Archive for alcoholic

Charles Chaplin, Sr.: No Slouch Either!

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see 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

Lillian Roth: From Gus Edwards to the Gutter

Posted in Broadway, Child Stars, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2009 by travsd


Have you ever watched Animal Crackers and wondered why the ingenue was so expansive and arch, as though she were one of the stars? The reason is, she was one of the stars. Though not as big as the Marx Brothers, Lillian Roth was well-known to audiences of her day. At age 9 she and her sister Ann formed a vaudeville singing duo presented by Gus Edwards. By the next year she was cast in the Broadway show Shavings, which thereafter boosted her up the billing ladder to headliner. She alternated vaudeville with parts in revues and films through the mid-30s.

Roth had a level of charm that cannot be bought. Here she is in a Mae West inspired duet with James Dunn called “Come Up and See Me Some Time” from the 1933 film Take a Chance:

Here she is with Lupino Lane in the 1929 musical  The Love Parade (1929):

A drinking problem cut the first phase of her career short, and unfortunately, starting with her 1954 autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow and the campy melodramatic film version the following year starring Susan Hayward, all the attention she got going forward was related to her alcohol problem. Roth was one of the first Hollywood people to go public as an alcoholic. And she wasn’t just a drunk – -when she bottomed out it was all the way down (use your imagination). Still, she was and always will be a star.
Roth in the horror movie "Alice, Sweet Alice", released around the same time as the Boggs interview

Roth in the horror movie “Alice, Sweet Alice”, released around the same time as the Boggs interview

The attached interview, from 1977,  is atrocious. At one point, interviewer Bill Boggs quips that a nurse who introduced Roth to booze should be sued for “ex post facto malpractice”, though the purpose it had been used for was a legitimate one. On the other hand, Boggs DEFINITELY should be sued for malpractice for conducting such a shoddy, craven interview, ghoulishly dwelling on only the negative aspects of Roth’s life, probing her wounds with a dull scalpel. At one point he asks her, “Do you have any friends?” It isn’t until 10 minutes into the 18 minute interview that we hear anything good about her wonderful career – – a 30 second tour through her scrapbook, before we return to another 7 minutes on her substance abuse. The main reason I enjoy watching this clip, is that every ounce of her charm (and confidence apparently)  is still there. Roth sits there and absorbs this hideous drubbing on live New York television and treats it like so much…attention. Well, there you go. It’s a crazy business we’re in. We’re pointing the camera at substance abusers more than ever for entertainment these days. How much better to point them at singers, dancers, actors, and comedians.

Lillian Roth passed away in 1980.

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


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