Friday, February 22, 2013

VAUDEVILLE....Just remembering and writing down some about a bunch of performers from the age of Vaudeville.... Part 2

One cannot think of the age of vaudeville without thinking of Al Jolson. While Jolson was not a vaudeville performer, he did have his roots in the golden days of the minstrels and was a star in just about everything he was involved with. While many were going from theater to theater in those days, Jolson was just in one, the Winter Garden Theater for years. The shows would change and he would star in each new one. There is nothing like that today. He was a king in his field. He would help and hurt many in the business. He also made phonograph records. By the time of about 1920, his records would start to proclaim on the label "The World's Greatest Entertainer".  George Burns put it best, "Al Jolson had a love affair with Al Jolson and he was always faithful".  Much of what Jolson had, died with him.

The man who was the headliner with the minstrels before Jolson was Eddie Leonard. It is sad Leonard is pretty much forgotten today. He was a star of great renown and was always a headliner. He wrote the song Liza, which Eddie Cantor used as his theme song. Sadly Leonard did not make records, or film (save for a short moment in 1940) and would die pretty much forgotten in NYC in 1942. But few were as popular as he. But as you can see fame is fleeting.

Another of the greats of early vaudeville were Weber and Fields. These guys were wildly popular, had their own vaudeville houses and productions. They were also smart enough to make phonograph recordings. Also a number of the productions put on by them were made as covers by many other performers. They would live long enough to make sound films of some of their acts.

Another of the greats of this time who was really not of vaudeville but was very much a part of the scene in his past was George M Cohan. He had grown up in the theater and of course in the 1880's till the early part of the 20th century, the Four Cohan's were a popular troupe that travel from town to town.

 By the beginnings of the century George had gone out on his own and partnered with Sam Harris to win international acclaim for his shows and songs. Many of his songs are still sung today and most people who do sing them have no idea of their author.

 Few actors have been so decorated as Cohan. His is the only statue on Broadway, near 46th Street. The statue was put up by and pushed for by Oscar Hammerstein the second.  Who was expecting I am sure that the next would be his.There are only two actors so honored in NYC.  The other was Edwin Booth, the great Shakespearean actor and brother of Presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Edwin Booth would form a theatrical and business group called "The Players Club". Which still is a factor in the New York scene. This writer has been there countless times over the last 20 some odd years.

George M Cohan's father, Jerry Cohan  was a terrible and nasty drunk. He would mess up the bar at the Lambs club and repeatedly be expelled. This led George M to create another theatrical club that would allow his father in. This club was called the Friars. The Friars are still very active today and it has been my pleasure to go there a few times and have dinner with some dear old actor friends who have sadly passed away. The Lambs club that was once the largest and most powerful has been down sized some.

 I was there once at their new headquarters and it was great to see the place. It was on the day of the funeral of John Cardinal O'Connor and the funeral was right by the Lambs as Saint Patrick's Cathedral is right across the street from the Lambs.

 But it was the lambs that were the greatest of these clubs in the age of vaudeville. They had a massive club on 44th Street. There were shows, dinners, bars that Jerry Cohan and later John Barrymore would mess up. Also it was a place to stay or hide. It had rooms to rent for fellow Lambs.  I mentioned before that Nat M Wills used to stay there.

It was there they had something called a "Lambs Frolic" Staring everyone from Enrico Caruso, Victor Herbert, Nat M. Wills, Weber and Fields, George M. Cohan, DeWolf Hopper and countless others. It was a wonderful period of time for entertainment.

 I do need to tell the story about John Barrymore. He was a dreadful drunk as well, but a great actor. I always remember Tony Randall telling me that the drunks were always the best actors.  However,  Barrymore was suspended from the Lambs club for tearing up the bar in a very drunk frenzy. Once he was reinstated,  he was asked while sitting in the bar why he was kicked out before. Barrymore replied "For doing this!" and proceeded to tear up the bar again!

The last person I will mention in this 2nd part of this group of articles that are just memories and thoughts in my mind, is Victor Herbert. He was very much a part of the music scene in the early days of vaudeville. He usually wrote operettas, operas, symphonic pieces and when the mood hit him, fun little ditties. His music was a part of the scene and it was his disagreeable moment listening to his music at dinner that led to the forming of ASCAP. He was the champion of that organisation.   It is also interesting that the last meal Herbert would ever have was at the Lambs club in 1924. I will talk more about Herbert in our next installment.