Here’s a very good blog post by John Strausbaugh at The Chisler, I thought I would share.
Some performers who developed their acts on vaudeville stages are hard to watch or listen to now. Their schtick is too big, too broad, too loud, too brassy, too hot as a McLuhanite would say. If it involves blackface or other ethnic stereotypes it may make us squeamish. Jolson is one of them. We may appreciate his giant role in early twentieth century showbiz, but that voice, that act — the blackface, the white gloves, the bird whistling and hip swiveling — can be hard to like now. Eddie Cantor is another, and for similar reasons. He idolized the older Jolson, and patterned some of his routine on his act — the rolling google eyes, the cutesy-pie flirting with his audience, the hyperactive hamboning, the hand-clapping and coo-cooing, the blackface minstrelsy. Neither act translates well in the twenty-first century. Our tastes clearly haven’t improved, just shifted. Unlike, say, his friend W. C. Fields, it can be hard now to recognize just what it was about Cantor’s act that people loved well enough to make him such a huge star, which he unquestionably was.
Like Irving Berlin, he was a true Lower East Side rags to riches story. He was born Israel Iskowitz on Rosh Hashanah in September 1892, in a tenement on Eldridge Street with a Russian tea shop on the ground floor. (Probably. No birth record for him has ever turned up, and like a lot of show people he was vague about it.) His parents and grandmother had recently come from Russia. His mother died when he was two and his father apparently abandoned him to his grandmother, who told him he was an orphan. She called him Izzy and Itchik. They moved to a three-room basement apartment at 47 Henry Street. Bustling and industrious, she worked as two kinds of matchmaker: She found jobs for some young Jewish girls just off the boat as domestic servants, and found husbands for others. Often the girls stayed with her and Itchik until she placed them, five or six sleeping together in the living room. Lone boys who grow up in households filled with females often take on some effeminate mannerisms, and he was no exception. It doesn’t seem to have blunted his strong heterosexual appetite, however. For all his sissy antics on stage, Eddie liked girls a lot. Part of the purpose of the staged effeminacy was to disarm the goys in the audience, to seem like a harmless Jew, as opposed to the conniving, menacing Jew who was still a common stereotype on stage and on the page. The evil specter of Svengali from Du Maurier’s wildly successful Trilby was still quite fresh in audiences’ minds. Jolson sissified his act for the same effect.
When the Henry Street rent rose from nine to twelve dollars a month, his grandmother abandoned the basement for cheaper rooms in a “backhouse” around the corner, behind the tenement at 11 Market Street. In the 1800s, when landlords had stuffed every human being they could possibly fit into their tenements, they constructed smaller buildings in the courtyards behind the tenements and crammed more families into them. Usually these backhouses had no street access. Tenants walked in the front door of a building like 11 Market, down a hall, and out the back to get to their building. Backhouses used to be tucked away all over Manhattan, anywhere there were once crowded tenements fronting the streets, but few remain now. Neither number 11 nor its backhouse still stands. Neither, for that matter, does 47 Henry.
When his grandmother registered Izzie for public school she gave her surname, Kantrowitz, as his. The clerk arbitrarily shorted it to Kanter. Like a lot of other poor boys in the neighborhood, he didn’t spend much time in school anyway and would drop out by thirteen. He was on the street running with other Jewish boys, snatching fruit from pushcharts, committing other petty thefts, getting into battles with rival gangs. A small kid, he learned early to avoid getting beat up by playing the clown. In December 1900 he wrote to the Dear Santa column in the New York Evening Journal. “Dear Santa, I am an orphan. I have no mother or father,” he began. On Christmas day a Journal truck pulled up with everything he’d asked Santa for: a coat, mittens, boots and a sled. Both the clowning and the poor little orphan routine remained successful features of his act.
As a teenager he broke into show business the hard way, on amateur night at Miner’s Bowery Theatre (not to be confused with the Bowery Theatre). The founder, Henry “Harry” C. Miner, had been a colorful and important Bowery character before his sudden death in 1900. Born in 1842 and raised on the Lower East Side, he’d been a drugstore clerk and a beat cop before getting into show business as an advance agent and promoter, with clients ranging from Signor Blitz the bird trainer to Buffalo Bill. From the 1870s on he opened a number of variety halls on the Bowery, and branched out to other locations in Manhattan, New Jersey and as far away as Detroit. He established a touring circuit for his best performers that was a small foreshadowing of the great vaudeville combines and burlesque “wheels” to come. It all made him piles of money, which he wisely invested in everything from his own drugstore chain to railroad and mining interests. He was also a Tammany Democrat and capped his varied careers with one term in the U.S. Congress, 1895-1897.
Henry’s son Tom took over Miner’s Bowery Theatre in 1900. He’s credited with innovating two of the most familiar if least loved institutions of variety and vaudeville: amateur nights and the dreaded hook, a long shepherd’s crook used to drag talentless amateurs off the stage to the boos and jeers of the Bowery’s rowdy, unforgiving audience. As Edward Kanter, Cantor braved this stage with his impersonations of famous vaudeville stars, enduring catcalls and rude comments about his girly affect. Legend has it he won the ten dollar first prize his first try, used half of it to treat some of his pals to chow mein on Doyers Street and gave the rest to his grandmother.
His first professional gig was in 1908, doing various bit parts with Frank B. Carr’s burlesque troupe, the Indian Maidens. Carr had been knocking around variety, burlesque and vaudeville a long time. At his peak he was a flashy dresser with a taste for diamonds. By 1908, however, he was on the downhill side of his career. The Maidens was a small-time act that toured the boonies — a turkey show in showbiz slang. Cantor stuck it out for six weeks and then wired his grandmother for a ticket home. Two years later, his career permanently on the skids, Carr would throw himself into the East River.
Cantor went out to Coney Island to be a singing waiter at various saloons and cabarets. Another teenage Lower East Sider, Jimmy Durante, accompanied him on the piano at one of them, Carey Walsh’s. “Me an’ him hit it right off,” Durante later remembered. If a customer called out for a song they didn’t know, they’d fake one on the spot. If the customer complained, Cantor’s stock reply was to look innocent and say, “You mean there are two songs with that title?” He also plugged new songs for Tin Pan Alley publishers, and worked as a shill at boardwalk amusements. He and Durante flirted with a pretty Brooklyn redhead who worked at Nathan Handwerker’s hot dog stand. She was Clara Bow, soon to be Hollywood’s It Girl. Nathan’s hot dog stand went on to be famous in its own right. A year later Cantor gave up show business to get on the good side of his girlfriend’s disapproving father. He worked a series of menial jobs, including a classic garment industry sweatshop one. Eventually he married the girl, Ida, and they would raise five daughters.
He went back to showbiz, developing his own brand of blackface pansy characters, with not a little Jolson influence evident. In 1912, when Cantor was twenty, Gus Edwards, the impresario of kiddie shows, put him in a half-hour revue called Kid Kabaret. He played a black butler, Jefferson, who looked after a group of teenagers. One of them was a gravel-voiced, cigar-chomping, fourteen-year-old Jewish kid from the Bronx, George Jessel. Although they were opposites in many ways — Cantor was frugal, ferociously hard-working and politically liberal, Jessel was a high-roller, easy-going and politically conservative — they became lifelong friends. While Kid Kabaret was on the road, one of the girls in the cast got pregnant. Cantor was the likely culprit.
He toured the vaudeville circuit with a partner for the next few years, inching their way up the bill. In 1916 he made the step up from vaudeville to musical theater. He took a small part as a rich lady’s blackface chauffeur in a trifle called Canary Cottage. On opening night in Los Angeles he ad-libbed outrageously and stole the show. When the upstaged and enraged leading lady threatened to give notice, the producers scanned the next day’s reviews, with headlines like “Vaudevillian Romps Home with Canary Cottage,” and shrugged.
Cantor’s triumph in L.A. won him a spot later that year in Flo Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, an after-hours revue staged at the rooftop nightclub of the New Amsterdam Theatre on Forty-Second Street. The Frolic was a leading outpost of New York’s cafe society at the time. The uppermost crust — DuPonts, Astors, Vanderbilts, Diamond Jim Brady, William Randolph Hearst — paid the five dollar cover, equivalent to more than a hundred dollars today, to sit at tables in tuxes and gowns, sip the best champagne and puff dollar Havanas as comedians, singers and scantily-clad dancing girls worked to amuse and titillate them. It was a long way from Eldridge Street, in every sense. Cantor went on well after midnight and, as he’d done in L.A., used his ten minutes to maximum effect, ingratiating himself with the toffs by singing, joking, doing silly card tricks, and playing up his poor little Jewish boy schtick. Like Jolson, he endeared himself by playing the “good Jew,” the “white Jew” in the parlance of the day. When his father-in-law saw what Eddie was getting paid, even he finally approved.
The following year Ziegfeld bumped him up to the actual Follies, where he came to be known as the Apostle of Pep. His first part there was as daunting as his first night at Miner’s: He had to share the stage with the Follies’ undisputed headliner, the great Bert Williams. Williams was not only the most successful black performer of the age, he was one of the very best performers, period. Born in the West Indies, Williams had started performing to pay his college tuition. He’d been a star of minstrelsy, recorded coon songs (including his amazing signature song, “Nobody”), Broadway musicals and vaudeville — always working in blackface, which he used to brilliant effect — before coming to the Follies in 1910. When white cast members at first protested sharing the stage with him, Ziegfeld told them he’d fire them all, but Williams was staying. They shut up. (They didn’t all complain. W. C. Fields was an enormous fan and friend, and Cantor became one as well.) As a black man Williams still couldn’t sleep in many of the hotels they did, and if he could get a room he had to use the staff elevator. He often couldn’t eat in the same restaurants. But on the Follies stage he was king. In their first skit together, Williams played Murgatroyd Jones, bragging about his son Abner the football star. The joke was that Abner, played by Cantor in blackface, turned out to be a sissy doofus.