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The General Slocum Disaster and Its Impact on American Popular Culture

Posted in German, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by travsd

June 15, 1904 was the day the P.S. General Slocum burned and sank. I write about this dark day today for two reasons: 1) I constantly encounter people — even well educated people — who have never heard of this, the worst disaster to befall New York City prior to 9/11; and 2) the event effected American culture, including popular culture, like my usual subject matter, which is vaudeville.

I myself had probably not heard of the event prior to reading about it in Luc Sante’s Low Life in the ’90s, but I owe my true understanding of it (details, context, impact) to my friend the historian Kathleen Hulser, curator of a centennial exhibition we had about it at the New-York Historical Society back in 2004. This is a Before-and-After story, so bear with me while I take you on a little journey:

Remove the Germans and the 4th of July starts to look a lot less festive

In the mid 19th century, one of the largest movements of immigration to the United States came from Germany (they were roughly neck and neck with the Irish). It’s pretty well known that German immigrants moved to many places in the U.S. , Pennsylvania, for example, and the cities and farms of the mid-west. Less well remembered today is that they once had a major footprint in New York City. Just as today there is a Chinatown, a Little Italy, a Harlem, and a zillion other ethnic neighborhoods, once upon a time, on the Lower East Side there was a Kleindeutschland — a Little Germany. The cultural contributions of the Germans who lived here are hiding in plain sight, they just became so assimilated, so American, we forget they are German. Many of them are culinary. The delicatessen is a German institution (not to mention a German word) as are so many things that one finds there, such as cold cuts and sausages. If you don’t find sausages particularly American recall that a German American named Charles Feltman adapted a certain kind of sausage into the frankfurter, the hot dog. The hamburger, too, comes from Germany (note the name), as do mustard and relish. The popularity in America of BEER is a result of the influence of the Germans. We nowadays associate St. Louis and Milwaukee with their German American breweries; NYC was once full of them as well. German Americans also helped Anglo Americans (the majority culture at the time) to cultivate a taste for music in their leisure time. Anglo American culture was still strongly Puritan in many ways; prior to the 19th century, the idea of going to a theatre or a pleasure garden for no other purpose but to hear a singer or a musician, or to acquire a musical instrument (e.g., the German American Steinway piano) and study it, was frowned upon. And there were influential Germans in show business: the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Koster and Bial the operators on NYC’s top concert saloon.

The kids who became Weber and Fields grew up around Germans on the Lower East Side and became the nation’s most popular, most influential vaudeville and Broadway comedians in the last quarter of the 19th century by imitating them. Many others followed in their footsteps, including Kolb and Dill, the Rogers Brothers, Sam Bernard, Cliff Gordon, James Budworth, Ford Sterling, Al Shean and a young Groucho Marx.  Stereotypical “Dutch” (German) comedy was a specialty, in the vein of blackface** or stock Irish characterizations.

Thus we begin to see that German culture was very visible in 19th century New York, very much part of the pulse and energy of the city. But it suffered a one-two punch.

The first was the General Slocum Disaster. Named after Union General and U.S. Congressman Henry Warner Slocum, the General Slocum was a local excursion vessel. On June 15, 1904, she was chartered by a local Lutheran church group from Little Germany to take them to their annual picnic on nearby Long Island. There were over 1,300 people on board, mostly women and children, as it was a Wednesday morning and the fathers were all at work. While the ship was in the middle of the East River, where the water was deep and the current strong, the ship caught fire. As usually happens with major disasters, multiple factors contributed to worsen events: flammable materials, strong winds, faulty safety equipment, and bad decisions by captain and crew. When it was all over, over 1,021 people — over 70% of those on board — had either burned or drowned to death. Of the 321 who survived, 28 were crew members.

The General Slocum Disaster is said to have literally devastated Kleindeutschland. We often use that phrase figuratively, to speak of emotional devastation, but here it can be taken literally. Hundreds of German American fathers had lost their entire families. Practically everyone in the community had lost someone — a friend, a relative, a neighbor, someone they knew on the street. The community dispersed. Many moved uptown to Yorkville, a migration that was already happening but was hastened by this horrific event. Kleindeutchland faded out of existence.

What was the second part of the “one-two punch” we spoke of earlier? World War One — another centennial now upon us. Anti-German sentiment ran strong, and so German Americans made the decision to assimilate and de-emphasize what was culturally unique about them. They and their contributions remained, but the Germans of America became much quieter about their identity, and Americans lost the habit of acknowledging or celebrating them in the way we celebrate other national groups who managed to maintain a strong identity (e.g., Italian Americans). World War Two enhanced that process even further, but the bulk of it had already happened in the early part of the 20th century. One of the casualties of this “burying” of German American culture, I think, was any awareness of the General Slocum Disaster. You saw those numbers, right? A thousand women and children killed? This is close to Titanic numbers and it happened within sight of Manhattan — people stood on shore and watched it happen.

The irony is that German Americans weren’t our enemies in the World Wars. By definition, they were part of THIS crazy quilt. They LEFT their native land because it wasn’t doing it for them!(In fact many had come to America to escape the reprisals following the Revolution of 1848, indicating that they were the farthest thing from fans of the “Reich”.  And many were German Jews, part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. Their cultural contributions deserve to be remembered. We have a whole section on Travalanche celebrating German American contributions to American popular culture: peruse it here.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

The Fiery Fate of Martha Mansfield

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of ill-fated actress Martha Mansfield (Martha Ehrlich, 1899-1923)

Born in NYC, Mansfield took her stage name from the town on Ohio where her mother was raised. As a teenager she began working as an artist’s model, dancer, vaudeville performer and actress. By 1912 she was already appearing in Broadway in shows like Little Women and Hop o’ My Thumb. She later appeared in two Ziegfeld shows: the Follies in 1918 and the Midnight Frolic in 1919.

Her rise in films was rapid. Signing with Essanay Studios in 1916, she appeared opposite Max Linder in several comedies. In 1918 she was in the original film version of Broadway Bill and in 1920 she appeared opposite John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

She continued to star in major features for the next three years until that fateful day (November 29) in 1923 on the set of The Warrens of Virginia. Somehow the period dress she was wearing (all hoopskirts and ruffles and frills) caught fire and she suffered extensive burns that proved fatal. She was only 24 years old.


For more on silent film history don’t miss my  book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

The Great Lafayette

Posted in Animal Acts, German, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on February 24, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of The Great Lafayette (Siegmund Neuberger, 1872-1911) one of vaudeville’s few literal martyrs.  He moved to the U.S. from his native Munich at age 19 and began his career as one of the many imitators of Ching Ling Foo. His early act had elements of Grand Giugnol (his sawing a woman in half smacks of The Mad Magician“) and he gradually built up to an enormous set piece illusions, the most famous of which was “The Lion’s Bride”, which used a live menagerie, including the King of Beasts, who at the act’s climax, magically transformed into Lafayette. It all went up in smoke on May 9, 1911 during his act, when the set caught fire killing the magician, most of his animals, and 11 audience members. The irony is that he had ordered all the backstage doors locked so no one could steal his secrets.

To find out 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.


The San Francisco Earthquake

Posted in Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on April 18, 2011 by travsd

What you see above is the ruins of the Orpheum Theatre in the aftermath of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which happened on April 18 of that year. The Orpheum was the birthplace of the great west coast Orpheum vaudeville circuit founded by Martin Beck and Morris Meyerfeld, and whose name comes down to us in the form of Radio-Keith-Orpheum…RKO.

Every theatre in town was destroyed that day, including several owned by Sid Grauman. Several performers from these annals happened to be in town that day, as well. Blackface** performer Artie Hall was killed in a collapsed theatre. Others who were there but escaped unscathed included Blossom Seeley (a San Francisco native who was discovered by Grauman) Enrico Caruso, John Barrymore, Fatty Arbuckle (then working the Pantages), Leon Errol (who’d only gotten to town the day before and was playing in a burlesque operetta), Joe E. Brown (then playing at the Haymarket Theatre with the Five Marevlous Ashtons), and most fortuitously, Al Jolson. Jolson remained in the city for months, entertaining as many of the displaced, traumatized citizens as he could, often for free. Here is where Jolson’s legendary dynamism first made itself manifest, honing the act for which he would become famous. It was here that he first uttered the words “you aint seen nothing yet” –  a ritual at every performance for the next 44 years.

To experience the Hollywood version of what those performers went through that awful day, you might want to watch the 1936 MGM film San Francisco which takes us in and out of the Barbary Coast Saloon world (and its variety entertainment) as well as the Nob Hill opera world. Among the vaudevillian treats in the film are a group of African-American performers doing a period-accurate cakewalk (for some background on that dance go here), as well as cast members Edgar Kennedy (a San Francisco native who’d actually been in San Francisco on the day of the real life quake), Al Shean of Gallagher and Shean (and the Marx Bros.’ uncle) as a German orchestra conductor, and Ted Healy, the Three Stooges’ old boss, as a vaudeville performer. The film contains some hair-raising action sequences, many of which were directed by D.W. Griffith. Star Jeanette MacDonald got her start as a child singing in Ned Wayburn revues.

The requisite soap opera plot preceding the disaster concerns the struggle of three men for the heart (and immortal soul) of MacDonald: saloon-keeper Clark Gable, Catholic priest Spencer Tracy; and old time Western star Jack Holt as an opera impresario. In the end the entire cast, arm-in-arm, cheerfully sings “Glory, Glory Halleluiah” as the city burns to ashes in front of them. I know that’s just what I’d do!

By happenstance, the Countess has expressed some of her own thoughts about San Francisco on the subject, go here.

To find out more about 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.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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