6 Women of Vaudeville
Madonna, Angelina Joelie and Jennifer Tilly are all female entertainers that many people are familiar with but what about some of the female entertainers that came before them in the long past and often forgotten decades before them or even before actresses like Bette Davis or Audrey Hepburn. In vaudeville there were so many entertainers and some of the film stars that are known got their starts in vaudeville due to vaudeville including many different kinds of acts. To do justice to all of the stars of vaudeville would take many days, so here are a few of the female performers from vaudeville both well-known and not so well-known.
"She wasn't the prettiest or the skinniest and quite intentionally her costumes were outrageous, but for over twenty years she was the favorite of both critics and audiences" (Slide, 2012). For her generation she was American vaudeville; she was the greatest female star for majority of vaudeville's existence (Slide, 2012).
Eva Tanguay was born August 1, 1878 in Marbleton, Canada (Slide, 2012). Her father was a Parisian doctor who was out for adventure on the Canadian frontier; but when he died in her early childhood it left the family destitute (Trav, 2009). Her parents had immigrated to Holyoke, Massachusetts when she was young; there at the age of ten she sang in the church choir and appeared in amateur nights at Parson's Hall (Slide, 2012). With the Rose Stahl Repertoire Company she played child parts for five years; she toured with the company as Cedric Errol in Little Lord Fauntleroy (Slide, 2012).
She performed very suggestive songs in a very inimitable way and delivered it in so blatant a manner that proved the point of her most famous song "I Don't Care"; and she actually didn't care what people thought of her no matter who they were (Slide, 2012). She was as much a tempest offstage as she was on stage (Slide, 2012). During an interview with Variety in 1908 Tanguay admitted that she knew that her crazy behavior is what her success in part relied on, and because she acted in an insane manner that audiences kept flocking back to see what she would do next (Slide, 2012). She seemed to be eternally young during her performances and those who had grown up watching her were able to forget the passing years; just by watching her changeless, ageless frantic gyrations (Slide, 2012). Though she acted crazy and seemed ageless, Tanguay understood the value of self-promotion (Miller, 2006). From many of her antics she often was billed as "The Genius of Mirth and Song" and "The Evangelist of Joy" (Miller, 2006).
By 1910 Tanguay was the highest salaried star in vaudeville beating out Ethel Barrymore by five hundred dollars; she was asking for and getting three thousand five hundred dollars a week (Slide, 2012). She was demanding a weekly salary of ten thousand dollars and a guarantee of three years work before she would star in any films in 1916, no production company took her up on it so she opened her own production company and starred in two films; Energetic Eva in 1916 and The Wild Girl in 1917 (Slide, 2012). Most of her songs like "I Want Somebody to Go Wild with Me" in 1913 or "Go as Far as You Like" also in 1913 never achieved any lasting fame like "I Don't Care" did (Slide, 2012). She began to bill herself as "The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous" (Trav, 2009).
She left vaudeville for three years but she came back May 1930 opening with "Back Doing Business at the Same Old Stand" followed by "Mae West, Texas, and Me"; a comedy number about how the mob had declared that she, West and Texas were "The Unholy Three" (Slide, 2012). Prior to this come back Tanguay had lost her fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and suffered from medical problems (Miller, 2006). In the early 1930s her vision had been dramatically affected by cataracts; with an operation paid for by her admirer Sophie Tucker, Tanguay's sight was restored (Miller, 2006). She was destitute and dependent on charity from the National Vaudeville Association and former colleagues by 1933 (Slide, 2012). She dropped out of public view and became reclusive in her Hollywood home when vaudeville died (Slide, 2012). She became further reclusive in 1937 when arthritis slowed her down (Miller, 2006). On her sixty-eighth birthday she gave an interview with the Los Angeles Times telling the reporter of her hopes of a film based on her life; this didn't come to pass during her lifetime, the film The I Don't Care Girl wasn't released until 1952 after her death (Slide, 2012). Her once vast fortune had dwindled down to five hundred dollars by the time of her death in Hollywood on January 11, 1947 (Miller, 2006).
Eva singing "I Don't Care"
"Her vigorous, virile dancing was augmented by Character patter, thus cementing her credentials in the small historic pantheon of important drag kings" (Trav, 2011). Kitty Doner was one of the best known American male impersonators and was considered the only one on par with Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields, who were the best known performers of the art (Slide, 2012).
She was born in Chicago in 1895 to Joe Doner of Manchester, England and Nellie of London, England both were performers in their own right; before they married Nellie was a popular principle boy in British pantomime (Slide, 2012). After Nellie and Joe married they joined their pantomime acts together to create the act "The Escaped Lunatics" (Slide, 2012). From this background Kitty was a second generation vaudevillian that appeared to perfectly splice her parents' talents (Trav, 2011). When it was time for her to join her parents on the stage her dad dressed her as a boy and said "She might as well get started dressed as a boy because she's not pretty enough to compete with the beautiful girls in show business"; when she reflected on this while explaining some of the reasons on why she became a male impersonator (Slide, 2012). During that reflection she had said that because she was the first born she felt that her father was disappointed that she wasn't a boy and that she became sort of gawky as she grew up and with all of this compounding to help push her in the direction of impersonation (Slide, 2012).
She never did impersonations of well-known men, so her impersonations were unique unto themselves just as much as her female impressions were (Slide, 2012). She gained the title of "The Best Dressed Man on the American Stage" from her vaudeville act "A League of Song Steps"; and in 1922 she had an engagement in England, the home of male impersonation, where she topped the bill at London's Victoria Palace (Slide, 2012). Her brother and sister, Ted and Rose, were also in show business and they would often perform with her in vaudeville (Slide, 2012). In her first show, "The Candy Shop", she appeared in both male and female attire; it opened in 1912 at the Gaiety Theatre in San Francisco and as far as the West Coast was concerned she made her reputation with that show (Slide, 2012).
1914 is when her biggest break came, when she signed to play opposite of Al Jolson in Dancing Around , which at the Winter Garden Theater on October 10, 1914 (Slide, 2012). She and Jolson worked together at least twice more in Robinson Crusoe Jr. on February 17, 1916 and in Sinbad on February 14, 1918; and while they were working together on these productions they were also romantically involved with each other (Slide, 2012). Her weekly vaudeville salary through the 20s averaged about one thousand dollars and when she toured with the William Fox circuit in 1927 she was paid one thousand five hundred dollars a week (Slide, 2012).
Aside from her half dozen Broadway appearances, she had made it to the big time on vaudeville putting in many appearances at The Palace (Trav, 2011). Besides her stage appearances she had one on-screen appearance in 1928 in a Warner Brothers short A Bit of Scotch which she was paid one thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars for (Slide, 2012). On November 26, 1924 a Variety article had this to say about Kitty Doner: "If our cousins across the pond think they have a patent on the raising of male impersonators, they ought to get a load of this baby. In male clothes, she is as masculine as a Notre Dame guard, and in female togs as feminine as bare legs. As a dancer, she is in a class by herself" (Slide, 2012). She was a performer that adapted to the times as they changed; on November 25, 1934 she admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle "There ain't any vaudeville, but some people won't believe it" (Slide, 2012). Her act was the first complete stage act to be televised over a radius of over 100 miles, when on August 1, 1931 she performed her act on top of New York's Vanderbilt Hotel in front of a CBS television camera (Slide, 2012). She retired from performing in the 1930s but she worked in other jobs, even in her last decades she worked as a choreographer (Trav, 2011). During the 1940s she was a show director for Holiday on Ice, then in 1950 and 1951 she was responsible for auditioning the talents for Ted Mack's Amateur Hour (Slide, 2012). She died in Los Angeles on August 26, 1988; she lived for roughly 93 years and she spent majority of that time bringing entertainment to many audiences (Slide, 2012).
There are very few comediennes that are as fondly remembered or well known as Marie Dressler from vaudeville and the golden age of the motion pictures (Slide, 2012). There was a time that she was the highest paid star in the movie industry; earning more than Greta Garbo or even Mickey Mouse (Garrick, 1997).
Marie Dressler was born as Leila Koerber in Cobourg, Ontario on November 9, 1869 to Alexander Rudolph Koerber and Annie Henderson of Port Hope (Garrick, 1997). Her father was Austrian born, and he was an excellent musician who had taught music by his own method at Princeton University (Garrick, 1997). He had one problem though, his temper often got in the way of the family having a permanent home so they were always on the move (Garrick, 1997). Her mother would often put on short dramas for the community; during one of these dramas she dressed five year old Leila up as a cherub, placed her on a pedestal and told her not to move (Garrick, 1997). The young girl did as she was told but a curtain came loose and swept her off of the pedestal into the lap Lindsay's greatest "ladies man" causing the audience to laugh; this instant influenced the young girl to play the clown in her early years (Garrick, 1997).
At the age of 14 she wrote to the Nevada Traveling Stock Company requesting a job; she told them that she was 18 and an accomplished actress, without an audition she was hired (Garrick, 1997). In her later years she would look back on the company and call it "A cheap dramatic company of eleven but a wonderful school" (Garrick, 1997). To save her family from embarrassment she changed her name to Marie Dressler, after an aunt (Garrick, 1997). Unfortunately this job didn't last very long, the company got stranded in Michigan without any funds causing her to walk along the railroad ties going from Edmore to Saginaw to rejoin her family (Garrick, 1997). After that she joined the Robert Grau Opera Company as a chorus member where she earned eight dollars a week (Garrick, 1997). When the leading lady, Agnes Halleck, broke her ankle the company asked Dressler to take on the role of Katisha in The Mikado; through her career she would play this role a total of sixty-seven times (Garrick, 1997).
Due to her insistence of being paid regularly it led Grau to become annoyed with her and she sent her to Philadelphia claiming that a job would be waiting for her there; there was no job waiting for her (Garrick, 1997). Even though she had been tricked out of her job she didn't let that get her down and she simply checked the paper and found that the Starr Opera Company was in town (Garrick, 1997). She begged them for a job, but with the help of two actresses that had known her on the road and the manager, Mr. Deshon, who was outraged at the way she had been treated she got an audition and a job with the company (Garrick, 1997). After this she started moving from stock company to stock company until she arrived in New York, where she started out singing at the Atlantic Garden on the Bowery and Koster and Bial's Twenty-third Street Theatre (Slide, 2012). Broadway at this time consisted of musical comedy, serious drama, vaudeville, and burlesque; giving performers the choice of the form of entertainment that they wished to perform in (Garrick, 1997). On May 28, 1892 Dressler appeared in her first Broadway role, unfortunately the show was very unsuccessful and closed early (Garrick, 1997).
Then on November 24, 1893 at the Casino Theatre Dressler opened with Lillian Russell in Princess Nicotine; with its long successful run on Broadway the show went on tour of the country thus making Dressler well known across America (Garrick, 1997). Four years after Dressler first reached Broadway she had a real triumph with her performance as Flo Honeydew in The Lady Slavey (Garrick, 1997). It played for two years and then went on tour, but Dressler got sick and she returned to New York; her manager, A.E. Erlanger then accused her of shamming and got her blacklisted on the New York stages (Garrick, 1997). This blacklisting caused her to take to the road again, this time with the Rich and Harris Touring Company where she played Dottie Dimple in Courted Into Court, sang African-American songs, danced the "cakewalk" and continued to work with facial expressions (Garrick, 1997).
When she did return to New York she continued to work in musical comedy and vaudeville (Garrick, 1997). At the turn of the century she had become a favorite in vaudeville and burlesque with her impersonations and "coon" songs (Slide, 2012). Later parts of her costumes would become her trademark; she designed and made all of her costumes herself so that she could use the latest fashion fads to make outrageous dresses (Garrick, 1997). Being daring and adventurous Dressler decided to play the Palace Theatre in London, she did this particular show for thirty weeks and had an overwhelmingly positive response from the audience (Garrick, 1997). From the previous positive responses she then planned and tried two more shows in London but they failed and she fell into debt (Garrick, 1997). To work off this debt she had to work the vaudeville circuits for two years to become financially solvent (Garrick, 1997). In January of 1907 she offered impersonations of Mrs. Leslie Carter and Blanche Bates from the legitimate stage and she sang her almost theme song "A Great Big Girl Like Me" (Slide, 2012).
On May 5, 1910 Dressler introduced her character Tillie Blobbs in Tillie's Nightmare, "A melange of mirth and melody", at New York's Herald Square Theatre; during this performance she sang the song "Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl" (Slide, 2012). Due to the success of this production she was invited by Mack Sennett to star in the 1914 feature-length film Tillie's Punctured Romance; the film didn't help Dressler's career but it did help her co-stars Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand (Slide, 2012). She later stared in the following sequels Tillie's Tomato Surprise in 1915 and Tillie Wakes Up in 1917 (Slide, 2012). Throughout the first World War Dressler worked incessantly selling Liberty Bonds, but once the war was over so was her Broadway career (Garrick, 1997). During all of this she was still fairly active in musical comedies and in vaudeville, she also took part in the Actor's Equity Strike of 1919 as the head of the chorus girls division (Slide, 2012). In April of 1919 she received a rather small salary, one thousand five hundred dollars, when she headlined at the Palace (Slide, 2012). This appearance was almost the swan song of her career as it started to fall apart in the 1920s with her stage engagements far and few in between, but she did return to the Palace October 1925 and appeared on the "old-timers" bill (Slide, 2012).
She was considering leaving the United States permanently in 1927 to move to Paris and open a small hotel, this was something that she had been thinking about since 1901 (Slide, 2012). Then she landed a supporting role in The Joy Girl in 1927 and it lead to other silent film roles, and it was thanks to MGM screenwriter Frances Marion in large part (Slide, 2012). Dressler proved her worth as an actress when she played opposite of Greta Garbo in the 1930 film Anna Christie, also in the 1930s she played opposite of Polly Moran in a series of comedy shorts and featured films (Slide, 2012). She stared in Dinner at Eight in 1933, and it is still considered a classic like her films Christopher Bean and Tugboat Annie (Slide, 2012). When she took on the role of Min in Min and Bill, she finally reached stardom where she portrayed a housekeeper who sacrifices all of her savings to send the girl she is raising to a private school in hopes of giving the girl a better life (Slide, 2012). This role represented all of the parents of The Great Depression who were sacrificing so that their sons and daughters could have a better tomorrow (Garrick, 1997). For her work opposite Wallace Beery in Min and Bill, Dressler received the Academy Award for Best Actress (Slide, 2012). During her final years she had once more become one of America's favorite entertainers and one of the biggest box office attractions in the early 1930s (Slide, 2012). Even though she died on July 28, 1934 her image lives on in her many films (Garrick, 1997). In a radio tribute to her shortly after her death Will Rogers described her very accurately as "a marvelous personality and a great heart" (Slide, 2012).
Louise Dresser was "A statuesque blond beauty who was once nominated as the natural successor to Lilian Russell"; she was a renowned singer and actress, and a star in both vaudeville and in musical comedies (Slide, 2012). She was born Louise Josephine Kerlin in Evansville, Indiana on October 5, 1878; after the death of her railroad engineer father she joined a burlesque show at the age of fifteen (Slide, 2012). The composer Paul Dresser had known her father and at the age of eighteen they met one another (Slide, 2012). Dresser took Louise under his wing and made her his protégé; he had even suggested that she adopt his last name and pretend to be his sister, this led people to believe that she was also the sister of Dresser's brother Theodore Dreiser (Slide, 2012).
For the first time in Chicago Louise Kerlin became Louise Dresser after her first performance from singing two of Dresser's better known songs "On the Banks of the Wabash" and "My Gal Sal" (Slide, 2012). At the turn of the century she appeared on the vaudeville stage as a singer backed by a group of African-American children; they were billed as Louise Dresser and Her Picks, which was short for pickaninnies (Slide, 2012). Even though her vaudeville engagements with this group was a small part of her career it was a significant part of the relations between Jewish performers and the stage (Kilber, 2009). Usually with acts like this the performers would use some form of a racial masquerade, like racial dialects or makeup; and these masquerades were particularly popular amongst the Jewish community so that they could establish their own American identity (Kilber, 2009).
Dresser's first vaudeville appearance was in the spring of 1906 and the first time that she played the Palace was in 1914; during that same year she expanded her talents as a vaudeville performer by appearing in the playlet A Turn of the Knob (Slide, 2012). At the height of her vaudeville career she was averaging one thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars a week (Slide, 2012). During her career she had been married twice; the first was to composer and vaudevillian Jack Norworth this marriage ended in divorce in 1908, the second was to actor Jack Gardner whom had been the original star of the operetta The Chocolate Soldier and it ended in 1950 with his death (Slide, 2012).
Aside from her vaudeville career, she also had a career on the legitimate stage and on-screen (Slide, 2012). Some of her well known roles on the legitimate stage was: Mrs. Burton in A Matinee Idol in 1912, Ruth Snyder in Potash and Perlmutter in 1913 and Patsy Pygmalion in Hello Broadway! in 1914 (Slide, 2012). 1922 is when she started her screen career, she gave many memorable performances a few of her roles on screen were as Catherine the Great in The Eagle in 1925 and as Empress Elizabeth in The Scarlet Empress in 1934 (Slide, 2012). Though she had many roles that were memorable she is probably best remembered for the films where she was playing opposite of Will Rodgers as his wife; like in State Fair in 1933 and David Harum in 1934 (Kilber, 2009). These roles were so well liked by their fans that to the fans they were actually husband and wife in their minds (Kilber, 2009).
In 1937 Dresser retired from her screen career, but she had planed a comeback for after her husband's death (Slide, 2012). Unfortunately she failed to reappear after his death in 1950 (Slide, 2012). She died in Woodland Hills, California on April 24, 1965 from a complication with a surgery for an intestinal obstruction (Kilber, 2009).
May Irwin was known as "The Dean of Comediennes" and was a legend on both the legitimate stage and in vaudeville (Slide, 2012). She was born Ada May Campbell in 1862 in Whitby, Ontario, Canada to Robert Campbell and May Draper ("May Irwin, actor, " 1998). Her father's death made it so that 13 year old Irwin had to support herself financially ("May Irwin, actor," 1998). She had started singing in the church choir, her sister Flo and she left home and started on the vaudeville stage together at Daniel Shelby's Adelphi Variety Theatre in Buffalo (Slide, 2012). Throughout the Midwest the sisters performed as "coon shouters", singing African American songs like "Don't You Hear dem Bells?" (Slide, 2012). During the sisters' travels and performances they were seen by Tony Pastor in Detroit, after which he brought them to New York to perform in the Metropolitan Theatre in 1877 (Slide, 2012).
In 1883 Flo and May split up when May had been offered a job by Augustin Daly to join his company (Slide, 2012). After joining Daly's stock company she spent several seasons in Toole's Theatre in London ("May Irwin, actor,", 1998). For the 1891-92 season Irwin returned to New York City and she appeared in the farce-comedy Boys and Girls ("May Irwin, actor,", 1998). She performed in a burlesque version of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan, which had imported characters from Hamlet in 1893; during the same year she performed a dance number with wine dummies called A Country Sport ("May Irwin, actor,", 1998). She got her first staring role in The Widow Jones as Beatrice Byke, where she stared opposite John Rice in 1895; the kissing scene from this show was recorded by the Edison Company and became known simply as The Kiss (Slide, 2012).
November of 1907 Irwin returned to vaudeville playing at New York's Orpheum Theatre (Slide, 2012). She topped the bill at the Palace in February of 1915, during this performance she sang "Kentucky Home" and "Those were the Happy Days" and she recited "Father's Old Red Beard" which had been written for her by Irving Berlin (Slide, 2012). Variety's Sime Sliverman gave this review: "As often as May Irwin may wish to return to vaudeville just so often will vaudeville always welcome her with open arms, for vaudeville audiences, regardless of what else may be said of them, never fail to recognize an artist"; of her 1917 Palace appearance (Slide, 2012).
Irwin had managed her money very well and in her later years she had become a millionaire ("May Irwin, actor,", 1998). In 1920 with her second husband and manager, Kurt Eisfeldt, she retired to her farm in the Thousand Island area of New York (Slide, 2012). She and Eisfeldt had two sons during their marriage ("May Irwin, actor,", 1998). She died in New York on October 10, 1938 at the age of 76 years old (Slide, 2012).
First Couple to Kiss on Film
Kathleen Clifford was another one of vaudeville's male impersonators, she was most often described as the American answer to Vesta Tilley (Slide, 2012). Clifford would dress as a very dapper man sporting a monocle to go with her hat and tails, causing her to be billed as "The Smartest Chap in Town" (Slide, 2012).
Kathleen Clifford was born in Charlottesville, Virginia on February 16, 1887; British male impersonators were held in very high regards in vaudeville so more often than not she pretended to have been born in England (Slide, 2012). She started her career in straight musical comedy when she was a teenager, she performed and was featured in the 1907 musical extravaganza The Top o' the' World (Slide, 2012).
As early as 1910 Clifford was active in vaudeville, Variety's Sime Silverman had hailed her as "a dandy looking boy" but it was complained that she didn't carry herself well or how she wore her clothes including the hat (Slide, 2012). She appeared in in films from 1917 through 1928, she didn't always appear in male parts or in parts that required her to be in male disguise (Slide, 2012). Throughout the early 1930s she worked on vaudeville; but in the late 1920s she had been pursing a new occupation as a Hollywood florist (Slide, 2012). She wrote a novel about her years in Hollywood titled It's April...Remember (Slide, 2012). She died in Los Angeles on January 11, 1963; her body was sent to Belgrade, Yugoslavia the former home of her husband and was buried there (Slide, 2012).
The stories of these women echo things that have been shown throughout all of history and what we learn almost every day of our lives. One day you can be on top of everything and then when things change around you and you don't adapt you are going to slide down the hill, causing you to have to climb back up the hill. Some times you will be able to make the come back you desire but other times you won't make it back to the top, it all varies on the things going on around you and your own determination. Through the ups and downs of life these women and others never gave up and kept getting back up to try again.Their stories can inspire the courage that one could need to decide to try to keep trying to accomplish their goals and dreams.
Slide, A. (2012). The encyclopedia of vaudeville. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
May irwin, actor, comedienne and singer (1862-1938). (1998, July 07). Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/gramophone/028011-1013-e.html
Miller, J. (2006, June). Eva tanguay, vaudeville’s star. Retrieved from https://www.thehenryford.org/exhibits/pic/2006/06_june.asp
Trav, S. D. (2009, August 01). Stars of vaudeville
Trav, S. D. (2011, September 07). Stars of vaudeville
Garrick, B. (1997). The dressler story. Retrieved from http://www.mariedressler.ca/marie-bio
Kilber, M. A. (2009). Louise dresser. In Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. Brookline : Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved from http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dresser-louise