Archive for jazz age

Billie Dove: Follies Girl

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2017 by travsd

Silent film star Billie Dove (Bertha Bohnny 1903-1997) was born on this day. Born to Swiss immigrant parents in New York City, the stunningly beautiful teenager began her working life as a model to artists like Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg. She was also said to have worked as an extra on the Mabel Normand picture Joan of Plattsburg (1918), although she is not visible in the finished picture. In 1919, she was hired as a replacement for the Ziegfeld Follies during the infamous strike; she was also cast as a replacement in the Marilyn Miller show Sally, also produced by Ziegfeld.

With Fairbanks in “The Black Pirate” (1926)

She moved to Hollywood right after this, where she was a star for just over a decade. Her first proper role was in the screen adaptation of George M. Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921) starring Sam Hardy. Interestingly, though her time as an actual chorus girl was brief, she would PORTRAY a chorus girl on screen so often that it became a big part of of her Jazz Age image, in movies like At the Stage Door (1921), Polly of the Follies (1922), An Affair of the Follies (1927), The Heart of a Follies Girl (1928), and her very last film Blondie of the Follies (1932). Among her other notable pictures were, The Black Pirate (1926), opposite Douglas Fairbanks, and Kid Boots (1926), Eddie Cantor’s screen debut, an adaptation of his Ziegfeld-produced Broadway show featuring Cantor and Clara Bow. Billie Dove also was known for co-starring in numerous westerns with the likes of Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and others.

Dove had a three year romance with Howard Hughes, who’d produced several of her films. In 1933 she retired from the screen to marry oil tycoon Robert Alan Kenaston. After a 30 year absence from the screen she stepped before the camera one last time for a cameo in the Charlton Heston vehicle Diamond Head (1963). Singer Billie Holiday is said to have taken the first part of her stage name from Billie Dove’s.

For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

This Monday: A Talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Jugglers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2016 by travsd


Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine 

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY. Tickets and information here. 

On the “Gold Diggers” Series

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Playwrights, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Jazz Age playwright Avery Hopwood (1882-1928). Hopwood was long legendary for the feat of having four successful plays up on Broadway simultaneously, a feat later equaled by Neil Simon.

We have already done an extensive blog on one of the plays Hopwood was associated withThe Bat (1920), although that was primarily a Mary Roberts Rinehart work (Hopwood was called in to finish the third act and doctor the play overall). Today it seems apt to talk about what is now by far Hopwood’s best known legacy: the many versions and incarnations of The Gold Diggers. The best known one Gold Diggers of 1933 has a zillion fans even to this day; but folks may not realize that there was much that came before and much that came after.  


Original Broadway Play (1919)

The concept of the “Gold Digger” was a major part of the zeitgeist during the Jazz Age, when prosperity made for much gold to be dug. The phrase seems initially to have been applied to Peggy Hopkins Joyce, whose many marriages just happened to be to wealthy husbands. It’s not like such scheming isn’t as old as humankind. What was new about Joyce was the unprecedentedly open and frank way that she pursued her goals. Welcome to America! This was a new phenomenon. It inspired many writers, from Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), to several characters in Fitzgerald.


Ina Claire and Bruce McRae

Hopwood’s The Gold Diggers was early in this cycle. It gives us the familiar kernel of the story: a chorus girl and a rich young man want to get married. Relatives disapprove and try to put a stop to it. Hypocrisy is exposed through funny stratagems, and it is demonstrated that the chorus girl really loves the rich young man (thus proving she is not a heartless monster). The original lead was played by Ina Claire, and the production was a smash hit thanks in part to rave reviews by Alexander Woolcott. 

Hope Hampton

Hope Hampton

The Silent Film (1923)

David Belasco, original producer of the play, also produced the first film version, starring Hope Hampton and Louise Fazenda. Like later versions it was made by Warner Brothers. Sadly the film is now lost.


Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929)

This is the unkindest cut of all. This one is partially lost yet just enough has survived to drive us crazy wishing we could see the rest of it. The earliest years of talkies left us some really incredible documents because of all sorts of factors which capture their moment in a way that Hollywood films which came before and after would be unable to do. Sound (Vitaphone)! Color (Two Strip Technicolor)! More realistic dialogue (Pre-Code)! For the first time Broadway spectacle could be brought to the screen in a way that made sense — and so they went at it, whole hog. Here’s a fragment:

It was the top grossing film of the year and made a screen star (for a time) of Winnie Lightner. Also in the film were Ann Pennington, Nick Lucas (who sang the version of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” that later inspired Tiny Tim), Lee Moran, and Louise Beavers. It was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who was to marry Lightner a decade later.


Gold Diggers of 1933

Not a sequel per se, but yet another re-make with a new added poignancy (and sympathy for the heroines) because it is the depths of the Great Depression and the girls are literally starving. This (as far as we know) is the apex of the series, though one dreams about Gold Diggers of Broadway. 

Co-directed by Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkley (musical numbers), and produced by Warner Brothers in much the same style as 42nd Street, which had been released just a couple of months earlier, and with much of the same cast (Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers, and Guy Kibee). Sparks plays a producer who needs cash to put on a musical about the Depression (1933 was the very worst year of that worldwide financial disaster). Songwriter and juvenile Powell turns out to be a Boston Blueblood and underwrites the show — which (thanks to Berkley’s amazing staging) turns out to better than anyone’s wildest fantasies of a live stage show could ever be. Unfortunately Powell’s conservative brother and trustee (Warren William) and family lawyer (Kibee) want to break up his romance with Keeler. As they try to do so, gold-diggers Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon kick into action and eventually get both fuddy duddies to marry them. And a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers is yet another gold digger. Happy ending, roll credits.


Gold Diggers of 1935 (film)

Some but not all of the luster is lost here. Here Dick Powell is a hotel clerk hired by miserly millionairess Alice Brady to escort her daughter Gloria Stuart. They fall in love though she is actually engaged to a doofus who is writing a monograph on the use of snuff (Hugh Herbert). Meanwhile, because this is a musical, the millionairess is bankrolling an annual charity show for the milk fund, and hires a wacky Russian stage director played by a very funny Adolph Menjou. It’s Busby Berkley’s first film as credited director, though of course he had choreographed many times before. The big number is “Lullaby of Broadway”: it’s brilliantly staged and shot, even surreal—it all takes place in her head, and has an amazing fantasy interlude. Of course it’s all apropos of nothing connected with the movie we’re watching!


Gold Diggers of 1937

This one has the morbid plot of producers and cast taking out a life insurance policy on hypochondriac moneybags Victor Moore so they can finance a show. With the now married team of Dick Powell and Joan Blondell returning, the picture also features Glenda Farrell and even more notably Susan Fleming (better known as Mrs. Harpo Marx). Busby Berkley staged the production numbers once more and Lloyd Bacon directed.


Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)

It’s always been an axiom of mine that you know your franchise has jumped the shark when you have to transplant it to another country for an angle. By these last couple in the series, it is becoming quotidian and a little tired (reminds me of the plots of some of the Fred and Ginger movies). The meat of the farce is that Hugh Herbert is sent to New York to bring back a certain ballet company to Paris. He accidentally books a bunch of chorus girls who work for Rudy Vallee and Allen Jenkins. Learning the truth too late, he hires Fritz Feld and Rosemary Lane to teach the girls ballet on the ship back to France. The fly in the ointment is that one of the French bookers (Melville Cooper) wants to watch rehearsals, and the company has to keep diverting him. The stakes in a scenario are too low to interest me. Give me the early “Gold Diggers”! Seems like the public felt the same way.


Anyway, ya wanna see some LIVE chorus girls? Our revue I’ll Say She Is has a dozen great ones, and first preview at the Connelly Theatre is TONIGHT! I don’t know if there are any gold diggers in the bunch — we should be so lucky that there will be gold BEARERS in the audience, in which case I’ll put on a dress myself! Information and tickets here. 


Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway, 1918-1923

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Women with tags , , , , , on June 3, 2014 by travsd


I’ve long held that the best writers make the best critics. In addition to aesthetic insight, the job calls for  descriptive powers both sufficient to engage the reader in art he hasn’t yet experienced and entertaining enough to attract those who’ve already seen the show. In the case of Dorothy Parker: Complete Broadway 1918-1923, “the show” closed over 90 years ago. The attraction here is the critic herself — and what a shiny bauble it is.

It’s shocking to me that (aside from a few selected samples) Dorothy Parker’s theatre reviews have never been collected and published in a volume. The columns she wrote for Vanity Fair and Ainslee’s were her first bread-and-butter job, and it was the writing on which she made her reputation. It was while she was at Vanity Fair that she met and befriended Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, formed the Algonquin Round Table, and added folks like F.P.A., George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woolcott to her circle. The New Yorker, short stories, comic poetry, all of that would follow later. But at the dawn of the Jazz Age, she was reaching her readers once a month in these lengthy magazine columns describing all the Broadway shows she had seen.

A precocious 25 year old when she launched her career, subbing for P.G. Wodehouse, she astounds us by debuting with her familiar voice already fully-formed. She is cruelly, hilariously frank to a fault. Indeed it is that foible which got her canned from Vanity Fair in 1920 (with Benchley and Sherwood walking off with her in sympathy).   The pleasures of reading ANYTHING written by Dorothy Parker are among the numerous reasons for buying this valuable volume. As  in her creative writing, her criticism is concise, merry and devastating. One would hesitate to call it deep, though. She covers a lot of ground in the columns; no more than a few sentences are expended on any particular show, basically a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” based on how much Dotty was entertained. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. Anyone looking to experience Broadway during the Jazz Age could do worse than spending time in these annals, which chronicle some very exciting years: Eugene O’Neill, the Ziegfeld Follies, the premieres of plays like R.U.R. and The Adding Machine, and performances by so many past giants: the Barrymores, Nazimova, Ed Wynn and about five hundred more.

As an aid in appreciation, editor Kevin Fitzpatrick (founder and head of the Dorothy Parker Society) has preceded the book with an illuminating and perceptive introductory essay, and added a meticulous index of explanatory notes in the back.

I had originally intended to hold this blogpost until I had read the entire book, but as I began to delve into it, I realized that was crazy. It’s impossible to read without savoring and re-reading, which means I will spend the rest of my life with this book. It now sits on my shelf next to criticism by Shaw, Max Beerbohm, John Mason Brown, George Jean Nathan, Harold Clurman and John Lahr. Lovers of Parker’s work (and all lovers of humor), theatre buffs, and Jazz Age aficionados will all relish this book.

Buy it here. 

Peggy Hopkins Joyce: The Original Gold Digger

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by travsd


A genius at the art of celebrity for its own sake, this original “gold-digger” used show business as a means of leveraging husbands, and her notorious connubial life as a means of leveraging lucrative work in show business. She was born Marguerite Upton, the daughter of an humble barber in Norfolk, Virginia.

At 16, she ran off with a small time vaudeville troupe and wound up in Denver, which is where she bagged the first of her six husbands. The year was 1910. Her new husband, Everett Archibald, Jr. was a well-to-do salesman from a Mormon family. While he was on the road, Peggy would continue to entertain as many gentlemen as she pleased, a development that Mr. Archibald didn’t take kindly to. (“Hey! Who’sthe polygamist around here?”) Bored and chafing at Archibald’s unreasonable demand that she remain faithful to him, she packed her things and bummed around a bit before finding herself in Washington, D.C. Here she developed a relationship with a dressmaker who outfitted her with rich costumes with the understanding that she would show them off at fashionable gatherings. Before long she had trapped her second husband, this time a scion from one of Washington society’s most prominent families. Sherburne Philbrick Hopkins was a bit of a rake himself, but that still didn’t mean he was any match for Peggy. Among her other charming qualities, she was a profligate spender and wouldn’t brook any criticism about it. After a few knock-down drag-out fights, she left her second husband in 1915 and packed up for New York.

By now, of course, she was a well-known society person, accustomed to being seen, admired and written up in gossip columns. She was a known entity and already quite scandalous. In New York she hooked with dressmaker Madame Frances, and developed a preposterous if novel vaudeville act for the Palace. Billed as a “Style Show”, Peggy, who could neither sing, dance, nor act, simply paraded about the stage in stylish fashions, loosely timed to some music. This was enough to bring her ravishing beauty to the attention of Flo Ziegfeld, who booked her for his 1917 Follies. This was the most successful edition of the Follies to date, garnering still more undeserved attention for Peggy. She was booked, too, for Ziegfeld’s next show Miss 1917, which flopped. Along the way she made several silent films, such as The Bride and  The Woman and the Law. While touring with the Broadway show A Sleepless Night, she met Chicago millionaire James Stanley Joyce. Within a year or so of their marriage she pissed through a million and a half dollars of his money – jewels, furs, cars. Enraged at her profligacy and her infidelity, Joyce filed for bankruptcy in 1920, resulting in over a year’s worth of tabloid publicity for Peggy.

In 1922, she had an affair with Charlie Chaplin. She proved to be too much of a loose cannon for him, but he used aspects of her life as the inspiration for his 1923 film A Woman of Paris.

In the twenties she also had affairs with MGM producer Irving Thalberg and Walter P. Chrysler.  In 1923, she was the star of the very first edition of Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Her first real starring film The Skyrocket (1925) turned out to be one of the hits of the year. In 1924, she married into the Swedish nobility: Count Karl Gustav Morner. The marriage lasted two months.

Her private life was so legendary, Peggy’s name wound up in song lyrics by Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, and three by Cole Porter. In the 1928 show Whoopee, Eddie Cantor sang:

Take Peggy Joyce, with little voice,

She soon became, the nation’s choice.

I tell you, buddy, she’s made a study—

Of makin’ whoopee.

In 1931 she played her last gig at the Palace, a comedy sketch called “Rings on Her Fingers.” In 1933 she topped a bill that included W.C. Fields, Burns and Allen, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and a dozen other stars in the Paramount Comedy International House. After this, she drifted out of show business. As her looks began to fade, so did her prospects. Two more husbands came along, but over the years she was forced to gradually sell off the jewels, furs and other valuables that were mostly trophies captured during her third marriage. She died overweight, poor and obscure in 1957, of throat cancer.

To find out more about these variety artists and 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.


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




Joe Frisco: Jazz Dancer and Wit

Posted in Comedy, Dance, Dixieland & Early Jazz, Hollywood (History), Ragtime, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by travsd

Suddenly one of these gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If you are like this author, when you first encountered the preceding passage in your assigned high school reading you shrugged it off as some arcane reference to the city of San Francisco, and moved on. Thank God you’ve got me to clear up your misconceptions! Joe Frisco (birth date unknown) was not only vaudeville’s most imitated dancer (after the Castles had passed from the scene), he was also its most quoted off-stage wit – far more so than any other person in these annals. One of his remarks, “Don’t applaud, folks, just throw money” has truly become public property, used by every twelve year old ham the first time they steal a spotlight. (How do you like that?) To make matters more truly American, let it be known that vaudeville’s own Oscar Wilde was also a functional illiterate with a stuttering problem.

His real name was Louis Joseph and he grew up on an Iowa farm. Legend has it that he was descended from Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef – an interesting lineage for someone who took his stage name off the side of a box car. His mother had been in English panto, and it was she who taught him to dance from the age of seven. Before long he was dancing Lancashire clogs and soft shoes outside of Dubuque theatres. His father, who was determined to see his son succeed at being a plow-boy, ridiculed his stutter and threw his tap shoes in the stove.

Joe was barely into adolescence when he hit the road, hopping a freight train and winding up in Milwaukee where he was part of an act called Coffee and Doughnuts. (Joe was Doughnuts). From there, he moved up to Chicago, a much larger city with more opportunities. He obtained a job as a Western Union messenger boy, which helped him to network with theatre people. On a delivery to a dance studio he met a young hoofer named Loretta McDermott. The two hit it off, and, as was common in vaudeville, she became his paramour and partner.

In a New Orleans night club one evening, they heard their first jazz. Inspired by the crazy crash of improvised sounds, they did what any spontaneous young dancers would do on the dance floor – threw out their own crazy moves to match the music. This brought the house down, so they built an act around it. In 1915, Joe hired the Dixieland Five to come back to Chicago with them to accompany them. This makes Frisco a crucial figure in the history of jazz, too, for he was among the first to bring the intoxicating new music to the attention of mainstream audiences in the north. Frisco’s success brought a whole stampede of jazz quintets to the Big Time stage, hired to back up the likes of Blossom Seeley, Sophie Tucker, Mae West and dozens of others.


When Joe found McDermott playing around with the band’s singer, he left the lucrative scene in Chicago for stardom in New York. He claimed to be the “World’s First Jazz Dancer”, and “the Frisco dance” or “Frisco shuffle” became the most widely imitated dance in the country. A picture of Frisco, once formed, is indelible: in a sharp business suit, with a derby and spats, a cigar in his mouth, he performs a compulsive series of motions, pelvic thrusts, bunny hops, and contortions, all the while playing with the derby and cigar as props. Decades later, Bob Fosse was to cop much of his vocabulary from the Frisco lexicon.

In 1917, he broke into Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, which he continued to play, along with the Follies, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and of course Big Time vaudeville into the early 30s. One of the highlights of this act was the patter he began to introduce in the teens. Despite the stuttering (or perhaps because of it) he developed a reputation as a great wit, and he began to let audiences know it.

There is a deflating pragmatism to Frisco’s wit that makes it peculiarly American. Once, when Bert Lahr was bragging at the Friar’s Club about taking numerous curtain calls after a show in Kansas City (a town notoroius for its unresponsive audiences), Lahr wrapped up his story with an offer to buy the drinks:

“What would you like, Joe?”

“I’d l-l-like to see your act, you bastard!”

On another occasion, while waiting in the wings at a benefit show for found himself standing next to Enrico Caruso. He turned to the famous tenor and said, “Hey, Caruso, don’t do ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’. That’s my number and I follow you.”

Once, when a man tried to sell him a copy of “The Last Supper” for $250, Frisco replied “I’ll give you t-t-ten dollars a plate.”

In later years, when the vaudeville work dried up, he restricted himself to performing at his room-mate and best friend Charlie Foy’s Los Angeles nightclub. When not dancing or gambling at the race track, Frisco was performing in films, such as the 1944 Atlantic City or, his last one, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). He passed away in 1958.

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


Eddie Cantor: Banjo Eyes

Posted in African American Interest, Broadway, Comedy, Eddie Cantor, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by travsd


Though almost forgotten today, there was no bigger star than Eddie Cantor in his heyday. He conquered more media than even Hope, Rogers or Benny: vaudeville, Broadway revues and book musicals, films, radio, tv and – because he was much a singer as he was a comedian – record albums. He was the first openly Jewish male entertainer to mainstream (his characters were always Jewish or “Russian” — a euphemism). The first entertainer of either gender to do it was Fanny Brice.

Cantor was definitely a creature of his times—very strange by today’s standards. Known as “Banjo Eyes” on account of his huge, rolling orbs, he was equally a singer and a comedian. He sang and recorded several crazy, nonsensical songs that were the very soul of the 1920s, such as “If You Knew Susie”, “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”, “Ma! He’s Making Eyes at Me” and the title song from his Broadway show and film Whoopie (which Sinatra later covered). On the the word “whoopie”, Cantor would roll his eyes and grin Groucho-style…although who’s to say Groucho didn’t roll his eyes Cantor-style?

Doctor: On what side are you Jewish?

Eddie: On the East Side.

(From the Eddie Cantor sketch “Insurance”)

He was born Israel Iskowitz, the son of Jewish Belarussian immigrants in 1892. Orphaned at age two and raised by his grandmother in New York’s Lower East Side, Cantor endured poorer circumstances than nearly any other player in this chronicle. He wore rags, had little to eat, and lived in a shabby basement. When his grandmother enrolled him at school as Israel Kantrowitz (her last name), the school thoughtfully took the liberty of shortening it to Kanter. At age 13, he changed his first name to Eddie to impress a girl.


Like nearly all children in the Lower East Side at that time, Cantor stole and hung out with street gangs. He was funny from early childhood, making people around him laugh on the streets (as Richard Pryor would later do) to keep tougher guys from terrorizing him. He was bitten early by the show business bug, although he could seldom afford to see an actual show. Cantor once stole a girl’s life savings of $12 so he could see a production of Billy the Kid.

Teaming up with his friend Dan Lipsky, he did comedy and sang, performing weddings and bar mitzvahs at Henry Hall, which was next door to his house. He left home briefly at 15 in order to shack up with a 19 year old consort, but he was forced to go home with his tale between his legs after stealing the woman’s tickets to George M. Cohan’s, 45 Minutes to Broadway starring Fay Templeton.

In 1908, Cantor took the plunge into professionalism by performing at Miner’s Bowery Theatre amateur night. He was so poor he had to borrow a friend’s pants in order to go on. Despite a rough crowd, Cantor won the amateur contest and took home  $12 ($10 prize money, $2 in thrown coins). Later that year, he got a job in a touring burlesque show with producer Frank B. Carr. Indian Maidens but was stranded with the show in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania (an old story in vaudeville).

In 1909, he became a singer at Carrie Walsh’s Saloon, Coney Island. The pianist was 16 year old Jimmy Durante. They made a sort of loose team, learning every popular song from the past 20 years in order to fulfill audience requests. When they didn’t know a song, they would make one up around the title, and if the requester seemed displeased, say “What, there are two songs by that name?”

Cantor diligently saved his money from this work and invested in a new suit and business cards, so he could make the rounds with agents. Worn down by Cantor’s persistence, small time agent Joe Wood finally sent him out to Gain’s Manhattan Theatre just to be rid of him. The theatre was famous for sending acts packing. Shockingly, Cantor did so well he ended up being retained by the theatre. The impressed Wood started sending him to upstate theatres.

Cantor was working for the third-rate People’s Vaudeville Company when its owner Joe Schenk (later to become a movie mogul) told him if he came with some new material, he would be held over. Cantor solved the problem by doing the same act for several weeks in different ethnic personae: Hebrew, German, Blackface. The Blackface was a real revelation, as Cantor’s large round eyes read really well through the make-up.

Cantor made the big time in 1911 when he was hired by the juggling team of Bedini and Arthur to join them at Hammerstein’s Victoria. At first, Cantor was little more than a glorified assistant, never on stage, just fetching things for Bedini. After he passed this test for a few weeks, he was given a walk-on part in the show. His job was simply to walk across the stage and hand a plate to Bedini. Yet somehow Cantor managed to get a laugh even at this, walking on with an “attitude.” Bedini, the boss of the act gradually expanded his part with spoken lines, bits of business and even juggling. Essentially Cantor and Arthur were Bedini’s stooges, black-face servants, who supported the master juggler who was the star of the act.

Cantor 20001

Shubert Archive

As usual, Cantor gave 110% and gradually upstaged Bedini. During this period, Cantor developed a character that would have revolutionized blackface, had blackface survived. His character deviated from all stereotypes. He was a sort of sissified, bookish character who wore glasses (Groucho Marx called the character “a nance”) and would say mincing things like “He means to do me bodily harm!” By defying stereotype, this was a step in the direction  of realism, but of course total realism came thereafter when black parts became exclusively played by real blacks.

Largely through Cantor’s efforts, Bedini and Arthur (Cantor remained unbilled) gradually moved up the bill to better and better spots. After seven months with the team, Cantor got a chance to sing with the act in Louisville when the manager needs them to pad for time. He sang Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Violinand scored a huge hit, not just for his singing ability, but for his hyperactive onstage movements, which included handclaps and a sort of crazy-legged dance. Cantor would move this way on stage throughout his singing career.

In 1912, he got an offer to perform with a Gus Edwards’ revue “Kid Cabaret.” He purposely got himself fired from Bedini’s act so he could take it. Also in the cast of the Kid Cabaret was a young George Jessel, with whom Cantor became lifetime friends. In the act, Cantor played Jefferson, a blackface butler. They worked the Orpheum Circuit in 1913, where Cantor first met Will Rogers, another lifelong friend. Rogers took to Cantor and mentored him, even recommending him to his agent,the powerful Max Hart, who began to represent him.

Upon turning 21, he left Edwards. He performed as a single for a few months, visiting London in 1914 to play Charlot’s Revue while on his honeymoon. The trip was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, however. Back in New York, he teamed up with Al Lee, Ed Wynn’s former straight-man in an act called  “Master and Man”. Lee sang ballads which Cantor interrupted with nutty remarks.

The act stayed together until 1916, when Cantor was hired by Earl Carrol to play the part of the chauffeur in a show called Canary Cottage . In rehearsals, Cantor upstaged the star Trixie Friganza who threatened to walk if he was allowed to keep it up. Silent comedy star Raymond Griffith, who happened to be in attendance advised Cantor to lay off until performance and THEN pull all his stunts. Which he did, to great appreciation from the audience. With such laughs, the producers were forced to back Cantor.


The next step was Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolics, his rooftop after-hours follow up to the Follies. Cantor was given a one-night trial, and his appearance was a triumph. He constantly did crazy, spontaneous things (like asking the likes of William Randolph Hearst to hold their hands high over their heads for a magic trick and then ignoring them for twenty minutes while they suffered). He gave an entirely different performance each night, a necessity at the Frolics, for the audience was the same each night, mostly composed of New York’s “400”.

Shubert Archive

Shubert Archive

He was a very New York sort of character, impudent and familiar. His style in delivering a song was kinetic and eye-catching. He even had a signature exit—a little hankie he waved at the audience. In 1917, he was moved up to the Follies where he got to perform with Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields and Will Rogers. In these early days, Cantor, in his eagerness to please, overdid everything, overplaying, mugging, etc. His newfound friends in the cast counseled to cool it down a little, and he went over even better.

Here’s a rare early film of Eddie in Broadway era prime (pre-Hollywood).

Cantor went on to star in numerous musicals, such as Make it Snappy (1922), Kid Boots (1923), and Whoopee! (1928). His first film Kid Boots (1926) was a silent version of his earlier musical. His second silent, Special Delivery (1927), was a flop. With and without blackface, he was one of the biggest stars of early talkies.

One of my favorite numbers of all time:

Films like Whoopee, Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, Kid Millions, etc. were big hits and remain as peculiar artifacts of a bygone era. The films are very much akin to the early Marx Bros. pictures, extremely unpredictable, almost surreal semi-musicals.

Cantor became one of radio’s first big stars. Starting with the Chase and Sanborne Hour, he dominated the form from 1931-54. He was also big on tv from 1950-55, primarily for his show the Colgate Comedy Hour, which was successful for its first two years, but then a heart attack robbed Cantor of all of his strength and vitality and greatly reduced the energy of his performance. The tv Cantor was very different from the one of the films. Heavier, huskier, he was no longer the skinny “nance” of the 20s and 30s, but a grandfather whose appeal lay primarily in nostalgia.

Cantor’s last recording date was in 1957. Much of his final years were given to causes. Cantor founded the March of Dimes, for example. He had been a founding member of Actor’s Equity, AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild, and was a big supporter of Israel upon its founding. Eddie Cantor passed away in 1964, far, far away from the basement he’d shared with his grandmother.

Interesting tidbit : Cantor had five daughters (who’d he always put on his radio and tv shows throughout the years). One of them, Natalie, was married to actor and performer Robert Clary, known to millions as “Le Beau” from Hogan’s Heroes.

And of course in recent years he’s coming back into the public’s consciousness somewhat as a character on Boardwalk Empire:

To learn about the roots 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.


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


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