Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Laughing with Alice Atherton


Famed author George Lunt wrote, "[S]urely a sweeter creature than young Alice Atherton never gladdened the eyes of the weary seekers in this world. . ."

I became aware of Atherton while reading the biography of comedian James T. Powers, who worked with Atherton in the show "A Dream, or Fun in a Photograph Gallery."  Powers wrote, "I'll never forget. . . her lovely character and her angelic face."

Dr. David S. Shields of the University of South Carolina profiled Atherton on his "Broadway Photographs" website.  He wrote:
One of the best-natured, adventurous performers of the 1870s-90s, this native of Cincinnati delighted contemporaries with her gift of impersonation.  She began as a child actress in her home city, in "The Sea of Ice."  Discovered by Lydia Thompson, Atherton enrolled as one of her girls in "Sinbad" and "Ixion."  There she met English performer Willie Edouin whom she married in 1873.  They became mainstays of the Coville burlesque companies.  Edouin organized the entertainment "Dreams, or Fun in the Photograph Gallery," a piece that showed off Alice Atherton's genius for impersonation and popularized the comic skit as a stage form.  Her versatility as a performer was legendary.  She was a show-stopping comic singer, a virtuoso whistler, and her "laughing song" became a signature piece.  Though a parodist, she also excelled in comic roles that did not require playing a type.  Her capacity to communicate sincerity in her voice made her an able tragedienne as well.
Atherton delighted audiences with her performance in "A Dream."  In the second act, the actress remained enclosed inside a large gold picture frame as she impersonated Buffalo Bill, George Washington, Martha Washington, President Chester Arthur, and Rip van Winkle.  The New York Clipper reported, "The last-named, showing Rip, with his long, white hair and flowing beard, after his strange and protracted sleep, was really splendid in its realism, and called forth a hearty round of applause."  During the run of the show, Atherton also recreated the classic performances of famed stage actors, including Henry Irving and Mary Eastlake.  The Boston Evening Transcript described Atherton as being "[a]dmirably made up" and said of her performance: "the walk, the voice, the gestures are faithful counterfeits."

Powers was proud of the show's success.  He wrote, "This was one of the first musical farces, and its instantaneous success started a vogue for musical comedies."  The comedian was lured to leave Edouin and Atherton by a producer who was willing to pay the comedian three times the amount that he was already earning, but Powers had such great fondness for the show that he did not hesitate to turn down the offer.

Atherton followed her success with "Laughing Song" with other songs.  In 1894, she was successful with "The Barmaid Song" from the Broadway show "Jaunty Jane Shore."  In 1898, she introduced the novelty song "The Singing Watermelon" assisted by a chorus of blackface dancers, who were dressed as watermelon seeds (Presumably, Atherton was dressed as the other parts of the watermelon).

Atherton died from pneumonia in 1899.  Her daughter, May Edouin, paid tribute to her mother by performing her famous "Laughing Song" as part of her vaudeville act.

No comments:

Post a Comment