A Typical Busy Day On Sixth Avenue While Eva Tanguay Performs Uptown
There is nothing extraordinary happening as we look north up Sixth Avenue from 31st Street.
There’s lots of horse manure in the street and there’s some construction and workers beneath the Sixth Avenue El. The bar on the corner has western saloon style doors and advertises Triple X German Liquors on its sign. A high pressure fire hydrant is on the corner, a sight rarely seen today as the city removed most of them almost three decades ago . The tallest building on the left between 32nd and 33rd Streets is Gimbels Department Store.
As much as we’d like to put an exact date on the photo we cannot. It is uncredited and labeled 1911. There is one intriguing clue however. It’s blurry but if you look at the roof of the building on the left you can see a billboard ad for Eva Tanguay (1878-1947) appearing at The Colonial Theatre.
Who was Tanguay? One of the biggest vaudeville stars of the early twentieth century who was noted for her rendition of the song I Don’t Care by Harry O Sutton. Tanguay played at the Colonial Theatre multiple times however so without a legible poster the date remains obscure.
The crazy thing about Tanguay was that she was did not excel at any one thing, but was wildly popular with audiences for more than a couple of decades and was among the highest paid performers in the world.
When Tanguay returned to The Colonial Theatre (Broadway & 62nd Street) on January 6, 1913 this is what an unnamed New York Tribune critic wrote:
Eva Tanguay made a curtain speech at the Colonial Theatre yesterday afternoon. It followed her singing of several songs in her usual irrepressible fashion, and was a response to applause that lived up to the stock phrase of “rocking the theatre.” The text of it was short: “I was afraid I had lost you.”Now, Eva Tanguay is unique, which is a polite way of saying ‘freak.’ Theatrical gossip has it that she cannot explain even to her own satisfaction why she pleases the public. But she does it. and though the decline of her popularity has been predicted for every year since she first appeared she maintains her hold on her vaudeville audiences In the same old fashion.
At her reappearance of yesterday she returned to the New York varieties after a long consignment to the more or less tender mercies of the outlying districts.
Rumor had it that her star was on the wane and that if she ventured to return to the glories of Manhattan she would find her welcome no longer as noisy as of yore. Evidently even the eccentric songstress herself had a touch of the same fear.
But, starting from a more or less doubtful reception on her first appearance, Miss Tanguay increased in favor with an audience that threatened to overflow the theatre, until finally she could make her escape only by singing that unforgettable lyric “I Don’t Care.”
What it is about Eva Tanguay that makes her the success she is, is something for our weighty brethren the psychologists to determine. She is not as young as she once was, she sings as badly as before, dances no more gracefully and is as grotesque in posture as ever. She still makes fun of herself in every way possible and recites her experiences in song that is tinged with more than a little bitterness. But she “gets them’’– meaning the audience—and will probably go on doing so just as long as she continues to be Eva Tanguay.
Yesterday afternoon’s audience was a Tanguay audience. It waited for her appearance, and after it most of the crowd got up and went out.
If you want to find out more about Eva Tanguay, I recommend Queen of Vaudeville The Story of Eva Tanguay by Andrew Erdman (Cornell University Press) 2012.
The only recording of Tanguay performing her showstopping song is from 1922 and probably does not do her justice as the recording quality is very poor and 1922 was way past her prime. But here it is warts and all.
And here is Judy Garland’s version of I Don’t Care with film footage of Tanguay.
Judging by that recording, she likely reminded people of the girl down the block that everybody in the neighborhood knew and loved. I think Ruby Keeler had the same appeal. You could’ve found dozens of young women who were better dancers, singers, and actors — and were prettier — than Keeler, but she had something that was relatable, like your kid sister who was just talented enough to get her foot in the door.