Alreet, shet yer yap!
Maybe St. Andrew’s Day isn’t near as popular as St. Patrick’s, but somewhere under all this greasepaint there lies a card-carryin’, kilt-wearin’ member of the Stewart clan and ye ought to knaw where his fealty lies! In honor of the day of our patron Saint, some tributes to a few favorite Scotsmen:
Sir Harry Lauder
Believe it or not, one of the top five vaudeville acts of all time, up there with Houdini and Eva Tanguay, was this token Scotsman with bushy eyebrows, who came on stage in full kilt regalia and sang sentimental songs in a thick burr. His biggest hit was a song called “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”. To modern eyes and ears he seems a Warner Brothers cartoon’s idea of a Scotsman. Ah, but perhaps we have it backwards—maybe Warner Bros. got their idea of a “Scotsman” from him.
He was born in Edinburgh in 1870 and got his first working experience in a coal mine. But a coal mine is no place for canaries. He made his debut 1882, in Arbroath. Today Arbroath, tomorrow the world! He debuted in London in 1900, and quickly became one of the most sought after entertainers in music hall, touring also Australia and South Africa before reaching American shores in 1907. His debut at the New York Theater was so successful, the audience held him over an hour.
Americans loved Lauder so much he toured the country 25 times. (His last was 1934). In an era when 17 minutes was a long time for an act to be on a vaudeville stage, Lauder usually did an hour fifteen, slaughtering the throngs with songs like “Wee Hoose ‘Mang the Heather” and “It’s a’ Roon the Toon”. His success extended to a very lucrative recording career (1902-1933) and numerous films, including several early talkie experiments. He was knighted in 1919 for his work entertaining troops. His last radio broadcast was in 1942, but retired officially in 1949. He died the following year.
American vaudeville’s second favorite Scotsman was Will Fyffe (1885-1947), who broke into English music hall around 1916, and made numerous appearances at New York’s Palace Theatre in the late 1920s. His last appearance in the States was in Earl Carroll’s Vanitiesin 1932 (the last edition). He appeared in numerous talkies from 1930 until his death (reportedly by falling out a window) in 1947.
I’ll be writing much more about Jimmy Finlayson (1887-1953) in the coming months, both here and in my new book Chain of Fools. Finlayson (known as “Fin” to the fans who revere him) is best known today as the comic foil to Laurel and Hardy, although he appeared in many other films, often as the star. His career spanned both the silent and sound eras. He got his start at Mack Sennett’s Keystone, but enjoyed greater success on the Hal Roach lot. He is best loved for his highly individualistic double-take, which involved the squinting of one eye in a suspicious manner while his head perked up in surprise. His influence is strongly felt today on The Simpsons, both in the person of “Groundskeeper Willie”, but also in Homer’s famous exclamation “D’Oh!” — another borrowing from Fin. He is seldom identified as the Scotman he is in his pictures — he simply speaks in that unmistakable burr, just another matter-of-fact immigrant to American shores.
Patron and star of the American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza last August. (a.k.a Josh Hartung). Stripped of all other ethnic stereotypes, we were forced to resort to “Scotch-face”.
Happy St. Andrew’s Day!
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.