Vaudeville Star Rae Samuels Tries To “Steal” A Heavily Insured Bottle of Beer
Will Prohibition Be Finished? – The last bottle of beer that was distilled in the U.S.A. before prohibition and that during several years was a fine attraction of theatres and shows in Chicago – Americans like a good joke, will surely “have lived.” This bottle of beer has been insured against “accidents” for $25,000.
You know, it’s funny how some stories change when you start looking into them.
When I first started to write about this news photograph the focus was on the end of prohibition. But then I wondered who was the unidentified woman in the photograph? It turned out that her story was more interesting than the beer bottle and the end of prohibition.
The woman being “pinched” by the cop is Rae Samuels, for over 20 years one of vaudeville’s biggest stars, earning $2,500 per week. She is so forgotten today that she does not even have a Wikipedia page.
Why Rae Samuels posed for this picture is a mystery. Maybe just publicity for Schlitz beer and the impending end of Prohibition. Maybe the famous last bottle was in a theatre Rae was appearing in. So far I have not found a newspaper that ran the photo.
There is another photograph of Rae Samuels (seen here on the right) from this same photo session which is in the Associated Press’ archive and dated December 29, 1930. On the back of top photo of Rae & the policeman it is clearly dated December 30, 1932, so there is confusion on the date.
In researching Rae’s life, confusion on dates is the norm, as theatrical people seem to change dates and stories at will.
According to Social Security records, Rachel “Rae” Samuels was born in Youngstown, OH May 3, 1889, one of ten children born to immigrant Welsh and Irish parents. Other accounts say her birth year is 1887. Rae loved performing as a child and won her first amateur contest at age 13. She said her professional career started when she was in her teens, singing illustrated songs in a Chicago movie theatre.
Rae said, “No sum of money however large looms as big in the imagination as the first money we ever earn. The salary was $35 a week. Nothing I’ve earned since has given me as much of a thrill as that. I was so sure that $35 was all the money in the world that it never occurred to me to look for anything better. The fact that I had eight performances a day and ten on Sunday didn’t seem unusual or hard work. My enthusiasm was simply tremendous.”
A Chicago newspaperman who acted as an unofficial talent scout heard Rae at the theatre and was very impressed with the teen. The newspaperman brought her to the attention of the head of the local Orpheum circuit who went to see Rae and offered her a spot touring. From that point on Rae’s career was off and running touring the vaudeville circuit and working her way up to headliner with her attractive looks and strong voice.
Florenz Ziegfeld caught one of Rae’s performances on tour and in 1912 he quickly signed the burgeoning star. Rae made her New York debut at The Moulin Rouge (formerly the Music Hall at Hammersteins’s Olympia Theatre) in Ziegfeld’s A Winsome Widow on June 3, 1912. On October 21, Rae received one of the feature roles in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1912.
Rae’s manager, Marty Forkins courted her for two years before she agreed to marry him in either 1911 (source: 1930 census record) or 1914 (interviews). They had one child, Patrick, born in 1925.
Rae Samuels would be instrumental in helping propel the career of one of the greatest tap dancers in history, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
The exact year is not specified but Rae Samuels had previously worked on the same bill as Robinson and introduced him to Marty Forkins. Samuels insisted that Forkins sign Robinson as a client.
Watching Robinson dance, it didn’t take long for Forkins to realize that Robinson was immensely talented. Marty Forkins agreed to become Robinson’s agent. Forkins was able to get Robinson great gigs and he became the first black dancer to get solo appearances as a vaudeville headliner. During the teens and twenties Robinson would make over $3,000 per week and go on to international fame in motion pictures as the world’s greatest tap dancer. Forkins and Robinson’s management deal was done on a handshake and the two worked together until Robinson’s death in 1949. In all that time they never had a written contract.
We should also mention the amusing and dubious press version that Forkins often told of how he and Robinson met.
In interviews over the years, Forkins claimed he discovered Robinson around 1907 in a Richmond, VA restaurant working as a busboy or waiter who had spilled either coffee or soup on him. The story would vary each time it was told. After spilling the liquid on Forkins, the horrified Robinson fled into the kitchen. The manager of the restaurant came over and apologized to Forkins explaining that Robinson was new on the job and that this was not his real occupation. Robinson was a dancer and had taken the job because he could not get any stage work. “They tell me he’s the best dancer in town,” the manager explained. Forkins told the restaurant manager to arrange an audition because Forkins was a theatrical manager. Robinson passed the audition and Forkins became Robinson’s manager.
Rae Samuels worked a wide field performing as a comedienne, usually playing a “rube”; in minstrel shows; and was skilled in Jewish and Italian dialect sketches. But her real strength was in her choices of songs to sing and singing them unlike any other performer.
In 1918 Samuels introduced Irving Berlin’s classic Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning at The Palace Theatre. A contemporary account of the performance says the crowd of soldiers in the audience wildly approved Berlin’s song and Samuels’ rendition.
Samuels billed herself as “the blue streak of vaudeville,” not just for the racy songs she sometimes performed but because she flashed on the scene suddenly and unexpectedly. Her performances were described as “self-assured and full of exuberance as she sings in her own inimitable way.” The Louisville Courier said of her, “Magnetism is her chief asset. She puts over a song in a way which cannot be denied.”
In 1921 the Los Angeles Times wrote of Samuels, “Rae is like no other performer: she has a way of her own, and it is so good she has never been equaled in her field. It is useless to ‘describe’ Rae; one might as well try to analyze a sunbeam or distill moonshine. Suffice it to say she still is Rae: that she has a better line of songs than ever before, and that she jumps here from New York as the first part of a series of big name stars to play the Orpheum.”
When Rae was asked how she put so much buoyancy into her work she answered, “I guess it’s just a trick of feeling the rhythm. When I sing a ragtime song, everything about me – my head and hand and feet and voice – all want to swing right in and do something to mark time, just as soon as the music starts. And oh ragtime is so much more inviting that way than even a waltz or military march! You just have to swing with it – you just have to, that’s all.”
By the early 1930s Samuels career had slowed down as vaudeville was dying and for whatever reason, she did not transition herself into motion pictures. Samuels appeared in one film, a 20 minute short in 1933 called The Big Benefit in which Bill Robinson also appeared. Samuels sang one song in the film, Poppa’s Back With Momma Now. Searching multiple archives, this is the only recorded performance of Rae Samuels available online. After 1935 Rae Samuels stopped performing and concentrated on being Mrs. Forkins.
Marty Forkins died October 5, 1966 at the age of 76. Rae Samuels died in Mahwah, NJ in anonymity on October 25, 1979 at the age of 90. Except for her own family who placed an obituary notice in the New York Times, only one newspaperman in the country noted her passing. On November 20, 1979, four weeks after Rae’s death, Jack O’Brian’s “Voice of Broadway” syndicated column gave condolences to her family.