Recently, I was reading vaudeville notices in an 1898 edition of the New York Dramatic Mirror. The notices on comedy acts referred almost exclusively to double acts. Comedy at that time was mostly sketches and patter routines, which made solo comedians something of a rarity. The double acts fell into many different categories. Take, for instances, the following acts playing in New York that week: Gracey and Burnett, eccentric comedians; Fields and Woolley, German comedians; Swan and Bambard, acrobatic comedians; Snyder and Buckley, musical comedians; Merkle and Algere, midget comedians. These are, without exception, forgotten acts. I thought that it would be worthwhile to run through the history of these funny pairs and see if I could shed a light on their accomplishments.
Let us start with Dan Gracey and Ada B. Burnett.
Burnett was primarily a singer. She sang Irish songs and Negro songs. She had her greatest success with Negro songs, including "Goodbye, My Honey, I'm Gone" and "New Coon in Town." As a white woman who sang Negro songs, she fell into the category of singers commonly known as "coon-shouters."
Cartoonist John Adcock wrote on his blog "Doggone That Train":
[Ada B. Burnett] popularized "New Coon in Town" in 1886. In October 1888 she performed at New York's Adelphi Theatre as Ada B. Burnett's Female Minstrel Majestics, a troupe of twenty "Handsome Ladies' aided by a grand company of twenty.
In 1887 she appeared at the Adelphi theatre in Buffalo, New York and made a "clever hit."
"She contralto voice, and a reckless abandon and good humor, a swagger that is decidedly catchy, and with all these attractions it was no wonder that she was the favorite of the audience. Her "Never Take No for an Answer" brought a handsome bouquet, and as an encore she gave a "New Coon in Town," which brought down the house." – Buffalo Courier, Sept. 13, 1887
In 1895 Burnett teamed as a coon-shouter with her husband Dan Gracey, "Eccentric Irish Comedian." The couple were billed as "The Hottest Coon Singers in America, Bar None!" She was still ending the show with "New Coon in Town."Gracey and Burnett came to specialize in sketch comedy. One of their popular sketches was called "A Royal Janitor."
The couple stuck by one another through good times and bad times. The following notice appeared in The New York Clipper on May 18, 1895: "Mr. and Mrs. Dan Gracey (Ada B. Burnett) mourn the loss of their infant daughter, Marguerite Fern , who died very suddenly of congestive chills. They wish to extend their thanks through The Clipper to those who were kind in their great sorrow."
In 1909, Burnett left entertainment field while her husband pursued a solo act in burlesque. Gracey originated several routines, including "The Disputed Check" (although a Variety critic claimed that the routine shared distinct similarities with earlier routines).
In 1928, Gracey stopped working to care for his wife, who had contracted cancer. On January 12, 1930, Burnett died at her home in Fairhaven, New Jersey. It appears from a review of the trade papers that Gracey never returned to work after his wife's death.
Augustus Yorke and Nicolas Adams were pioneer Hebrew comedians. A specialty of the team was to perform fast-paced patter routines and up-to-date parodies of popular songs. A favorite venue for them was New York City's Orpheum Theater, which was an entertainment showcase in the Yiddish Theater District. At the height of their success, the team starred in a series of lavish musical comedies: "Bankers and Brokers" (1905-1906), "Playing the Ponies" (1908-1909) (originally a vehicle for Kolb and Dill), "Yorke and Adams in Africa" (1910) and "College Life" (1911). Their chief writer was Aaron Hoffman, who worked closely with the team much like John Grant worked with Abbott and Costello.
Variety's Alfred Greason (pen name "Rush') offered a mixed review for the team's efforts in "Playing the Ponies." He wrote:
Yorke and Adams make a very good team of Hebrews, scoring laughs easily and quietly. There are several bits of familiar comedy business introduced, but it is handled differently and gets by nicely. . . The pair sang several new parodies which made distinct hits with the house, but neither of the comedians has any kind of a voice and it is doubtful whether they could get away with the parody thing in vaudeville. While the dressing of the pair is funny, the facial makeup is far from good. They are bewhiskered beyond necessity and neither is pleasant nor wholesome to look at.But, generally, the reviews for their shows were favorable. The Index, a weekly Pittsburgh newspaper, had nothing but praise for "Playing the Ponies." The paper called Yorke and Adams "America's best-known and best-liked Hebrew comedians." The Harrison Telegraph, another Pennsylvania newspaper, said that "Bankers and Brokers" was so "furiously funny" that it "[made] all the competitors look like a bunch of counterfeit nickels." The Minneapolis Journal promised readers that "Bankers and Brokers" "will combine good, healthy fun, lively, pretty girls, handsome costumes and graceful dancing into an effective entertainment with elaborate scenery and dazzling effects." "College Life" was well-received by The Cambridge Chronicle. The paper reported:
"College Life" is one of those big vaudeville productions that the public seem to demand nowadays. It is full of ginger from start to finish, with an endless amount of fun, rollicking college songs, and a beautiful stage setting. Yorke and Adams are two of the greatest Hebrew comedians on the stage today.Yorke and Adams played regularly at New York's Hammerstein's Theatre from 1910 to 1912. The critics at Variety never seemed to have much good to say about the team during this period. A common complaint was that the comedians were putting out "worn patter." A critic wrote, "Excepting a parody or two, the Hebrew comedians did the same act as when leaving vaudeville for a production." Another running complaint was that their act was uneven and the team needed to cut out gags that didn't work. Typical was the following remark: "Yorke and Adams got over with their talk and parodies but a portion of their patter could be remodeled." The men appeared to be struggling to keep audiences interested. The following review appeared in Variety on November 19, 1910:
Yorke and Adams didn't finish well. They started away like a pair of race horses, but slowed down toward the middle and closed breathing hard. The pair were probably breaking in some new stuff, for several times they stammered about as though not quite certain of themselves. This was the cause of the weak finish.It seemed at the time that the act of Yorke and Adams had run its course and the entertainers needed to go their separate ways. So, the partnership was ended.
After finding little success with solo acts, the comedians got back together for a reunion tour in 1923. At first, they travelled the vaudeville circuit with a playlet called "Two Sweethearts." Variety said that this new act "scored laughter." Then, they took their act overseas. In June, 1923, they debuted the musical comedy "Partners Again" at The Opera House in South Africa. In December, 1925, they opened in the play "Give and Take" in London. The singing and joking duo received a cordial reaction from English audiences. In 1927, their continued popularity in England led the men to starring in a short film for England's Phonofilm.
The act broke up again in 1927. Both men went on to play character roles in Broadway dramas. In 1927, Yorke played a fence who unloads loot for gangster Chester Morris in "Crime." In 1934, Adams played opposite Walter Huston in "Dodsworth."
Yorke and Adams had entertained separately and together in vaudeville and musical comedy since the 1880s. They had in their time created a formidable body of work. They were remembered with fondness at their passing. Adams died on October 23, 1935. Yorke died on December 27, 1940.
William Gilbert and Walter Goldsmith were well established under the name Gilbert and Goldie by 1893, at which time New York's Music & Drama journal praised the team for being "exceedingly funny." In another review, a critic singled out for praise their "famous racehorse song." The pair performed to acclaim at the Los Angeles Orpheum Theatre in 1898. The Capital said of their performance, "Gilbert and Goldie's names are too well known here to need any comment save their simple announcement. They come with a stock of new jokes, songs, dances, etc., destined to set the house in a roar."
The duo had their greatest success playing honky tonks in San Francisco. One local paper, South of Market Journal, called them "San Francisco's favorite sons." Years later, a Variety critic remembered Gilbert and Goldie being "among the big ones" at the leading Frisco honky tonk, The Belle. The comedians excelled performing the more risqué humor that the honky tonk audiences demanded.
Gilbert died in 1903. Goldie went into the soap business for awhile and tried unsuccessfully to return to vaudeville with a solo act in 1912.
Tom Morrissey and Ann Rich, who were featured at Keith's Union Square Theatre in 1898, continued to work together for at least the next fifteen years. Then, they quietly disappeared. In 1926, a Variety columnist wrote of the team, "Some years ago, Morrissey and Rich were among the leading teams of vaudeville, topping bills in many theatres. They separated and the theatre know of them no more. I have just received the news that Tom Morrissey owns a shoe-repair business in Los Angeles while Ann Rich is running a beauty salon with 15 operatives and has been extremely fortunate in real estate."
A husband-and-wife team, Joseph Hart and Carrie DeMar, were seen at the time in a new sketch called "Dr. Chauncey's Visit." The couple met in 1891 and married two years later. Hart later wrote and produced several shows as vehicles for himself and his wife. His shows included "The Gay Old Boy" (1894–1895), "Foxy Grandpa" (an adaptation of the Carl E. Schultze comic strip, 1901–1905) and "Girls Will Be Girls" (1903–1904). He also starred in the touring company of C. T. Dazey's "A Tarrytown Widow" (1897–1898). The couple reprised their "Foxy Grandpa" roles in two short films, The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa and Foxy Grandpa and Polly in a Little Hilarity.
On October 3, 1921, Hart was at his Manhattan home with his wife when he died suddenly from a stroke. DeMar became reclusive after her husband's death. Later in life, she joined the Catholic order.
Elizabeth Allen "Daisy" Remington and William B. Hines were a married couple that had been performing together since 1879. Remington wrote a number of successful playlets, sketches and short stories under the pen name "Earle Remington-Hines." The duo retired their act in 1912. Hines died on December 14, 1917. Remington died on September 23, 1923.
William Swan and Frank E. Bambard combined comedy and acrobatics. Their act was best represented by the following review: "Swan and Bambard gave their knockabout acrobatics, with the good comedy of the stout man [Bambard] and the excellent acrobatics of the other [Swan]. His head spring for the close brought a big round of applause, and the team generally fared well." (Variety, February 16, 1907). The men dissolved their act in 1915. Bambard died at his home in October, 1917.
Hector and Lauraine, eccentric knockout comedians, were billed as "The World's Whirligigs" and "Wonderful Whirligigs." The duo became familiar on the vaudeville circuits for a nutty act called "Boxing Upside Down," in which the athletic funnymen literally boxed upside down.
Between 1896 and 1899, Hector and Lauraine were regulars at the Empire Theatre in Cardiff, Wales. The Pontypridd Chronicle and Workman's News reported: "Hector and Lauraine, the comic acrobats, created the utmost laughter." The South Wales Daily News noted, "Hector and Lauraine were excruciatingly funny."
|Charlie Johnson and Dora Dean|
Charlie Johnson and Dora Dean were listed in the New York Dramatic Mirror as "a colored comedy duo," but the team was better known for their dance routines. In 1891, Johnson and Dean met while working together in Sam T. Jack's Creole Company, a popular touring company that combined elements of the minstrel show and the burlesque show. In the burlesque tradition, Jack used many pretty female singers and dancers in key roles. Most of the performers in the company had extensive experience in minstrel shows and they retained much of the material that they had established as minstrel entertainers, but the Creole company made it one of its most important innovations to eliminate blackface. This was called playing neat. Dean started out in the show with small roles, including a bit in which she posed as a statue, but Dean's talent as a singer and dancer combined with her beauty and shapely figure made her popular with audiences. Johnson was originally cast as a singer and banjo player, but his exceptional musical abilities eventually led him to becoming the company's leading man.
It was another innovation of the Creole Company to pair up men and women in dance numbers. This enabled Johnson and Dean, the company's two rising stars, to combine their talents. After two years, the dance partners got married and left the Creole Company. They put together an eccentric dance act (known at the time as "legomania") for the Chicago World's Fair. Later, they established themselves on the vaudeville circuit as the King and Queen of Colored Aristocracy. Marshall and Jean Stearns wrote in "Jazz Dance": "The pioneering team of Johnson & Dean was perhaps the first to break ground for class [dance] acts. Johnson & Dean established the roles of the genteel Negro couple on the American stage – the courtly gentleman and the gracious lady." They became famous for introducing a graceful, elegant style of cakewalk to the Broadway stage in 1897. The book "Vaudeville old & new: an encyclopedia of variety performances in America," which was written by Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman and Donald McNeilly, includes the following passage on Johnson and Dean's reworking of the cakewalk:
The chalk line walk, a contest of skill among African Americans, was a holdover from slavery days. It was a high-stepping dance, with turns and reversals, performed while balancing a bucket of water on the head and following a line delineated by chalk. Johnson did away with the bucket of water but retained the precision and the high style.Johnson and Dean achieved great success touring European countries, including England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia. In 1904, they made a return visit to England to accept top billing at London's prestigious Palace Theatre. A review of their performance at the Palace appeared in The Era.:
They call their dance a kinetoscope rag time dance, which is performed against a black background amid intermittent flashes of light. The ballet-like movements of the clever couple are thus illustrated in a way that give them something of the effect of a cinematograph picture. The audience on Monday evidently were interested in the graceful exhibition of both Miss Dean and Mr. Johnson, who did not lack encouragement, which came from all parts of the house.
|Bert Williams and George Walker|
In tribute to Dean's enduring beauty, George Walker and Bert Williams wrote the song "Dora Dean." The song included the following lyrics:
Say have you ever seen Miss Dora DeanThe couple briefly parted ways in 1912 and again in 1922. During their break in 1922, Johnson did a pantomime fishing act with "Cry Baby" Godfrey, who was billed jokingly as "The Black Caruso." The couple had yet another split a few years later. They reunited one last time for a highly publicized comeback performance at Connie's Inn in 1936.
She is the finest girl you have ever seen.
I'm a-goin' to try and make this girl my queen
Next Sunday morning I'm goin' to marry Dora Dean.