Sunday, February 7, 2016

Buster Keaton and the Passing Show of 1917 -- February 7, 2016

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Lea at Silent-ology.  Last year I wrote about Buster Keaton's time in vaudeville: The 3-4-5 Keatons.  Be sure to click on most images to see larger versions.  

I first became interested in Buster Keaton when I watched The General with my grandfather and he told me how much he had always liked Buster Keaton.

When I discovered that the Anza Branch Library had a shelf of books about movies, I found two books about Buster Keaton, Buster's memoir My Wonderful World of Slapstick and Rudi Blesh's Keaton.   I read both and I enjoyed learning about his career in vaudeville and his career in the movies but there was something in between that I found mysterious.

Buster had been part of the family's rough-house acrobatic comedy act since he was a young child.  They were very successful, but Buster's father Joe had taken to drinking too much.  Bad timing in an act like the Keatons' could cause serious injury.  In early 1917, in San Francisco, Buster and his mother Myra decided to break up the act.  Buster and Myra took a train to Los Angeles and sent Joe a telegram letting him know about their decision. 

In February, Buster was in New York.  He visited agent Max Hart and told him he was trying to find work as a single act.  Hart was enthusiastic.

from My Wonderful World of Slapstick: "'I'll get you all the work you want,' Hart told me.  He immediately put on his hat and took me to the Shubert Brothers' office which was just down the street.  They were casting the new edition of their annual revue, The Passing Show, which was then one of the best showcases for actors on Broadway. 

"Mr. Hart, an agent of few words, took me straight into the private office of J.J. Shubert.  As always J.J. was doing the casting with the assistance of a flabby, lisping gentleman everybody called 'Mother' Simmons."

The Shubert Organization is still in business today, producing plays and owning theaters.

"'This is Buster Keaton,' Max Hart told them.  'Put him in your show.'

"J.J. Shubert looked me over, and asked, 'Can you sing?'

"'Sure I can sing,' I said, even though it was a pretty foolish question.  If Mr. Shubert hired me it would be for my comedy.  And he did hire me without asking me to sing, or a second question.

"The Passing Show usually played in New York for six months, then went on the road for the remainder of the year.  My salary was set at $250 a week for New York and $300 on tour.  A few days later I got a script of the revue.

"But just a day or two before rehearsals were to start, I ran into Lou Anger, a Dutch comedian who had worked on vaudeville bills with us many times.  Anger was with Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, the screen comedian..."

Roscoe invited Buster to visit his new studio, where he was making comedies.  As they say, the rest is history.  Roscoe offered Buster a job.  Buster didn't ask about a salary, but it turned out to be far less than $250 a week.

Details differ in various versions of the story.  Some say Buster met Roscoe after rehearsals had started.

In any event, I thought: The Passing Show of 1917, that sounds interesting.  Unfortunately, I could find very little information about any of The Passing Shows.  Neither Buster's book nor Blesh's mentioned it again.  What kind of a show was it?  Who was in it?  What was Buster going to do?  Well, now we have the internet.  It is easier to dig around than it was when I was a kid.

The first Passing Show, in 1894,  was one of the first Broadway musical revues, a collection of songs and scenes that made fun of recent theatrical productions.  Inspired by the success of the Ziegfeld Follies, the Shubert Brothers began producing a series of revues with The Passing Show of 1912.  The annual shows featured music from popular composers and many famous comedians and actors. The Passing Show of 1924 was the last of the series.

The Shuberts produced their Passing Shows at Broadway's Winter Garden Theater.  This postcard shows signs for the Passing Show of 1916

The general opinion is that the Shuberts asked Buster to develop his own material and he was working on it before rehearsals started.  Other people who came from vaudeville seemed to do their regular acts.  Who was in the show?  Who replaced Buster?   I looked at a list of the cast, from the Internet Broadway Database.
Chic Sale was a comedian who appeared in the show.  I don't know if he replaced Buster, because he was more of a verbal comic than a physical comic.  He was most famous for writing a book in 1929 about an outhouse builder. Sale had an active movie career, often playing elderly rustics.

Washington Evening Star, 08-April-1917
I wonder if coming straight from vaudeville is a sign that he might have been replacing Buster.  

Seattle Star, 06-July-1916
DeWolf Hopper was a veteran actor, who was most famous for reciting Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat."  He frequently played comic parts, but I doubt he replaced Buster; in 1917 Hopper was nearly 60 years old. Hopper had a significant movie career before and after The Passing Show of 1917.

Washington Evening Star, 08-April-1917

By Falk, New York [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson De Angelis was also nearly 60, but he was famous as an acrobatic comedian.  Perhaps he replaced Buster.  He had appeared in the first Passing Show, in 1894. 

Washington Times, 01-April-1917

De Angelis was a late add to the show, less than a month before it opened.  Perhaps that indicates he was a replacement.  

Motography, 29-January-1916
I was interested to see the name Henry Bergman on the cast list.  One of Charlie Chaplin's close associates was Henry Bergman.  But Chaplin's Bergman was busy in Hollywood in 1917.  I think this Henri/Henry Bergman was in The Passing Show of 1917.

Who were the ladies in the show?
 Actor singer and dancer Marilyn Miller had made her Broadway debut in The Passing Show of 1914.  She also appeared in the 1915 and 1917 editions.  She became a major Broadway star, appearing in The Ziegeld Follies of 1918 and then a series of book shows produced by Flo Ziegfeld, like Sally and Sunny.  When Norma Jean Baker was looking for a stage name, she adopted Marilyn after Marilyn Miller. 

My guess is that Marilyn Miller, who was known for being difficult, might not have found Buster and his practical jokes amusing.
Buster made his stage debut at three or four years old, although he had been carried onstage as a baby for a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Irene Franklin made her stage debut at six months old.  She became a famous actress and comedienne in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage.

New York Tribune, 02-April-1917
 I can't find much about Burton Green.  It is a very common name.  He was Irene Franklin's husband, and a composer and pianist. 

Variety, 14-February-1924
Marie Nordstrom was another actress who appeared in vaudeville and on Broadway.

New York Tribune, 02-April-1917
And of course there were lots of chorus girls.  Newspapers were always happy to print photos of chorus girls.  In this case, the girls of The Passing Show of 1917 posed in fancy clothes with fancy autos.

Pearsons Magazine, October, 1917
 I like the Cocktail Girls. 

New York Sun, 19-April-1917
Daily ads said the show was coming on the 26th. 

New York Tribune, 22-April-1917
 "Like its predecessors, the new entertainment is huge and boasts a long list of performers." 

New York Evening World, 26-April-1917

New York Evening World, 26-April-1917
 The meaning of "pretentious" has changed over the years.

New York Tribune, 27-April-1917

How was the show received?  The New York Tribune said "'The Passing Show of 1917' must be considered first in bulk.  Like its predecessors at the Winter Garden, it bulks large.  To say that it runs well over three hours is to give no idea of its hugeness; but to say that it is a musical extravaganza which enlists the services of De Wolf Hopper and yet does not have time to give Mr. Hopper anything to sing is perhaps to convey some semblance of its immensity and unwieldiness."  Perhaps it was such a big show that they felt no need to replace Buster.

Life, 10-May-1917
Life Magazine liked it.  "And speaking of skin, it is noteworthy that the Winter Garden has returned to tights and that there are no more unpleasant displays of cuticle whose scars and other blemishes are less noticeable when covered with hosiery ... On the whole, 'The Passing Show of 1917' is a great big evening's entertainment, and the modifications mentioned make it a perfectly safe place for anyone to take his Methodist aunt from the country, to say nothing of his best girl in the city."

The original Life Magazine was a humorous weekly that was published from 1883 to 1936.

The show was a musical.  What was the music like?  I found a few examples. 

I like the image on the sheet music cover of "My Yokohama Girl." Was Buster going to be in that number?  I could see him dancing with the chorus girls. I could see him doing a lot of things with the chorus girls ;0)

This Edison Diamond Disc record (50442-L) was recorded on 24-May-1917 by Arthur Fields.  Judging from his voice, I doubt the song would have been sung by Buster, but that doesn't mean he could not have been doing things in the background.

"Good-Bye Broadway, Hello France" was probably not going to be sung by Buster, but I understand it is one of the songs played on Main Street in Disneyland.  The United States had declared war on the German Empire on 06-April-1917, so this was a topical song. 

Billy Murray and the American Quartet performed the tune on Victor 18335.

I can't find a recording of this one.

New York Sun, 08-July-1917
The show was still playing in New York in July.   Note that the "Scotch Lassies" were wearing tights. 

South Bend News-Tribune, 07-October-1917

The Broadway run of The Passing Show of 1917 closed on 13-October-1917.

Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, 09-February-1918
 The show was in Philadelphia in February, 1918. 

Washington Evening Star, 10-February-1918
The show was still on the road later in February, 1918 when it played in Washington, DC.  It played in Kansas City, Missouri in April. I wonder how people felt about watching The Passing Show of 1917 in 1918.
So what would have happened if Buster didn't leave the show?  Perhaps he would have become a Broadway star and then had a film career like WC Fields or Eddie Cantor.

But fortunately for us, Buster met Lou Anger and Roscoe Arbuckle and accepted Roscoe's invitation to visit his studio.  Buster's first movie, "The Butcher Boy," was released on 23-April-1917, a few days before The Passing Show of 1917 opened. 

This post is part of the Second Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Lea at Silent-ology.   Thank you to Lea for all the hard work.  Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read as many posts as you can, and leave comments.  Bloggers love comments.  


  1. This was a fascinating post, thank you so much for all the research you put into it! Discovering details about the obscure parts of Buster's life is always such an eye-opener, and a reminder of how much more we could be discovering.

    Since we know now that the Passing Show was a huge, three-hour, star-packed extravaganza, it makes sense that Buster would be let out of his contract without a fuss. We all know that the stars had aligned anyway when he visited the Comique Studio!

  2. Thank you for the kind words, Lea. I'm happy I was finally able to answer the question I had many years ago. You're right, they probably didn't miss Buster at all. Thank you for putting this blogathon together. I'm looking forward to reading all the posts.

  3. Interesting research. I always wondered what Buster's solo act would have been like too, but thank God he met Arbuckle instead and went into filmmaking, so we could have the man's genius preserved for posterity.

  4. Thank you, Nitrateglow. We are lucky that Buster met Roscoe. I read about things that WC Fields did on stage in the 1920s and I get frustrated that the shows left few traces. We can see what Buster was doing in the 1920s.

  5. You see, this is why we (I) need to participate in the Buster Keaton blogathon v2.0. So many great posts, and so much great information! Like your post, for example. I knew next to nothing about this early part of Buster's career. Thanks for sharing all this research with us!

    I never before wondered about Buster doing a solo act, but I'm glad things didn't turn out that way. He was made for the movies!

  6. tgreywolfe1: I'm glad I'm not the only one who was wondering about The Passing Show. Isn't that great about "pretentious"? I had seen that usage in Jane Austen, but not in anything later.

    Silver Screenings: I agree that this has been a wonderful blogathon. I have learned a bunch. I'm happy you learned something from my post. We're lucky he didn't wind up in an ephemeral Broadway show.

  7. I, too, was curious about Buster's involvement with The Passing Show. You really went above and beyond with the research, and it was so fascinating to read!

  8. odestodust: As I said above, it is good to know that other people were wondering about the Passing Show. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about it.

  9. Every time I see a song sheet or poster from that era I wish I could time travel back and see how it all looked in the theater. You did an admirable job restaging various elements of the show, plus clarifying a key moment in Keaton's career. Well done!

  10. Hi Barry. Thank you for the kind words. I like the cover of "My Yokohama Girl." It reminds me of Flying Down to Rio.


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