The other day Joe Gandelman linked to a a video of Eddie Jackson and Jimmy Durante, the two surviving members of the great vaudeville comedy music act, Clayton, Jackson, and Durante, with the following observation:
Note the pizazz with which they do the songs, the timing…and the incredible energy of these two performers who were not exactly spring chickens when they wowed this audience.
Young aspiring performers, take note and study their stage presence
In echo of Joe and through the magic of Youtube here’s the only footage of which I’m aware of two of vaudeville’s greatest headliners, Blossom Seeley and Bennie Fields, in a rare 1928 short.
Here’s what Joan Benny wrote about them in her biography of her dad, Jack Benny, Sunday Nights at Seven. The context is that Joan’s 16th birthday party, supposedly a party for her and her friends, had metastasized into an enormous Hollywood social event:
After dinner and dancing, along about midnight, we all gathered in the living room, where my parents’ friends, all of whom had joined the early evening’s festivities, finally got to do what they liked best -perform. Frank, Tony and Dinah[ed. Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin, and Dinah Shore] sang. George Burns did a routine. But it was something else that made this particular night different.
We had houseguests at the time, two of Mother and Daddy’s oldest friends and fellow vaudevillians, Benny Fields and Blossom Seeley (Mrs. Fields). Today very few people under sixty would remember them, but for thirty years-from the early 1900’s until talking pictures took hold in the 1930’s-they were stars. They headlined, which means they played next to closing, at the Palace Theatre. To play the Palace, even in the worst slot, meant you had arrived. To be a headliner meant you were a mega-star-akin to Bruce Springsteen or the Beatles today. Although I had known Blossom and Benny all my life and had heard countless tales about how fabulous they were, I had never seen them perform. They were even before my time.
While everyone was gathered in the living room listening raptly to Dinah, Mother suddenly drew me aside and whispered, “Come up to my room. We have a problem.”
I hurriedly followed her, and when she had closed the bedroom door she said, “I don’t know what to do. I completely forgot about Blossom and Benny. Should we ask them to perform? It would be rude not to, but the kids have never even heard of them, and it would be embarrassing if the kids don’t respond. Maybe we shouldn’t ask them. But they’re staying here and oh, I don’t know. You decide.”
“I don’t know, either. Let’s get Daddy to decide.”
With that I ran down the stairs and grabbed Daddy to come join the conference. When we told him of the dilemma he replied briefly, “What’s the problem? Of course we’ll ask them. We have to ask them.”
I became the designated emissary, and when I said to Blossom and Benny, “Please, could you . . . ?” they were thrilled. Mother, however, was worried about how the guests would respond.
By now Frank was on. The kids loved him and applauded enthusiastically. When he finished Daddy went over to the piano and introduced Blossom and Benny, telling the kids something about them. They did some of their old act, just as they did at the Palace. Blossom sang, Benny played the piano and occasionally joined in. According to George Burns she had been a great beauty, and had begun her career as a teenager singing in the waterfront saloons of San Francisco. Baby Blossom, as she was billed, wore a big tiger’s head between her legs when she performed, and would catch the silver dollars thrown to her in its mouth. Later, she dropped the tiger, graduated to vaudeville, then teamed up with and married another performer, Benny Fields. She got down on one knee before Jolson ever did and he sang with a megaphone before Rudy Vallee.
They were by now in their sixties. Blossom was short and chubby with bleached blonde hair-or was it a wig? They performed for an audience of teenagers-many of them sophisticated show biz kids who had never even heard of them. Nevertheless, they were the hit of the evening. And when Blossom closed their act with her big song, “Toddling the Todalo,” the kids, including me, went wild. They wanted more and more. Blossom and Benny wowed ’em-which only goes to prove that a star is a star and talent is talent. You can’t take that away. Eighty young people went home that night having learned what it meant when they heard that someone had been a headliner at the Palace.
A star is a star and talent is talent.
In addition to talent there was performing in front of a live audience, three shows a day, over a period of twenty years or more. Only in Vegas or Branson or, maybe, some of the amusement parks, can a performer get that kind of experience and today it’s very, very rare.
As I’ve mentioned before here my mother and my maternal grandparents were all in vaudeville. They weren’t in this class of performer, of course (although my mother’s great-uncle, Ed Flanagan, was). Rather than the Palace they played the little vaudeville houses in Billings, Montana and Boise, Idaho. It was a hard, hard life.