 101 Ranch Wild West Show, run by the Miller Brothers from their Ponca City, Oklahoma ranch, toured the US and Europe from 1907 through 1932. This show produced future western stars Tom Mix and Buck Jones


Then there were Texas Jack and Colonel Zack Mulhall, both of whom employed a young rope twirler by the name of Will Rogers (himself part Cherokee. “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” he once quipped, “but they met the boat.”)

Other major players in the field included Doc Carver, Captain Jack Crawford, Buckskin Joe Hoyt, the Gabriel Brothers, Mexican Joe, the legendary outlaw Frank James and the Cole Brothers, and for a time even the major circus imprasario Adam Forepaugh dabbled in the field.

Here is some actual footage of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West street parade down Fifth Avenue New York in 1902 taken by cameramen working for Thomas Edison. Ironically, this very technology would soon wipe out the Wild West show, and replaced it with something a bit more permanent: the Hollywood western.

But his legacies were many. There’s the town of Cody, Wyoming, which believe it or not is one of the places I went on my honeymoon! This is also the site of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, one of my favorite museums in the world.

native american heritage


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


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


On the Many Phases of Roy Rogers

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Movies, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, TV variety, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of that unique American phenomenon, star of radio, television, film, live performance, and the recording arts Roy Rogers (Leonard Slye, 1911-1998).

Yes, “Leonard Slye”. And he spent the first 19 years of his life no further West than Ohio, but he sure made up for it later. In 1931 he was working in California as a manual laborer when he won a singing contest on a Los Angeles radio show, which led to his joining a group called the Rocky Mountaineers. For the next three years he was in a succession of Western themed singing groups with names like the International Cowboys, the O-Bar-O Cowboys, Jack LeFevre and his Texas Outlaws, the Pioneer Trio, and finally in 1934 the Sons of the Pioneers. The Sons of the Pioneers proved to be an overnight success on radio. That same year recorded their breakout hit record “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, written by fellow bandmember Bob Nolan. 


In 1935, the group began appearing in films, as well.  At this stage, our hero was still appearing as Leonard Slye. In 1938, he was hastily drafted by Republic Studios as a replacement for Gene Autry, who had walked out on his contract. It was at stage that he was given the name “Roy Rogers” and catapulted into stardom. (The last name was borrowed from the recently deceased Will Rogers, a choice which no doubt still causes confusion to this day). While Slye had officially left the Sons of the Pioneers the group would often continue to appear in some of his pictures. Between 1938 and 1951 Rogers was a major box office attraction, starring in over 80 films. Most of these would be more accurately described as “singing westerns” or “western musicals” than westerns per se. While many of the films had similar plots, they were often simpler and less violent. Some of the movies were set in the present day. Many featured Andy Divine or Gabby Hayes as Rogers’ sidekick.


Rogers was a “pioneer” in more ways than one. In 1940, he negotiated a contract that gave him merchandising rights over his character and image (and that of his equine partner Trigger), and he truly began to make a fortune.


From the early 1940s through the early 1950s, Rogers also had his own weekly radio series:  you can hear many of the episodes here and here.


In 1944, his first wife died and he married the woman who would be his permanent co-star and love interest Dale Evans. It was Evans who wrote the pair’s theme song “Happy Trails” in 1952.

From 1951 through 1957, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans essentially transferred their energy from film and radio to television, airing over 100 weekly episodes on NBC. Here’s the first episode!

In 1962, the two attempted a variety show The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, which ran for three months on ABC before cancellation.

After this, it was hardly like they were out of the public eye. I remember seeing them periodically on television in the 1970s and 80s, on variety shows, talk shows, telethons, televised events (like parades), commercials, PSAs. In 1968, Rogers licensed his name to a fast food franchise, extending his fame and his name to every highway exit rest stop, even if he had nothing to do with the management of the concern or the cuisine itself. In the 1970s, he actually charted several country records. And in 1975, he made this comeback film Mackintosh and T.J. (which didn’t do so well):

He was 86 when he passed away in 1998. Dale Evans followed him three years later. The original Trigger died in 1965.

For more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



Will Rogers: The Cowboy Philosopher

Posted in AMERICANA, Broadway, Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, MEDIA, Movies, Native American Interest, Radio (Old Time Radio), Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2013 by travsd


Will Rogers’ place in the hearts and minds of Americans transcended the limits of mere show business. He was regarded as a kind of American Saint, a sort of cross between Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln and George Bernard Shaw. A “cowboy philosopher” who expressed harsh and amusing truths in a bluntly honest way reminiscent of the blurted pronouncements of children and old folks – funny because shocking because true. Co-star Peggy Wood called him a “puncturer of self-made balloons”. Rogers became larger than life, a sort of symbol of the common man. His fame and relevance only grew until the day he died, and when he did, at the age of 55, it was a national day of mourning.

He was born on this day in 1879, in what was then known as Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). His full name at birth was Colonel William Penn Adair Rogers, after an admired military leader. Rogers was roughly 1/6 Cherokee Indian. (father 1/8, mother ¼). He was fond of saying “My folks didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.” Thus we are able to include him in our series of posts this month related to Native American Heritage Month:

native american heritage

Contrary to his image, it is a shock to learn that Rogers grew up a spoiled rich kid. His father was a well-to-do rancher  (60,000 acres) and politician. In the Indian Territory days he was a member of the Cherokee Senate; he was also a delegate to the convention that drafted the Oklahoma Constitution. Perhaps the only hint of Will’s earlier life of privilege that he retained was an unapologetic fondness for polo in his later years.

The youngest of 7 children, Rogers was the baby of the family, and got away with plenty of mischief.. His mother died when he was 10, leaving his upbringing even more unsupervised. Like many vaudevillians, Rogers didn’t finish school, but not out of need or neglect in his case. He was wild and undisciplined and was thrown out of many schools, most of them private boarding schools. Even so, he was quite close to graduating when he finally quit for good. As a kid, he spent all of his time doing rodeo tricks and it got him into plenty of trouble. He would rope girls with a lasso for kicks. He once broke the arm off a statue by roping it; on another occasion he roped and injured the teacher’s horse. He was addicted to all sorts of practical jokes. Also, as later became well known, his grammar and spelling were atrocious, which might have been charming in a syndicated column, but surely can’t have sat well with his teachers. Rogers ran away from military school at age 18 to go on a cattle drive. During those months, he lived the life of a real cowboy, living outdoors on the range, sleeping on the ground at night, eating meals around a campfire.


In 1901, he competed in riding and roping contests in a rodeo show run by Colonel Zach Mulhall. Realizing he’d never be tops in the rodeo world, in1902 he departed for Argentina to work on ranches. Dissatisfied with that experience, he next worked a cattle boat en route to South Africa. While in that country, he happened to meet a traveling vaudevillian named W.C. Fields in (where else) a bar. Shortly thereafter, Rogers finally became a performer for good. He joined Texas Jack’s Wild West Show as a rider and roper, working there for 9 months. as “the Cherokee Kid”. From there, he went on to work at the Wirth Bros. circus in Australia, and wended his way home by way of San Francisco in 1904. Almost immediately, he rejoined Col. Mulhall for a rodeo exhibition at the St. Louis fair.

In 1905, Mulhall brought a “small picked bunch” with him for a performance at Madison Square Garden. When the engagement closed, Rogers stayed behind in New York to break into vaudeville. He had trouble getting managers to book him at first but finally debuted at Keith’s Union Square during the 6-8 slot, the so-called “dinner” show. Not many people were there, of course (they were all eating dinner!). Rogers went on 5th in the bill and was a hit anyway. In no time, he was booked at Hammerstein’s Roof.


His early act was almost entirely an exhibition of skills. He’d make a spectacular entrance on Teddy, his horse, jump off and send him into the wings with a slap on the hindquarters. He began his sequence of tricks to the accompaniment of the orchestra playing familiar cowboy songs. He had an assistant named Buck McGee who rode a horse around stage that Rogers would rope in various ways. Felt was attached to the horse’s hooves so he wouldn’t slip on the stage. One of Rogers’ tricks was to toss two lassos at the same time, one over the rider and one over the horse’s hooves. Other tricks included the Texas Skip (where he jumped in and out of a vertical loop), and the merry-go-round, where he passed the spinning rope from hand to hand, under his legs, and behind his back. His show-stopper was the “crinoline”, in which Rogers played a lasso out so far it went way out over the audiences heads. Like a golfer with his various clubs, Rogers had a whole array of different sized (length, width, thickness) ropes to accomplish his different tricks. Most of these tricks can be seen in the 1922 film The Ropin’ Fool. 


Contrary to popular belief, Rogers had some patter in his act from the very beginning, in the form of little remarks to cover his flubs. Despite the fact that he was the premier lariat artist of his time, such failures are common even to masters. How to deal with them is the mark of a true performer. “I don’t have any idea I’ll get it, but here goes”, is reported to have been his first line on stage. Initially he was flummoxed, not to say angry, that people laughed when he spoke. To an audience of New Yorkers, Will’s folksy turn of expression and his Western accent were alien things, just as nutty in their way as Fanny Brice’s Yiddishisms. When he perceived that this was to his advantage, Rogers relaxed some and played it for all it was worth. He began to cook up lines, especially for the act. Many remarks taken for ad libs are in fact worked out in advance. “I’m handicapped up h’yar, the manager won’t let me swear when I miss, ” always got howls. He’d written it out earlier on a piece of hotel stationary.

Gum chewing was another early trademark. In that era of propriety and “elocution” public gum chewing was considered rude. Rogers was so natural and unapologetic about it, he helped make it socially acceptable. He even worked business with the gum into the act. If he missed a trick, he might pause a minute, then go upstage and stick the gum on the scenery then go back and try the trick again, as though the gum had hindered him somehow.

Rogers began to extend the reach of his jokes to cover other performers or the condition of the theatre itself. A favorite lark was to rope a stagehand and drag him onstage. The gesture strikes on as analogous to his verbal humor – it was an impish way of saying, “Come on, buster, you’re no better than the rest of us, I’m gonna see that you remember that.” The act was a true novelty at first; no one was doing this sort of thing in vaudeville, though after he became successful he had many imitators. In those days most comedians self-consciously crafted personae for themselves over a number of years. Weber and Fields didn’t speak in Dutch malapropisms and hit each other over the head at home.  Rogers (like most modern comedians ) was “himself”. Of course, unlike many modern comedians, his actual identity was intrinsically interesting. Rogers was immediately in great demand all over the country. When he arrived at a town he would help publicize his performance by riding down the main street on a horse with a sign reading “Will Rogers, the Lariat King”. From 1906-7 he toured the major European capitals. He was much adored wherever he went, except Germany, where he was nearly arrested for roping a fire warden who happened to be standing backstage during his show. The humorless audience nearly lynched him and he fled the country. In the age of Kaiser Welhelm, Germans didn’t like the idea of being “cut down to size.” In 1910, Rogers developed a new, more streamlined act, discarding the expensive horse roping equipment and entourage, and concentrating a bit more on the humorous monologue. Some rope tricks were retained however. In some ways the new act was more “vaudevillian”. Rogers would swing his lasso while riding a unicycle, climbing a stepladder, or rolling a cigarette. He even sang something called “The Hound Dog Song”.


“I wish there was a vaudeville like there was in those old days,” Rogers once said, “No branch of entertainment was ever so satisfying to work in.” Still, you’ve got to grow in some direction. In 1912, he was cast in the musical The Wall Street Girl which also starred Nora Bayes. It was his unfortunate duty on opening night to have to announce the sinking of the Titanic to the audience.  Following this acted a sort of master of ceremonies in a Shubert revue The Town Topics, which was lavish that it collapsed after just a few weeks. In the summer of 1915, Will accidentally dove into a shallow pool, damaging his right arm and side. The incident forced him to learn many of his tricks with his left hand, and to develop his humorous patter even more, thus strengthening his act still further. That year he debuted on the very first night of the very first season of  Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics. Because the same audience returned to this show every night, Rogers needed a constant influx of new material. His wife Betty suggested that he go to the newspapers for topical events. Rogers began scanning the paper every day for what he called “fresh laid jokes”. This act, usually prefaced by the familiar remark, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” was immensely successful. In 1916, he moved down to the Follies, the more prestigious Ziegfeld show, in addition to his nightly turn in the Frolics. With three shows to do a day, Rogers relied on three separate editions of the newspaper a day for fresh material. (The modern equivalent would be to constantly monitor the internet or a cable news network). Ziegfeld and Rogers were strange bedfellows indeed. Ziegfeld, the humorless, but sophisticated urban womanizer vs. the very married, apparently incorruptible, almost child-like Rogers. The two never had a contract, but made their agreement on a handshake, and neither of them ever let the other down. In 1916, Rogers had the terrifying honor of performing for Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the first time in history a standing president was publicly kidded by a comedian in person. Wilson took it all with good humor, and the tradition has never gone out of fashion to this day.


In 1918, he began to star in movies, and he would do so right through the silent era and well into the era of talkies. His first roles were straight dramatic parts for Samuel Goldwyn, but by the mid-twenties he was into more appropriate territory with Hal Roach comedies. Still, these were slapstick, and Rogers was never a pie-in-the-face sort of comedian. He was primarily verbal. Starting in 1929, he did 20 talkies for 20th-Century Fox. These films were huge hits, proving you had to HEAR Rogers. In 1931, he was of the nation’s top ten box office attractions. The following year he was second in the land, and in 1934, he came in first. To give some perspective on what time has wrought, the Marx Bros. and W.C. Fields were far less popular cinematic draws at that time. Notable films from the thirties included the original version of State Fair,  Dr. Bull,  Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend. He was the master of ceremonies at the 1933 Oscar award ceremony. Based on the success of his self-penned monologues, he began writing for publication. His first book The Cowboy Philosopher at the Peace Conference came out in 1919. For various newspapers he covered every political convention starting in 1920. His much cherished humor column began was published 1922-35. Critics began to compare him to Twain and Ade. The writing was ungrammatical and misspelled (and unlike those other humorists it was unintentional) but it was nonetheless wise and witty. In 1925, he toured on the lecture platform, commanding high fees for engagements that lasted 1-2 hours in towns all over the country. He even played Carnegie Hall, the first time a comedian had done so.


His radio career spanned 1926-35. In 1933 he started The Good Gulf Show featuring “the famous alarm clock”. Rogers would set the clock, and when it rang, wherever he was, he would stop talking. The fifteen minute show consisted of unedited live topical extemporization. Rogers was most effective during the depression, when his warm, reassuring voice in the home had the same effect as Roosevelt’s. It made people feel better. During the 20s he had been popular because he was an oddity—a sort of throwback to the Wild West days. During the depression he was popular because he symbolized the common man and he told the unvarnished truth about what was going on. His work was akin to that of Carl SandburgJohn Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the era. FDR loved him, and Rogers loved FDR right back.

Rogers’ restless love of travel, and his boundless trust in his fellow man combined to cut his life short at the age of 55. A huge fan of aviation, which was still technically in its infancy, he jumped at the chance to fly with Wiley Post to map a postal route from Alaska to Siberia. Not to put too fine a point on it, Rogers was such a trusting man, he flew in a home-made plane with a one-eyed guy to a place without any airports. The 1935 plane crash hit the nation hard. Not since Lincoln’s assassination had the whole country mourned a single man so intensely. By the end of life, Rogers had outgrown show business entirely. He was simply a great man.

His legacy lives on. In 1940, Will Rogers, Jr. was elected to congress. James Whitmore played Rogers in many one man shows beginning in 1969. In 1991, Keith Carradine starred in The Will Rogers Follies on Broadway.

To learn more about vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc

Al St. John: Slapstick Sidekick

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of early movie great Al St. John (1892-1963). 

The nephew of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, St. John started out in circuses as an acrobat and trick bicycle rider before joining his portly uncle at Keystone pictures in 1913. His roles were rarely large at Keystone, but his acrobatic skills and comic instincts made him a dependable part of the ensemble, and he is definitely one of the few players who actually earns the credit “one of the original Keystone Kops.” Long about 1916, towards the end of his run at Keystone he began to get some excellent roles in films like The Moonshiners, He Did and He Didn’tThe Waiter’s Ball , and Fatty and Mabel Adrift.

In 1917, he joined Arbuckle at the latter’s own studio Comique, the two of them forming a loose comedy trio with Buster Keaton. St. John usually played the villain or the rival to the hero Fatty in over two dozen of these little gems, which truly gave him a chance to show what he could do. In 1920, Arbuckle left Comique to make features, handing over the reigns to Keaton. St. John went on to his own starring series at several of the major studios (Paramount, 1920; Warner Bros, 1921; and Fox, 1921-1924), before settling in at Educational for the remainder of the silent era. One of his directors at the latter studio was Arbuckle, post-scandal, under a variety of pseudonyms.

In the talkie era, though no longer starring, St. John can truly be said to have flourished in Poverty Row, acting constantly in comedies and westerns (usually as the comical sidekick) throughout the 30s. In 1937, his place in moviedom was formalized when he first took on the role of the grizzled, bearded Fuzzy Q. Jones for westerns starring Bob Steele, Buster Crabbe, George Houston, Bob Livingston and Lash LaRue. He rode this gravy train through 1952 (his last picture was The Frontier Phantom) and then rounded out his performing career working wild west shows, rodeos and circuses.

The coolest news on the Al. St. John front is that a young lady in Norway has voluntarily taken on the role of maintaining his legacy and getting it before the public. She has founded the Al. St. Project (, has posted his films at; and is hard at work on a book! Thanks for all the work you do, Annichen Skaren!

And if you needed any proof that Al could hold his own, here is a rare extant Fox short starring St. John, Out of Place (1922), with music by Ben Model.

To learn more about silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


To learn more about 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.


Agnes Thatcher Lake

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Animal Acts, Circus, Lariat Artists/ Wild West Shows, Women with tags , , on August 24, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Agnes Thatcher Lake (nee Mersman, 1826-1907). She moved with her family to Cincinnati from her birthplace Alsace, France at age four. At age 16 she eloped with a circus clown named Bill Lake Thatcher and became skilled in the circus arts, working as a professional tightrope walker, lion tamer and equestrienne for many years. Her husband (known professionally as Bill Lake) was killed in 1869, shot dead while trying to eject an unruly customer from the Big Top. Agnes took over the show. It was during their stop-over in Abilene Texas that she first met the man who was to become her second husband — Wild Bill Hickok. She met Bill again while both were performing in Rochester, New York in 1873. They met up again in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1876 and that is where they tied the knot. Agnes set up a house for them back in Cincinnati, and Bill headed out for the gold fields of the Dakota Territory, where he was famously shot and killed in the town of Deadwood in 1877. Agnes died thirty years later in New Jersey.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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