Tag Archives: Vaudeville

Old New York In Postcards #15

Postcard Views of 125th Street – The Heart of Harlem 1905-1910

A dreamy view of 125th Street looking east from the elevated station circa 1910

A dreamy colored sky hangs over 125th Street looking east from 8th Avenue circa 1910

What was 125th Street like at the turn of the 20th century? It was the commercial center of a genteel neighborhood, the heart of Harlem. Restaurants, hotels, businesses and entertainment venues lined the prosperous street. 1900 census data shows the area was white with almost no blacks living around the surrounding streets. Residents around the area were primarily Jewish, Italian, German or WASP.

View of 125th Street looking west from 7th Avenue. The Hotel Winthrop is on the left the Harlem Opera House with finials atop its roof is on the right circa 1907.

View of 125th Street looking west from 7th Avenue. The Hotel Winthrop is on the left the Harlem Opera House with finials atop its roof is on the right circa 1907.

By 1910, things were changing and blacks now made up around 10 percent of Harlem’s population.  That gradual change occurred after real estate speculators built apartments when  the subway was being constructed between 1900 and 1904. The anticipated housing boom was a bust and these buildings were slow to fill with white tenants. A shrewd black real estate manager and developer Philip Payton Jr. was instrumental in changing the demographics of Harlem starting at 133rd Street and Lenox Avenue around 1905. Payton seized the opportunity in filling new and vacant buildings with black families. Soon other surrounding blocks were attracting black families.

Another view of 125th Street west of 7th Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.). Keith & Proctor's sign sits atop the vaudeville theater which was formerly The Harlem Opera House circa 1910.

Another view of 125th Street west of 7th Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd.). Keith & Proctor’s sign sits atop the vaudeville theater which was formerly The Harlem Opera House circa 1910.

Continue reading

Rae Samuels & The Last Bottle Of Beer

Vaudeville Star Rae Samuels Tries To “Steal” A Heavily Insured Bottle of Beer

Rae Samuels last bottle of beer Dec 30 1932Will 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. Continue reading

Lois DeFee Bouncer At The Dizzy Club, New York City 1936

Don’t Mess With The Lady

woman bouncer Lois DeFee 1936 photo AcmeLois DeFee started her working life at the age of 18 in an unusual occupation – as a bouncer. A couple of years later she would achieve fame of another sort.

“Little Miss Bouncer”

Gentlemen guests at the Dizzy Club, New York night spot; are polite, especially to Miss Lois DeFee, (shown above), with a waiter of average size. Miss DeFee who stands six feet two inches, without high heels, is the official bouncer at the night club, and has acted in that capacity for seven weeks to the satisfaction of the management. Women drunks give her the most trouble, says Miss DeFee. She has been married twice; one of her husbands was a jockey who was only five feet tall. Yes– she enjoys her work, and Broadway night life in general. Credit Line: (ACME 5/15/36)

Lois DeFee was soon hired away from The Dizzy Club on 52nd street to go work across the street at the more famous Leon & Eddie’s performing the same duties at their nightclub.

Lois was later discovered by Harold Minsky of Minsky’s burlesque and she became a top burlesque star for many years, billed as a “glamazon.” Because of her great height, columnist Walter Winchell billed her as”The Eiffel Eyeful.” Lois died in Florida in 2012 at the age of 93.

1935 – Heavy Women Smoking Cigarettes – Vaudeville Act Takes A Break

The “Tiny Rosebuds” Take A Break From Rehearsing

Heavy Girls Smoking May 11 1935

We’ll let the slug from this unusual news photograph describe the scene:

A Half-Ton of Terpsichore

An act which is liable to bring down the house, (with a crash), is the Tiny Rosebuds, at present rehearsing in New York for a Buffalo appearance. Membership in the troupe is restricted to young ladies weighing at least 200 pounds. Here is the troupe relaxing after a light (heavy) workout. Left to right, are: Nick Elliott, instructor: Hieni Joyce, wgt. 215: Bobbie Diamond, Captain, wgt. 210: Fannie De Belis, wgt. 201: Tiny Sinclair, wgt. 240: and Dorothy Baer, wgt. 230.

Credit Line (Acme) 5-11-1935

The headline uses the word Terpsichore, who in Greek mythology was the muse of dancing and choral singing.

So what sort of an act were the Tiny Rosebuds?

Miss Bobbie Diamond the leader of the Rosebuds, lamented in a May 1935 interview with Raphael Avellar of the New York World-Telegram, how hard it was to pick the right women for the group.

“My Tiny Rosebuds don’t have to be too good looking, just passable. But they have to have the weight and you’d be surprised at the number of girls of 170 or so who try and pass for 200. It’s hard, I tell you, to get a first-class girl, because lots of them who have the weight haven’t got it in the right places. I mean it isn’t on the legs and thighs, where it counts. As I say, as long as they are passable and know a little rhythm, they’ll make good Rosebuds, providing they’ve got the heft. Right now I’m kind of looking for one to sing, too.” Continue reading

Before They Were Famous…

The 4 Nightingales – “Big Hit Everywhere”

4 Nightingales

This rare trade card from 1908 – 1909 advertises a vaudeville group known as “The Four Nightingales.” Two of them went on to worldwide fame. Can you guess who they are?

Scroll down for the answer.

A huge clue is “Minnie Marx Manager”

It is The Marx Brothers. From left to right: Milton “Gummo” Marx, Harpo Marx, Groucho Marx and Lou Levy.

Gummo Marx never appeared in any Marx Brothers film. He retired from the act after World War I to be replaced by brother Herbert “Zeppo” Marx. Gummo later did manage the brothers and was an agent for many Hollywood stars.

Little is known about the act of The Four Nightingales. They began as a singing act and bits of comedy eventually were worked in. Gummo said, “we would sing what were the popular songs of the day – until we sang them”.

Beauties Of The Past – Maude Fealy

Stage and Silent Star Maude Fealy

Maude Fealy 1861u pc Rotary

A new feature of our web site: photos and short biographies of glamor girls of the past.

These are women that were more than just beautiful, they were talented and were able to cut out successful careers for themselves during an era when men dominated the entertainment industry. Of course with the passage of time, many of these stars have dimmed and are now distant memories. We hope to bring them to light again to a wider audience.

Maude Fealy 1149 pc Davidson

Maude at age 8 with mother Margaret Fealy.

Maude at age 8 with mother Margaret Fealy.

Maude Fealy (born Maude Hawk) in Memphis, Tennessee, started her career at the age of 3 in the legitimate theater with her mother, actress Margaret Fealy. Margaret divorced Maude’s father, James Hawk and then went by her maiden name of Fealy and Maude also adopted her mother’s maiden name.

Fealy’s exact birth date was never clearly established and contemporary reports range from March 4, 1881 to 1886. The Social Security Death Index lists her birthday as March 3, 1882

Maude Fealy 3093C pc Philco Maude Fealy 3107D pc philco 1906

Fealy hit the big time just before the turn of the century when theatre impresario Augustin Daly discovered her playing Juliet and signed her to a five year contract. Daly died in 1899, effectively canceling the contract and Fealy was then courted by all the major playwrights to appear in their productions. Fealy quickly became a star in many Broadway and London productions. Among the many plays she appeared in were: Quo Vadis, Sherlock Holmes, The Professor’s Love Story, Heart’s Courageous, The Truth Tellers and On the Quiet. She cemented her reputation as a fine actress by playing the female lead in several of the first British actor ever knighted, Sir Henry Irving’s plays including, Becket, The Lyons Mail, Waterloo and Louis XI.  Continue reading

The Best Woman Presidential Candidate Ever

Comedienne Gracie Allen Enters The 1940 Presidential Race

In this newswire photograph, Gracie Allen, the zany half of the Burns & Allen comedy team “tosses her hat into the ring” to run for President in 1940.

Gracie put out a very funny book after her tongue-in-cheek Presidential run entitled How To Become President (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940) which has enlightening chapters such as:

Government Jobs Pay Big Money

How Not To Offend Anybody

Buying A Good Used Platform

Secrets of Unsuccessful Speechmaking

Even though the candidacy was a plot line for the Burns & Allen weekly comedy radio show, Gracie did a whistlestop tour by train and over 300,000 Americans came out to hear her make campaign speeches in cities along the route.

After “dropping out” of the race in the middle of 1940, Gracie still ended up receiving over 42,000 write-in votes in the November election.

The forgotten story of her candidacy was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. Click here to listen.

Did That Song Just Make Fun of Stuttering?

Speech Impediments Were Fair Game For Early Songwriters

Forget The Who with “My Generation” or David Bowie with “Changes.” Stuttering lyrics were once blatant and over the top. Unlike today where some songs contain stuttering verses,  100 years ago, the stuttering was in the title or subtitle.

In 1907 an imaginative songwriter said to himself, “Hey. I’ve got an idea, I’ll write a song about stuttering, it will be a smash!” But he thought it over, “Hmmm,  that’s been done already. What if I added something about having a lisp?”Maybe that is the way the smash hit, The Boy Who Stuttered and The Girl Who Lisped by Louis Weslyn came to fruition.  Two speech impediments are better than one.

Today it seems politically incorrect (and in bad taste.) If songs like this were being produced today, protesters would be lining up to have the songs banned.

Back then, nothing was thought of it; a stutter or lisp would make perfectly acceptable lyrical content. The more outrageous the lyric, the better. Click here to listen to the song performed in 1908 by Billy Murray and Ada Jones.

The unusual thing is that Billy Murray seemed to be very good at fake stuttering and recorded one of the most popular stuttering songs of all-time, K-K-K-Katy “the sensational stammering song success” written by Geoffrey O’Hara in 1917. When you hear Murray’s rendition of K-K-K-Katy in the vocal break towards the end, you will be reminded of Mel Blanc, the famous Warner Brother’s cartoon voice of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck etc. etc.) . You can be sure Blanc took a page from Murray to create Porky’s stammer as Blanc later recorded his own version of K-K-K-Katy.  Click here to listen to Murray’s K-K-K-Katy.

And while Murray was an accomplished early recording star and performer, and could sing in other styles, he recorded another stuttering song in 1922, You Tell Her I S-T-U-T-T-T-E-R which was written by Billy Rose and Cliff Friend. Continue reading

Classic Hollywood #7

Fred Allen, Mary Martin and Jack Benny – 1940

I believe Jack Benny was one of the funniest comedians of all time. Benny could elicit more laughs with a look, gesture or single utterance than other comedians could with an entire monologue.  He became a star in vaudeville and was one of the few entertainers who made the transition to radio, film and eventually television successfully. Although Jack Benny has been dead for over 37 years, he is still fondly remembered by millions of fans.

Radio comedian Fred Allen is almost completely forgotten today. His sharp, acerbic wit Continue reading

What Goes Around Comes Around – Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!

Nertz?!

Sometimes the songs of yesteryear are apropos for today.  The lyrics of a song from the 1920’s or 30’s can translate very well in today’s economic tumult, with millions of Americans still out of work in the midst of our “economic recovery.”  I see many of the same things happening today that transpired during the Great Depression.

Bread Line 1930’s Brooklyn, NY

Current events played a bigger role in the writing of songs back then, including this gem from composers Wesley and Mischa Portnoff and lyrics by Norman Anthony, performed by Eddie Cantor in 1931, Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz! The song was featured in the 2005 film Cinderella Man.

Eddie Cantor was one of the great entertainers of all time. He was a humanitarian and optimist.  His rags to riches story is one that I shall elaborate on at another time.  He was usually among the first choices for many songwriters to showcase their work.

Is the current recession over? I don’t believe it.

And what does nertz mean? — nonsense or nuts or (a polite way at the time of saying) B.S.

Here for your listening pleasure an mp3 with lyrics below of Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!

Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!

Cheer Up, Smile, Nertz!

Sure, business is bunk,
And Wall Street is sunk,
We’re all of us broke, and ready to croak.
We’ve nothing to Continue reading