Wednesday, April 27, 2016

President Parody

John Alexander parodies President Teddy Roosevelt in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Actors have for a long time entertained audiences with witty impersonations of U. S. Presidents.  But the impersonations of bygone days were different than the type that we see today.

In December, 1906, the vaudeville team of Delphina and Delmora performed a comedy musical act in which one of the performers impersonated President Theodore Roosevelt.  Their act was billed as "Musical Travesty."  Teddy likely issued melodious musical notes as he called out, "Bully!"  The audience, it followed, could be expected to furnish polite applause.

In 1907, comedian Frank Finney wrote and staged "On the Panama," a political satire about America's efforts to build the Panama Canal.  This lively burlesque entertainment featured Finney in the key role of President Roosevelt.  Variety reported, "Frank Finney was the most prominent person on the stage.  He is a conscientious comedian, has irresistible methods, and crested much laughter in a quiet and unassuming manner.  One of the funniest spots in the show was the patriotic speech which occupied fully ten minutes and amused.  His impersonation of Roosevelt brought much laughter."

It is unlikely the laughter was at Roosevelt's expense.  At the time, impersonations of U.S. Presidents were usually reverential.  The key word in this review is "patriotic."  Variety added, "There are many patriotic phrases and the stars and stripes wave gloriously."

Benjamin Chapin as President Abraham Lincoln

Benjamin Chapin became renowned for his dramatic portrayals of Abraham Lincoln.  He toured with his Lincoln act, originally titled "At the White House," from 1905 to 1917.  Variety noted in 1908: "Mr. Chapin's sketch makes a really intelligent appeal to normal patriotism.  His sympathetic interpretation of President Lincoln is sincere and unforced and there is no strained exploitation of the flag. . .  The sketch scored a tremendous popular success, Mr. Chapin being called upon for five bows."  Acclaim for the act increased with each new year.  In 1917, an ad published for Chapin's act featured the following text:
Benjamin Chapin traveled for 12 years over the United States, giving his Lincoln monologues.  He also gave over 2,000 performances in vaudeville, as 'Headliner' in a series of one-act Lincoln plays.  The people of this country love Lincoln, and THEY KNOW CHAPIN AS LINCOLN.  Their appreciation and patronage made Chapin the highest-salaried lyceum artist, and one of the highest- salaried performers in vaudeville.
From 1911 to 1921, Hollywood had four actors who competed regularly to appear in films as Abraham Lincoln.  This included Chapin, Ralph Ince, Frank McGlynn Sr. and Francis Ford.  Ince's performance record rivaled Chapin's.  From 1913 to 1921, the actor regularly entertained vast film and stage audiences with his vivid portrayal of Lincoln. 

In 1917, Chapin starred in a 14-part movie serial on the life of Lincoln.  Sadly, he died of tuberculosis while the series was still in production.


In 1907, impersonator Harry Allister made a satisfactory showing as the third act on the Alhambra bill.  It was the highlight of his act, "Impersonations of Famous Men," to present the theatre audience with striking impersonations of Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and McKinley. 

Harvey Brooks impersonated Taft in a sketch of the 1908 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.

In 1908, W. E. Whittle introduced a lifelike impersonation of Roosevelt as part of his ventriloquist act.  He was so convincing in the role that Fox Film later cast him to play Roosevelt in Why America Will Win (1918).

W. E. Whittle and his partners

In 1908, Huntington May appeared as George Washington in an act titled "The Patriot."

The musical act of Lowe and Lewin stirred up patriotic sentiment at the American Music Hall in January, 1909.  The men relied upon a xylophone duet accompanied by colored slides to deliver a medley of national anthems.  The act climaxed with a rendition of "Yankee Doodle" and the appearance of President-elect Taft, President Roosevelt, "The Spirit of 76" and Uncle Sam.

In 1910, Henri French headlined on the Orpheum Circuit with a variety of impersonations.  But French refused to impersonate presidents or other American patriotic figures.  It was stressed in ads that French did not bother with "inflicting upon us the old chestnut imitations of Lincoln, Grant and the rest of the category."

In 1910, the comedy team of Harry Fiddler and Ray Byron Shelton debuted a spoof of the presidential politics that featured Fiddler as Taft.  Fiddler and Shelton were, as the photo below shows, black men.

But nothing in reviews of the day suggest that humor was derived from the fact that Fiddler's version of the U. S. President was a darker shade than the real president.  By every indication, Fiddler provided a color-blind portrayal of Taft.  Fiddler and Shelton had developed a reputation for avoiding black stereotypes and presenting a clean and refined act.  This was no vulgar watermelon-eating Black Taft.  The Taft sketch proved to be so popular that Fiddler was still performing a variation of it in 1928.  A notable change in the act occurred when Fiddler replaced his Taft caricature with a Roosevelt caricature. 

Surprisingly, the black Roosevelt was not as original as the black Taft.  Vaudeville already had a well-established black Roosevelt essayed by popular blackface comedian Lew Dockstader.


In October, 1912, John W. Ransom appeared as the second act on the Riverside bill.  Variety reported, "Ransoms [sic], with a Teddy Roosevelt makeup, stuck to campaign topics.  His act gives him a chance to sound his audience and at the Riverside he found them very progressive.  With politics red hot now, Mr. Ransoms should be able to get along."  The ad below shows that Ransom also impersonated Taft.

Columnist Marion Howard insisted that it was an unpardonable offense to ridicule the president during wartime.  This may be the reason that wartime president Wilson was immune to impersonation.  Also, Wilson was boring.

In March, 1919, The New York Clipper reported, "Danny Simmons, 'The Military Hobo,' singing, talking, dancing and an impersonation of Theodore Roosevelt, kept the crowd in a cheerful mood all through his act."

In 1919, Alfred Bryan and Fred Fisher commemorated Teddy Roosevelt's death with a popular song called "Good-bye, Teddy Roosevelt, You Were a Real American."  The patriotism of the song was evident in the title as well as every line of its lyrics, which began "Oh, he stood like the oak in the tempest."

In 1935, comedian Chic Sale soberly portrayed Lincoln in a MGM short subject, The Perfect Tribute.

McGlynn turned out to be the last Lincoln standing.  He last appeared as Lincoln in 1939's The Mad Empress.

Shirley Temple and Frank McGlynn Sr. in The Littlest Rebel (1935)

A musical number in Babes in Arms (1939) featured Mickey Rooney as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Judy Garland as Eleanor Roosevelt.  When the film was reissued in 1948, the light-hearted scene was removed in deference to Roosevelt, who had died three years earlier.


In 1940, Fred Ardath dressed up as Roosevelt for The New York World's Fair's "American Jubilee" show.

Maybe, attitudes changed after "Arsenic and Old Lace" introduced Teddy Brewster, a mentally ill man who has deluded himself into believing that he is actually Teddy Roosevelt.  This psychotic man's buffoonish depiction of Roosevelt is an outright parody of the once-revered president.  Or, maybe, the respect for our bygone patriots dissipated as television sketch comedians turned out comic reenactments of Washington crossing the Delaware.  Washington hardly seemed such a great man after he was run through the mill by Ernie Kovacs, Laugh-In, Bob Hope and Stan Freberg. 

Vaughn Meader as President John F. Kennedy

As it turned out, the 1960s brought us absurd doppelgangers of the presidents through the mimicry talents of Vaughn Meader (John F. Kennedy) and David Frye (Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon).  Reverence went totally out the window. Gerald Nachman, author of "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, " wrote of Frye:
It was Frye who came up with the definitive Richard Nixon, an animated version of Herblock's swarthy shifty-eyed cartoon — jowls wagging, wary darting eyes looking up from under shaggy brows, arms stretched maniacally into a V — that comics still palm off as their own.  Frye's Nixon looked, sounded, and thought like Nixon.  To his full-length presidential portrait he added the trademark Nixonian line that captured forever all of Tricky Dick's menacing paranoia: "Make no mistake about it— I AM the president."
Frank Gorshin as Kirk Douglas and David Frye as President Lyndon Baines Johnson

Today, the phrase "I AM the president" puts a lethal target on a man's back for parodists.

Additional notes

In 1912, the Oakland Tribune reported, "Harry Fiddler and Byron Sheldon are colored entertainers.  They sing, play and impersonate in a creditable manner.  Sheldon is also a pianist and features his trick playing.  Fiddler is a mimic."  The San Francisco Call referred to Fiddler and Shelton as "the great negro vaudeville team."  Variety called them "colored boys with music and mimicry." 

Fiddler was the more prominent member of the team.  He was active on stage from the early 1890s to the late 1930s.  That's almost half a century of stage craft.  Fiddler was credited by The Afro-American newspaper of clearing the way for black comedians to play in the major theatres.  It was a departure at the time for Fiddler and Shelton to be, as the paper noted, "sandwiched into an all-white vaude show."   

It should be noted that, although Fiddler avoided black stereotypes, he did indulge in another type of racial stereotype.  The comedian's most popular act involved an unflattering impersonation of a Chinese immigrant.  Those familiar with vaudeville comedy know that ethnic humor was extremely popular in the day.  The audiences cheered.  The reviews were favorable.  Variety said of his appearance at Chicago's American Theatre in May, 1926: "[Harry Fiddler] did a Chinaman for a finale, getting laughs by garbling the English language."  Variety noted of his appearance at Chicago's Congress Theatre in February, 1928: "[Harry Fiddler's] Chink impersonation was a stand-out."

Fiddler eventually parted ways with Shelton.  He had other partners afterwards, but he mostly performed on his own.  He was billed as "The Proper Tone Comedian" and "The Man of Many Faces."  One theatre that promoted his appearance promised "An Abundance of Delightfulness and Humor."

Fiddler belonged to a wave of black comedians that attained popularity in the 1880s and 1890s.  Fiddler's peers included Billy Kersands, Dan Avery, Jim Crosby, Bert Williams, Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole and Billy Johnson.  All of these men were groundbreakers.  Booker T. Washington wrote in 1909, "The success of Ernest Hogan has made it possible for other Negro comedians to gain a foothold in the better class of the theatres, and create a more worthy kind of Negro comedy."  But, despite all of this praise for Fiddler and Hogan, the most famous of the group was Kersands. 

Here is part of an excellent Wikipedia article on Kersands:
[Kersands] was a hit with both white and black audiences, particularly in the South.  Tom Fletcher wrote that "In the South, a minstrel show without Billy Kersands is like a circus without elephants". . . Kersands's comedy act centered on his enormous mouth, which he exuberantly contorted into countless shapes.  He peppered his songs with these movements and their accompanying noises.  One observer remarked, "The slightest curl of his lip or opening of that yawning chasm termed his mouth was of itself sufficient to convulse the audience."  He could even fit several billiard balls or a cup and saucer into his mouth and still perform a dance routine or fill the theater with boisterous laughter.  Tom Fletcher wrote that while touring in England, Kersands told Queen Victoria that if his mouth was any bigger, his ears would have to be moved. . . His "Old Aunt Jemima" lent its name to the stereotyped mammy Aunt Jemima that later was developed into an iconic trademark for a brand of pancakes.  Despite weighing over 200 pounds, Kersands was also a talented dancer and acrobat.  His trademark dance was Essence of Old Virginia or Virginia Essence, which he may have introduced.  The dance later developed into the soft shoe.  He was also known for the Buck and Wing.  His dance routines helped cement such dance acts as fixtures in later vaudeville and Hollywood routines.
I give praise to these outstanding entertainers.
Ernest Hogan


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