Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The First Tramp Comedians 

Nat Wills
Bruce Johnson, the official World Clown Association historian, wrote, "The earliest performance of a tramp character I have found is Jim McIntyre and Tom Heath who began their long running tramp act in 1874."
Jim McIntyre and Tom Heath

Caroline Caffin wrote in her 1914 book Vaudeville, "Whatever may be the name or setting of their particular sketch, the true intent of MacIntyre and Heath is to provide a medium for amusing dialogue, anecdote and repartee. . . The contrast, however, in appearance between these two fun-makers - the small, meagre, stumbling, fumbling manner of the one and the portly, pompous, imposing deportment of the other - makes a fine groundwork on which to build varying inventions of mirth-provoking incongruity."  The team come across in Caffin's description as a forerunner to Laurel and Hardy.

McIntyre and Heath in "The Ham Tree"

Other popular tramp comedians were Bert Williams, W. C. Fields, Lew Bloom, James Harrigan, George Rowland, Paul Barnes, Charles R. Sweet, and Nat Wills.
Bert Williams

W. C. Fields

These men wore their rags proudly.  Bloom was billed as "tramp comedian," "tramp impersonator," "tramp monologist" and, at the peak of his career, "The Great Tramp."  Rowland was sometimes billed as "The Great Tramp," too.

George Rowland
Sweet, who played the piano, was known as "The Musical Tramp."  Wills, vaudeville’s "Happy Tramp," was one of Stan Laurel's idols.  Johnson wrote, "[Wills] was a vaudeville headliner.  He was one of the first entertainers to perform at the famous Palace Theater, and he appeared in the 1913 edition of the Ziegfield Follies.  He was known for topical humor.  During World War I, he would read telegrams he found in a trash can."  An example of one of Wills' funny telegrams: "From a troop commander to Allied headquarters, GERMAN TROOPS ISSUED LIMBURGER RATIONS.  WE FIND THEIR TRENCHES UNAPPROACHABLE."

Nat Wills

Wills was most famous for his "No News" routine.  Johnson wrote, "Wills created 'No News,' one of the most famous and copied vaudeville routines.  He played a servant reporting to his absent master on the telephone, saying, 'There's no news - except that you don't have to bring home any dog food - well, because the dog died - he was trying to save the baby - from the fire - the one your wife started when she ran off with the chauffeur.  Except for that there is no news.'"

The original closing scene of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) had a phonograph playing a newly recoded version of "No News" in the background as Joseph Cotten visits Agnes Moorehead in a gloomy boardinghouse.  On the record, a man returns from a journey and asks his servant if there is any news.  He is told that the dog has died.  As the servant explains the circumstances of the dog's death, the man learns by degrees that the whole city that he has long considered home has been destroyed.

McIntyre and Heath

Reference Sources

Caffin, Caroline.  Vaudeville.  New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

Higham, Charles.  The Films of Orson Welles.  Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1970.     

Johnson, Bruce.  "Nat Wills, The Happy Tramp."  Charlie the Juggling Clown.

1 comment:

  1. Bob Cole’s Willie Wayside from A Trip to Coontown (1897) was a very important contribution that should be included.