The Second Act: Notable Vaudevillians


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Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: We so enjoyed doing our history of vaudeville podcast that we decided we'd like to talk about some notable performers. So we put out a call on our Twitter, MissedinHistory, and on our Facebook fan page to see what you guys would like to hear. These are all listener suggestions. The first one comes from a Twitter follower who said that if we didn't do this, he would spite our adorable voices. I don't know what that means, but I wasn't willing to risk it. So we're going to start with the Marx brothers.

Sarah Dowdey: Welcome to the Sarah and Katie Vaudeville Show.

Katie Lambert: Sketch 1: The Marxes: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, and Zeppo, also known as Julius, Arthur, Leonard, Milton, and Herbert. I think you have to admit that Zeppo is an improvement on Herbert.

Sarah Dowdey: Herbert Marx doe not sound particularly exciting.

Katie Lambert: It's not really stagey. Gummo and Zeppo, of course, were out of the act by 1935, but the others became quite famous. I'm sure you've hard of them.

Sarah Dowdey: The Marx brothers were the sons of Jewish-German immigrants, and they grew up in Manhattan's east side.

Katie Lambert: They began in vaudeville as singers, but soon switched to a comedy act. A lot of it was based on immigrant stereotypes and accents, like an Italian accent for one, and a German accent. They became stars at The Palace.

Sarah Dowdey: Even though they were playing up this immigrant-based comedy, they surprisingly didn't fall back on a lot of "Jewish humor" like some of the other vaudeville acts we'll talk about later. Most of their sketches were actually sort of waspy types of settings.

Katie Lambert: There are subtle allusions to relevant issues. An article in American Scholar that I was reading recounts a scene from their movie "Monkey Business." I'm quoting from the article. "Groucho snidely informs an Indian chief, 'If you don't like our country, you can go back to where you came from.' Earlier in the film after a horrendous pun by Chico, Groucho turns to face the camera and declares, 'There's my argument. Restrict immigration.' This at a time when the Immigration Restriction League had warned against the corrupting influence of physically, morally, and politically "degenerate" Jews."

Sarah Dowdey: But while this is the kind of this politically outrageous sketch, they also did a lot of outrageous physical comedy and outrageous costumes, blond wigs, the Italian accents we talked about, painted-on mustaches, anarchy, and slapstick. That was their deal.

Katie Lambert: That was the name of the game. I was watching a scene before this from "A Night at the Opera," which is possibly their most popular film on YouTube. You've got Groucho with his cigar and his glasses, and a bushy mustache and eyebrows, and he keeps inviting more and more people into this tiny little room with more and more quips about how crowded it is. It's like a clown car. He keeps saying stuff like, "Tell them to send up a bigger room, too, will ya?" Then another woman opens the door, and everyone comes flying out. That's one of their most famous scenes.

Sarah Dowdey: A lot of the folks we're going to talk about later have really successful careers beyond vaudeville, and that's really why we know them today. If you're going to think of one of the Marx brothers going on like that, it's definitely gotta be Groucho. He's the guy most people consider to be the real star of the operation.

Katie Lambert: He ended up on Long Island hanging out with all the rich people and feeling terribly out of place by his own accounts. A lot of their work before this too had ended up playing on the idea of exclusion and people feeling out of place, so we're just continuing the theme a bit.

Sarah Dowdey: Our second act is going to be Evelyn Nesbit. Obviously, vaudeville wasn't all about comedy routines like the Marx brothers' . We've got chorus girls too, and Evelyn Nesbit is kind of the epitome of a chorus girl. She's the first major it girl of the 20th century. For a time, she might've been one of the most famous people in the United States.

Katie Lambert: She was born in 1884, and her father's early death forced the teenaged Nesbit to get into modeling and acting. She ended up being drawn by Charles Dana Gibson.

Sarah Dowdey: So she's a Gibson Girl.

Katie Lambert: That's pretty cool. She gets into entertainment and performance. She enters Broadway as one of the Florodora girls who were pretty, prim young women being serenaded by men in frock coats.

Sarah Dowdey: We actually have a line from that act. The gentleman would say, "Pretty, tell me, pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you?" to which the maidens would reply, "There are a few, kind sir, but simple girls and proper too." You remember from our earlier podcast on vaudeville, the family friendliness of the acts was a big thing. They had to be not too risqué.

Katie Lambert: Even if it comes across as slightly creepy. So at 16, she took up with a man named Stanford White who was 46 and had designed things like the Washington Square arch, so he's a notable figure. He supported her and her family. He wined and dined her, and her sit on his red velvet swing and kick at a wall of paper parasols, his own particular fetish.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a very creepy fetish. Eventually, their relationship turns abusive when he rapes her after she's passed out. She calls him a benevolent vampire. She feels like she can't leave him after this. She's got kind of a mixed idea about it her whole life though. She says that he's the only man, who she ever loved, but by the time she's 17, he's mostly interested in really young girls, and she's sort of starting to look for new beaus.

Katie Lambert: John Barrymore is one of the men who's available, as is a man named Harry K. Thaw. Thaw was a millionaire son of a railroad/coal baron. He lived in a castle over his mills, and begged Miss Nesbit to marry him and his millions, even though the other showgirls gossiped about how he whipped girls, so again, clearly we're not getting into a good relationship.

Sarah Dowdey: No, and she manages to hold him off for a while. She's stills somewhat involved with Stanford White. White actually gets her into a New Jersey boarding school for a time to study music and literature. The school is run by Cecil B. DeMille's mother, too, on a side note. She eventually has an operation for what is officially disclosed as appendicitis, and after she's recuperated enough, Thaw takes Evelyn and her mother abroad. This is where things get really bad. Her mother is very disturbed by Thaw's mood swings. He's sadistic and goes from just worshipping the two of them to freaking out at waiters, yanking off tablecloths. She's really bothered by this, so she leaves her daughter alone with him. Their relationship, too, gets violent. He whips her and betas her, and finally gets her to confess the details about her relationship with Stanford White. He's just driven mad by jealously at this point. He's always wanted to save her from Stanford White, but he hates that their relationship was sexual.

Katie Lambert: After a second trip to Europe, Evelyn gets appendicitis again, at which point you have to make the conclusion that perhaps it wasn't appendicitis that's the issue. We're talking about abortion. This is when she finally agrees to marry Thaw, who is still completely obsessed with White.

Sarah Dowdey: At a 1906 performance, Thaw finally runs into Stanford White and shoots him. This becomes just the most sensational trial you can imagine. It's called the crime of the century, even though I think we're kind of jumping the gun.

Katie Lambert: It's a little early.

Sarah Dowdey: It's 1906. The first trial is a hung jury. The second acquits Thaw by reason of insanity. Nesbit actually testifies after this huge monetary promise from Thaw's mother, which she never ends up receiving. Her testimony, she actually holds her own during it.

Katie Lambert: The story of her life was made into a film, "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing," which clearly is not as innocuous as it might sound. She died in 1967. One of the favorite tidbits we came across researching her was a headline from the New York Times from 1907.

Sarah Dowdey: That headline is "Baby Named Evelyn Nesbit: Father in Kalamazoo Rejected, but Mother Had Her Way." The news doesn't get any better than that, I think.

Katie Lambert: Next on the stage, we have one W.C. Fields whose comedy shtick was about being misanthropic, hating women and children, antiestablishment, and quite fond of the bottle.

Sarah Dowdey: He might kind of remind you of Larry David, actually, "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Katie Lambert: But better, I think. My first experience with W.C. Fields was when I was a small child, and it was scarring. I was at MGM studios and went up to the W.C. character and asked for his autograph in my little book. He told me how awful children were, and I cried. My mom tried to explain to me that he was a comedian and that's what he did, but I think she was angry on my behalf.

Sarah Dowdey: That's really maybe not a good character to have at MGM walking around talking to the kids.

Katie Lambert: If you've never seen him, he's very recognizable. He's this round man in a top hat with a big, red bulbous nose.

Sarah Dowdey: He was born William Claude Dukenfield in 1880, and he was of a British background. He had a pretty complicated home life, as almost all of our vaudevillians do. Some describe it as happy, others as miserable. It was probably sort of a mixture of the two.

Katie Lambert: He described himself as a bratty, repulsive child. He started his career as a juggler in his teens. His act on the vaudeville stage was a juggling tramp. He also went on to the Ziegfeld Follies before becoming a movie star. He wrote a lot of his own stuff for the movies, but under really awesome synonyms like Mahatma Kane Jeeves. If you've ever heard Mae West's famous movie line, "Come up and see me sometime," the other half of that was Fields who responded, "Mm, I will, my little chickadee."

Sarah Dowdey: But Fields also fit the stereotype of the comedian as a haunted man. His marriage to his wife, Hattie, was pretty rough. He met her onstage, and he wouldn't give up his life as a traveling performer. We've learned already about these vaudevillians traveling on huge circuits all the time, a different city every night practically. She wouldn't divorce him because she was Catholic, so they just had this long, drawn-out, very unhappy relationship.

Katie Lambert: He was estranged from his son, Claude, and had a tense relationship even with his mistress and a nonexistent one with his illegitimate son. But he put this all into his work. Some of the kid and wife characters, which are never, ever flattering, are very obviously based on his own family, sometimes they're even named by their names.

Sarah Dowdey: Possibly in part because of his loneliness and the hardness of his life, he's driven to alcoholism. He spends his later years in pretty bad health and also got the reputation of being pretty difficult to work with. That's what made his career flounder later on.

Katie Lambert: Not that Hollywood was treating him the way he'd like. He was being offered complete dreck, to be honest. He later switched to radio, finding that it served him a bit better. But again, he was in ill health, and he had cirrhosis from his drinking. Supposedly, he was drinking a case of gin a week by the time he ended up in the hospital. In the weeks before he died, he was said to have been found reading the Bible. When his friends saw him - he was known for hating religion among many, many other things - they asked him why. He said he was looking for loophole.

Sarah Dowdey: W.C. Fields didn't just like gin, though, apparently, because one of his most famous quotes is, "I like children - fried."

Katie Lambert: Perhaps with some ranch or blue cheese on the side. That brings us to our next act.

Sarah Dowdey: Our next act is Bojangles, who was one of the most famous soft-shoe and tap dancers of his age.

Katie Lambert: He was born Luther Robinson on May 25th, 1878 in Richmond, Virginia, and his parents died when he was just an infant, so he was raised by his grandmother. He didn't get a lot of education and started dancing at age six for pennies at beer gardens, which is the saddest little story.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. But he must be pretty good at it, because at age 12, he joins a traveling company, The South Before the War, and eventually goes on a vaudeville circuit. His agent, Marty Forkins, helps make him really famous, launch him into that lower level of vaudeville to the headliner act. He's eventually performing for white audiences, starring in "Blackbirds of 1928," and putt ing on this dapper, genteel front from then on. He does soft-shoe and tap. You can think of him as one of the great dance step originators, too. He invents something called the stair dance. A kind of strange thing about him, he's as good at running backward as most people are running forwards.

Katie Lambert: Eventually, he became a film star too. He was in "The Little Colonel," "In Old Kentucky," "The Littlest Rebel," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," and he was often partnered with little Shirley Temple.

Sarah Dowdey: He makes a lot of money, up to $6,600 in a week for a time, but he dies poor because he's very generous to his friends and to people in need, but he's also got a pretty bad gambling habit, especially gambling on the Yankees, which there was an article about why he might be the biggest Yankees fan of all time. He would even arrange his schedule around the games and owned part of the New York black Yankees as well.

Katie Lambert: He was an honorary mayor of Harlem before he died November 25th, 1949 in New York. Now we're going to talk about someone we got a lot of requests for, Fanny Bryce.

Sarah Dowdey: Fanny Bryce was one of the great comediennes and signers of vaudeville.

Katie Lambert: She was born Fania Borach in 1891 to immigrant parents. Her mother was from Budapest, her father from Alsace. She hailed from the lower east side. Her parents owned a saloon there, but her dad was kind of a deadbeat and a gambler. Fanny herself wasn't very fond of school.

Sarah Dowdey: She did like singing though, and after she sang a song in an amateur contest called "When You Know You're Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can't Forget," she won $5.00, and she was just hooked on the stage at that point. She dropped out of school after eighth grade, and her career shoots off right from there.

Katie Lambert: It didn't exactly start off shiningly. She got hired and then quickly fired for a George M. Cohan show, and then ended up with a touring company that went broke, so her next option was burlesque. This was when she changed her name, possibly to sound less Jewish. Her big break was singing Sadie Salome Go Home. To give you some sample lyrics from the song, "Don't do that dance, I tell you Sadie," "Most everybody knows that I'm your loving Mose. Oy, oy, oy, oy, where is your clothes?" It's a funny take on what's supposed to be a sexy scene, a disrobing Salome. The notable thing about this is that she sang it in a Yiddish accent, but she didn't know any Yiddish. They thought she "looked Jewish," and so she was encouraged to fake the accent by Irving Berlin, no less, and that's when she made her mark as Jewish comedienne.

Sarah Dowdey: She goes on to become a big success in the Ziegfield Follies, but it wasn't all good times for Fanny Brice. For one thing, at least part of her chafed at being categorized as a comic actress! That's not all she wanted to do.

Katie Lambert: She wanted to broaden her repertoire into drama and become a serious actress, but no one was interested in Fanny Brice as a dramatist. They were interested in her as a comedienne only. She also married badly to a man named Nicky Arnstein, who happened to be an adulteress and possibly bigamist thief.

Sarah Dowdey: It's just one step up from Evelyn Nesbit there.

Katie Lambert: He went to Sing Sing for wiretapping and later to Leavenworth after $5 million in bonds mysteriously disappeared, but she wouldn't leave him. He left her and their kids first, and she finally decided to get a divorce.

Sarah Dowdey: But he did inspire her famous torch song, "My Man," which we have a few lyrics from. "Its cost me a lot, but there's one thing that I've got. It's my man."

Katie Lambert: That's the one serious thing she did that people loved. It was an older song that had been translated, but her version of it was something that was difficult to forget. When she sang, it was clear she was singing about Arnstein. Since his rather criminal pursuits were fairly public, people knew what it meant.

Sarah Dowdey: In the 1920s, she gets a nose job, and this is partly her own idea of how to escape this role that she's been typecast in. She stars in some more films. They flop. She ends up marrying Bill Rose, and that doesn't really work out either.

Katie Lambert: She found some real stardom in radio with a character called Baby Snooks who was a bratty little girl and who didn't have an accent.

Sarah Dowdey: Because she didn't have an accent in that program, she felt like it gave her better mass appeal.

Katie Lambert: The movie "Funny Girl," with Barbara Streisand, is said to have been modeled after her life. I have to give a research mention to the Jewish Women's Archive at www.JWA.org, which was really helpful with this one. That brings us to our next act, which is Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. At the time we're recording this, June Havoc recently died, so this is fairly timely. If you've heard of or seen the musical "Gypsy," the movie version has Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. It's based on Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir and patterns their mother, Mama Rose, as the most insane stage mother you've ever heard of. June hated the musical. She's quoted as saying, "Mother was very prim, and she was tiny and lovely with big blue eyes. She was endearing and alluring beyond belief. If she had drive and ambition, what's wrong with that?" That's the word from June Havoc.

Sarah Dowdey: Louise Rose Hovick was born in Seattle and June Hovick in Vancouver. Supposedly Louise weighed a whopping 12 pounds, but won a healthy baby contest nevertheless. After their parents' marriage ended, Mama Rose saw the stage as salvation for the family.

Katie Lambert: Louise wasn't great at singing or dancing, but June was a natural. She was on the vaudeville stage at 18 months. Baby June, as her personage was known, was famous and making major money by age six, but she wanted to grow up and stop being Dainty June, her name after she outgrew Baby. At 13, she married a boy she met on the stage, and her mother promptly tried to shoot him. We do have to make a note that the mom also had a bunch of forged birth certificates, so who knew how old she really was.

Sarah Dowdey: After June got married and left show business, life was tough for her. After all, it's the Depression and times are hard for anyone.

Katie Lambert: She and her husband entered a marathon dance contest when you literally danced 'til you dropped. If you won, you'd get fed. If you didn't, well, you were the one who dropped on the floor. Her marriage wasn't working, but they stayed together for professional reasons. She went on to be a success though. Although not as famous as her sister, she wrote and directed plays, wrote a memoir, performed on Broadway. She acted on film. June did pretty well for herself, and she was quoted in the New York Times saying, "My sister was beautiful, and clever, and ruthless. My mother was endearing, and adorable, and lethal. They were the same person. I was the fool of the family, the one who thought I really was loved for me, for myself."

Sarah Dowdey: Moving on to Gypsy, life wasn't easy for her either. She's not the cute or the charming one, and Mama Rose makes them shoplift and lie about everything, so she has this very manipulated childhood. It's harder for the not blond, not adorable sister. She plays a boy in their act most of the time, just a tough stage life.

Katie Lambert: When June left, Louise finally had a chance in the dancing daughters to make her name, but this was during vaudeville's dying breaths. Instead, she turned to stripping in seedy places, but soon she'd polished her act. She made it funny and sexy instead of just bump and grind. She wasn't even fully naked, and she became a star. Everyone came to see her. Supposedly, her mother's dying words were about taking Louise to the grave with her. That's the last word on Mama Rose.

Sarah Dowdey: Our final act for the show is Winsor McCay, who is a newspaper cartoonist and an animation pioneer. He's going to play into vaudeville though. I promise. He was born in 1867, and in his early 20s, he worked as a poster and a billboard artist. He eventually gets a job as an illustrator and cartoonist in Cincinnati, moves to New York, develops two pretty popular strips there, and by 1905, he's made his most famous creation, which is Little Nemo in Slumberland. I used to have a Little Nemo comic book. It's pretty cool. If you've never seen it, you should look it up. Really surrealist! There's not much plot because, after all, they're dreams. They're just the beautifully rendered drawings and really unconventional in how they're laid out on the page.

Katie Lambert: In 1909, he had a very popular vaudeville act where he did speed drawings of his cartoon characters as well as caricatures. If you think watching a cartoonist draw sounds boring, Sarah can assure you that it's not.

Sarah Dowdey: It's really pretty cool to watch a cartoonist speed draw. I saw Cal from The Economist at a Second City performance. Just somebody with a transparency and a pen and they're creating political figures or celebrities who you can recognize with just a few strokes. It's pretty neat.

Katie Lambert: McCay started to play around with animation sometime after this and did an animated versions of Little Nemo that he added to the vaudeville shows, and he followed this with 1912's "How a Mosquito Operates," and in 1914 "Gertie the Dinosaur."

Sarah Dowdey: "Gertie the Dinosaur" was a pretty pioneering film. It was the first feature character created just for an animated film. Before that, the characters had been pulled from the comic strips. It took 10,000 drawings to make up the film, and he had to draw each one by hand because they didn't know how to make a stationary background at this time, sort of like how you'd imagine the Flintstones. There's action going on, and there's just the rubble behind them.

Katie Lambert: Throughout the entire thing.

Sarah Dowdey: Imagine drawing that for every cell.

Katie Lambert: Even though the dino animation was really popular, William Randolph Hearst, a subject of a previous podcast, made McCay stick to print cartoons. His next film wasn't until 1918, "The Sinking of the Lusitania," which used cell animation, cutting down on the drawing time.

Sarah Dowdey: McCay died in 1934, but a lot of his techniques influenced the work of animators later on. A lot of the great Disney movies you think of from the '30s, '40s and '50s are influenced by McCay's work. I guess that brings our vaudeville act to a close.

Katie Lambert: The curtain has closed.

Sarah Dowdey: We have one honorable mention though.

Katie Lambert: That is Joseph Pujol, whose French stage name translates roughly as "The Fartiste," and it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Sarah Dowdey: Yep. He was able to break wind on demand, which obviously brought in some audience members.

Katie Lambert: That one was suggested to us by a Twitter follower, so thank you for that. If you're interested in slightly more conventional pursuits, you could check out our article, "How Juggling Works," if you search our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

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