Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nat M Wills One great comedian of an age long ago.

The comic Nat M Wills leaves us with more questions than answers on his life. He was a great performer, but in his private life there were hard times and difficult moments. He was married 4 times. He was a head liner of great fortune. He was working the Palace theater 6 weeks after it opened as its star. He made countless recordings. He was a master at the monologue.

Yet there was sadness in this life. He was in terrible debt, He was for a while living at the Lambs Club on 44th street in New York. He was as the papers said at the time, without any assetts. He was paying alimony on his previous wives. I guess this problem haunted him. He was only 44 when he died, So I gather he went through some marriages rather fast. I guess they were ugly situations as well. But he was working then, but something was wrong.

Things seem to change with his 4th wife. He had a child with his 4th wife, and he lived in New Jersey as many stars did. His address at the time was #2 31st Street in Woodcliff, New Jersey. One would think he was trying to start again. He was popular on Broadway at this time too.

Wills made a number of recordings to cover much of what he did on Broadway and Vaudeville. His recordings of No news or what killed the dog and BPOE were so famous and great sellers. But through it all he was in trouble. One did not see this, but there seemed to be problems.

The NY Times reports on Dec 10, 1917 that Wills went into his garage to work on his car as he was a car buff. He locked the garage doors and turned on the car. Hours later he was found by the door of the garage with the key of the garage in his hand, very dead. Did he want to die? was it a choice? Was he depressed enough to do that? No one really knows.

He was known to tinker a lot with cars. He enjoyed them. But one would think that anyone who knew about cars would know to leave some opening in a garage to allow air to come in. That is what is puzzling? He was a smart man, and a good man with cars. So why lock the door? Does it sound like suicide? I would have to say yes, but I cannot prove that. No one can. If it was a mistake is was a very foolish one, and one that almost does not make sense.

But the world lost a great entertainer on the 10th of December 1917. His death shocked the theatrical community and of course his family. He was embalmed and laid out at Campbell's Funeral home in NYC. His funeral service was joined by delegations from the Lambs club, Friars club and the Players club. He was then entombed in a mausoleum in WoodLawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

I was there looking for him, but as of yet have not found him. I will of course in time. But this short little piece is about a great performer who left us all with a smile, even if he was crying.
Nat M Wills as the Hobo Comedian for which he was famous..... Wills 1873-1917
One of his many Edison recordings, this one BPOE. That was a great classic.
No News or what killed the dog was his greatest hit. It was funny in 1906, and still funny in our own age. Good comedy lives, just like good fashion, for a long time. I played a recording of Wills just before I wrote this. I listened to him and had to smile. If his comedy reaches me a century later he really was doing a great job. He truly was one of the greats on Broadway and in Vaudeville. He left this world far too soon.