One of the most rewarding parts of writing historical nonfiction is finding primary sources, first-hand details, and anecdotes that help illuminate the past. Early on in my research for American Rose
, I was fortunate to visit Gypsy Rose Lee's sister, the actress June Havoc, who died in March at the age of 96. She was bedridden, and the legs that had once danced on stages across the country were now motionless, two nearly imperceptible bumps tucked beneath crisp white sheets. But her memories were sharp; talking with her was like being magically transported back to the Roaring Twenties (I've posted some audio clips of our interviews on my website
June spoke passionately about vaudeville, the premiere form of entertainment during the 1920s, and it struck me that vaudeville was the reality television of that era — the one difference being that, back then, entirely average people had to work hard at being famous. Many vaudevillians possessed talents invented rather than innate, and with relentless practice and a clever marketing scheme they were able to make a fortune. Some of my favorite vaudeville luminaries include:
- Hadji Ali, otherwise known as The Amazing Regurgitator, who, for his grand finale, had his assistant erect a small metal castle onstage while he drank a gallon of water followed by a pint of kerosene. To the accompaniment of a drum roll, The Amazing Regurgitator ejected the kerosene in a six-foot arc and ignited the tiny castle in flames. As the flames grew he then ejected the gallon of water and extinguished the fire (check out a video of Hadji Ali).
- The Human Fish ate a banana, played a trombone, and read a newspaper while submerged in a tank of water, while Alonzo The Miracle Man lit and smoked a cigarette, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, and buttoned his shirt — miracles since he had been born without arms.
- One man had a "cat piano," an act featuring live cats in wire cages that meowed Gregorio Allegri's Miserere when their tails were pulled (in reality, the performer yanked on artificial tails and did all the meowing himself).
- A woman called Sober Sue stood next to a sign that read: "You can't make her laugh." The theater manager posted a $1,000 reward and several of the best comics of the day tried, but all failed. When her engagement ended, it was discovered that it was physically impossible for Sober Sue to laugh because her facial muscles were paralyzed.
- Lady Alice was an old dowager who wore elegant beaded gowns and performed with rats. The runt settled on the crown of her head, a miniature kazoo clenched between teeth like grains of rice. He breathed a tuneless harmony while the rest of the litter began a slow parade across Lady Alice's outstretched arms, marching from the tip of one middle finger to the other. One day she revealed her secret: a trail of Cream of Wheat slathered on her neck and shoulders.
June, however, did have true talent — the ability to spin on her toes en pointe, ballerina-style, by age three. Her mother, Rose, immediately created a vaudeville act with June as the star and Gypsy and several boys in supporting roles. The act was called "Dainty June and Her Newsboy Songsters" (Gypsy played the part of a newsboy). One of their numbers featured a dancing cow. Gypsy said June always made her work the back end of the cow, but June disputed this claim. She told me: "Gypsy couldn't dance that well."
From 1923 to 1927, Dainty June was one of the most popular vaudeville acts in the country, often earning $2,500 per contract (about $32,000 in today's dollars). But radio and film began luring vaudeville audiences away. The 10-minute "flickers" that had once rounded out a vaudeville bill became the main attraction, and numerous major vaudevillians — including Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Harry Houdini, and Rudolph Valentino — made forays into film. In 1927, Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length "talkie," starring erstwhile vaudevillian Al Jolson. It was the best-selling film of the year, and signaled another major blow to vaudeville.
By then June and Gypsy had outgrown their act, both physically and emotionally — although their mother insisted that nothing had changed. In December 1928, June fled in the middle of the night, and the newsboy songsters quit and went home. It was now up to Gypsy to carry the act, although she'd never had any talent at all.