BY TRAV S.D (travsd.wordpress.com) | As they do every year at this time, holiday crowds are mobbing the theaters of Times Square and Broadway to take in this season’s hits — a source of New York pride! But let’s not forget that the roots of New York’s theater district are Downtown. It began in the area around the lower Bowery in the early 19th century and gradually worked its way north as the decades rolled on, only stopping in the vicinity of “the Deuce” when several large theatres were built around the new subway hub at Time Square in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Here’s a look at some key movers and shakers in that Uptown migration.
Antonio “Tony” Pastor, often regarded as the “Father of Vaudeville,” was born in New York City in 1832. He began as a child singer and minstrel in dime museums and similar venues, and worked for a time as a circus ringmaster, before securing a regular engagement at a music hall located at 444 Broadway (between Grand & Howard Sts.), just after the Civil War broke out in 1861. The bar offered variety entertainment, with Pastor doubling as master of ceremonies and a popular singer, presenting his own patriotic songs in support of the war, as well as sentimental and humorous tunes about labor, a subject near and dear to the hearts of his working class clientele. Pastor claimed to have a repertoire of 1500 songs. The lyrics to these tunes were published in little songsters and distributed to the audience, who sang along music hall style and walked away with a little souvenir. Reportedly, Pastor had a terrible voice, but audiences loved him anyway, another tribute to his ability as a showman.
In 1865, he took over the Volks Garden at 201 Bowery and renamed it “Tony Pastor’s Opera House.” Though his establishment was no less a bar, Pastor set about making a number of improvements that would set it apart from most other concert saloons. Rowdy patrons were expelled from the premises. Advertisements indicated in no uncertain terms the direction in which he was moving, claiming his show was “unalloyed by any indelicate act or expression…fun without vulgarity.”
Part of the impulse to initiate the policy change may have been a genuine conviction on Pastor’s part, he being a man of his times and all. A devout Catholic, he would eventually have a prayer room built in his theatre, and a poor box installed in the lobby. His strongest curse was said to have been “jiminetty.”
But the times themselves must have played a role. A businessman with any instinct seeking to stay afloat in those years of high Victorianism must have been constantly mulling over the tirades of clergymen, temperance advocates, reformist politicians and journalists railing against saloon culture. Above all, there hovered the lure of a vastly increased market. The concert saloon clientele consisted of a mere percentage of men. If Pastor could include all the men, plus their wives and children as his potential audience, think of the increased revenue.
In 1875 Pastor moved “up” again, out of the ever-degenerating Bowery to 585 Broadway, near the present-day site of NYU. Liquor was still served, but he was in a respectable neighborhood, in close proximity to the most popular theatre in the city, the Theatre Comique, where the Irish comedy team of Harrigan and Hart starred and were soon to be proprietors. This stretch of Broadway had become one of New York’s first official theatre districts, due to the proliferation of nearby minstrel halls in the 1850s. Pastor’s establishment was also now an easy distance from the city’s main shopping district, known as the Ladies Mile, and the emerging theatrical strip on 14th Street, known as the Rialto.
He made the leap to the Rialto itself in 1881, to a theatre literally located in Tammany Hall, right on Union Square. At first, he tried producing full-length musical theatre parodies of Gilbert and Sullivan shows. But it didn’t click. Within a few months, Pastor settled down to concentrate on his great contribution to American popular culture: straight, clean variety shows. He was to flourish at this one location with one of New York’s most beloved institutions until he passed away in 1908.
Antonio “Tony” Pastor (1832-1908). NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
HARRIGAN AND HART
The two biggest Irish comedians to come out of the variety scene, becoming the most popular stars of the American theatre of the 1870s and 80s, was the team of Edward “Ned” Harrigan and Tony Hart. A New York native, Harrigan made his debut in San Francisco in 1867, singing and dancing at some of the principal stages of the so-called Barbary Coast. He worked his way up to comedy sketches, playing an impressive range of character roles: blackface parts, a Swedish servant girl, Chinese laundrymen, Irish landlords, and so-called Dutch (or German) characters. Teaming up with a succession of partners, he toured his way across the country, gradually making his way back to New York.
When Harrigan was 26 he hooked up with Tony Hart, only 16 years old and then calling himself “Master Antonio.” Born Anthony Cannon, in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1855, he was placed in reform school at age nine for announcing that he wanted to go into the theatre. He escaped and ran away to New York, singing, dancing and doing odd jobs at circuses, saloons and minstrel shows. By the time he and Harrigan joined their fortunes, Cannon had become famous for one particular number, a tearjerker called “Put Me in My Little Bed,” which he sang dressed as a young girl. Audiences were crazy about Hart. Nat C. Goodwin said: “Hart caused more joy and sunshine by his delightful gifts than any artist of his time. To refer to him as talented was an insult. Genius was the only word that could be applied. He sung like a nightingale, danced like a fairy, and acted like a master comedian.”
When Harrigan hired Cannon as his new partner, the latter changed his name to Hart, deciding that sounded better with “Harrigan.” A regular gig at New York’s Theatre Comique allowed the team to demonstrate their many talents. The variety show was 3 ½ hours long, followed by an afterpiece of 40 minutes. Harrigan and Hart might do several different turns in this course of such a show: blackface routines, brief sketches interspersed with dancing, juggling and singing. By 1876, when they assumed joint ownership of the Theatre Comique, the afterpieces became so popular that they became the focal point of the entire performance, and variety was dropped.
Harrigan and Hart ran the Theatre Comique from 1876 through 1885, where they started out by presenting variety shows with an afterpiece (comedy sketch). One of these “The Mulligan Guards” (which actually debuted in 1873) became a huge phenomenon, spawning a series of sketches…which then blossomed into full length musical shows, all penned by Harrigan. In essence, for about a decade the two men ran New York’s favorite theatre company…where they wrote, directed and starred in all the shows.
Eventually scheming family members drove the team apart. The day word got around that Harrigan and Hart broke up was a day of mourning in New York City, akin in significance to the Beatles’ break-up in 1970. Tony Hart was to die of syphilis in 1891. Harrigan continued to enjoy many more stage successes as playwright and performer. In 1897, he returned to the vaudeville stage where he was a popular favorite for over ten more years (he was a favorite of George M. Cohan, who named a song after him). He passed away in 1911.
WEBER AND FIELDS
The mother of all vaudeville comedy teams, Weber and Fields are the direct progenitors of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Smith and Dale, among countless others. The fact that their influence can be traced to so many (and such diverse) acts gives a strong indication of the complexity of their appeal.
Moses Schoenfeld (Lew Fields) and Morris (“Joe”) Weber were both Polish-Jewish immigrants to the U.S., born within six months of each other in 1867. They grew up in the Lower East Side and met at age eight. The pair hit it off and immediately began practicing the skills that would later help make them famous: tumbling, joking-telling, clog dancing. They put padding under the clothing and practiced smacking each other around for hours on end.
Within a year or two they had an act. Three acts really, a blackface, an Irish, and a “Dutch” (or German), in descending order of their original popularity with audiences. As Weber and Fields, they begin working some of the ubiquitous dime museums in the Bowery and environs. The winning formula was Lew Field’s brainstorm: an Irish type knockabout act but with a German accent, instead of an Irish one. To cement the illusion, the two glued on two phony little beards and smeared their faces with whiteface. The fractured dialect was easy — they’d spent their entire lives listening to it amongst the Lower East Side’s teeming German population.
Part of the act’s appeal in these early years certainly has to have been the fact that the boys were so ridiculously young. The sight of these mismatched boys (Lew was 5’11”, Joe was 5’4”) in heavy padding beating the tar out of each other with machine like rhythm must have been delightful.
In 1885, the Adah Richmond Burlesque Company specifically requested a Dutch act, and the boys cooked up a new one, consisting of converted minstrel jokes padded out with knockabout business. This new routine slayed the audience. With all the vigor and enthusiasm of youth, they made every element more extreme than was customary – more and crazier malapropisms and more slapstick mayhem. From here on in Weber and Fields would be “Mike” and “Meyer”, two perpetually arguing German immigrants in loud checked suits and derby hats, whose spats generally arose from their misunderstandings of the peculiarities of the English language, and quickly devolved into punching, kicking slapping, and eye gouging.
Their salaries and their prestige continued to rise throughout the 1880s as they toured their “Teutonic Eccentricities” throughout the nation.
In 1889, they made a leap that truly cements their place in vaudeville history: they themselves began to produce their own touring vaudeville shows. Entire variety bills were built around themselves as headliners; such companies crisscrossed the country until the team broke up in 1904.
From 1892-95, they worked up many of what would become their most enduring comedy routines. In these routines, Fields would typically present himself as an expert at some faddish American recreation and attempt to teach it to Weber. Along the way, he would mangle the game’s already-confusing terminology, compounding Weber’s confusion, which in turn compounded Fields’ frustration. The situation would escalate like a cyclone until the two were hitting each other in the stomach, braining each other with canes, and otherwise expressing themselves through violence. Part of the charm was that – as in Laurel and Hardy – Fields “the expert” really knew no more than Weber did to begin with.
In 1893, the boys made their Broadway debut at the Park Theatre thus helping to further legitimize a performance style that had evolved in the smoky dives of the Bowery. In 1896, they made a huge hit at Hammerstein’s Victoria with a medley of their best routines, and a parody of one of the other acts on the bill, the quick-change artist Fregoli. These successes, and the money made from their touring vaudeville shows, permitted them to open their own Broadway theatre, Weber and Fields Music Hall, in 1896. Though Weber and Fields continued to present vaudeville bills at the Music Hall (and their touring companies), the real attraction were book shows written as parodies of contemporary Broadway hits. It was the “Forbidden Broadway” of its day, only with full casts, elaborate expensive scenery and full-length books and scores.
For eight years, Weber and Fields Music Hall was a beloved Broadway institution. In 1904, creative and business differences drove the men apart, although on numerous occasions throughout the years they briefly teamed up as producers and performers. Both continued to produce on their own. Weber kept the Music Hall, but Fields was the more successful producer, becoming by 1911 “The King of Broadway.” They made some of the first comedy albums together, mostly in the mid-teens. They had their own radio show in the late 1920s, which obviously didn’t allow for slapstick, but was tailor made for their malapropisms. When the Palace held its historic last two-a-day in May 1932, Weber and Fields, whose long career stretched back to the 1870s, was on the bill.
Like Mr. Bernstein in “Citizen Kane,” Weber and Fields were there before the beginning and after the end. As late as 1939, Lew Fields portrayed himself in the Astaire and Rogers film “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.”
A team offstage as well as on, they died (as they were born) within a few months of each other — Fields in 1941, Weber in 1942.
Trav S.D. has been producing the American Vaudeville Theatre since 1995, and periodically trots it out in new incarnations. Stay in the loop at travsd.wordpress.com, and also catch up with him at Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al. His books include “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous” and “Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube.”