Vancouver Was Awesome: 6 vaudeville acts you could have seen if you were alive in 1908

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1967

A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.

Alexander Pantages expanded his theatre empire into Vancouver in January 1908 as he was building one of the biggest vaudeville circuits in the west. A typical Pantages bill consisted of several acts of comedians, trained animals, illustrated songs, popular sports figures, acrobats, drama, music, and almost any novelty act imaginable. Below are some of the more interesting ones that appeared on Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre in its first months of operation. (Follow the links for videos of some of these performers).

1. Wallace the Lion

Wallace the Lion, 1910

Wallace the “untamable lion” was the star attraction for the opening week of the Pantages. According to the World, Wallace did not disappoint, showing himself to be “just as ferocious and just as dangerous as he has been heralded.” Wallace, the “largest and handsomest lion in the world,” was a big hit in circus tents and theatres from here to San Francisco, though his tamer, Frank Hall, was apparently less successful at taming women.

2. Torcat and Flor D’Aliza

Torcat and Flor d’Aliza

Animal acts in vaudeville typically involved large and potentially dangerous African beasts, but less exotic creatures were also pressed into showbiz service, especially animals not known for their trainability, such as Alice Techow’s performing cats or Torcat and Flor d’Aliza’s “educated roosters.” Torcat and d’Aliza were billed as “European eccentriques” and had made a name for themselves as a husband/wife comedy duo in France’s Folies Bergère cabaret.The World said their show was

certainly a novel act, especially when it is considered how lacking in intelligence the average member of the chicken family is. Yet these familiar barnyard favourites do all kinds of clever tricks, such as tight rope walking, dancing, climbing ladders, pulling tiny carts, and most wonderful of all, stay in their places on the stage and do their stunts with scarcely any prompting.

Torcat and d’Aliza’s rooster act was popular enough that they returned to the Pantages in 1911, and they continued touring well into the 1920s.

3. Harry Jolson

Harry Jolson

Harry Jolson was a talented stand up comic and singer in vaudeville theatres around North America, often performing in blackface, a form that thankfully has fallen out of fashion. He graced the Pantages stage a couple of months after it opened.

Jolson got into vaudeville as a newsboy in Washington, DC, where he earned a reputation for having a great singing voice and a knack for entertaining. The World newspaper said Harry Jolson “has a line of solo talk [stand up comedy] that is all his own, but when he dispenses some of his operatic burlesque he is irresistibly funny.”

His little brother, Al, followed Harry into showbiz and really hit the big time in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, the first commercially viable talking picture to come out of Hollywood.

4. The Great Lester

Mugshot of Frank Byron Jr, arrest by the Great Lester, 1924

Harry Lester and his homemade ventriloquist dummy, Frank Byron Jr., were a popular addition to any vaudeville bill. Their fame never reached the heights of their protégés, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, but that may be more a testament to the influence of film and television for a later generation than a sign of Lester and Frank’s appeal. Bergen was first inspired by Lester, was taught by him, and acknowledged him as the greatest ventriloquist of all time.

5. The Freckled Wonder

Bob Fitzsimmons, “The Freckled Wonder”

Bob “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmon isn’t exactly a household name today, but to boxing fans a century ago, he was one of the greats. He began as a bare knuckle fighter and is best remembered as the first person to become world champion in three different weight classes: middleweight, light-heavyweight, and heavyweight. He fought and beat some of the top boxers of all time, including “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Jack Dempsey.

At forty-six, Fitz was well past his prime when he came to the Pantages, but he was the biggest draw the theatre had had since it opened five months earlier. Rather than merely demonstrating his boxing skills, the act was a dramatic play that included a boxing scene and songs performed by Fitz’s wife.

Before he became a professional boxer, Fitz was a crack blacksmith, and was only too happy to show off those skills here. He spent one morning at Woods’ blacksmith shop on Cordova Street just east of Carrall shoeing horses and making souvenir horseshoes for friends and fans. A few days later a rumour spread that Fitz was back hammering away at the shop. The crowd that gathered outside was too large for the wooden walkway and it collapsed. It turned out that the blacksmith in question was in fact the owner of the shop, not the Freckled Wonder.

6. Belle Gordon

Belle Gordon, bag puncher extraordinaire

Men weren’t the only pugilists touring the vaudeville circuits. “Bag punching” by women such as Belle (aka Bessie) Gordon entertained crowds with their speed bag prowess. Belle and her sister Minnie claimed to be the originators of “lady boxing acts” in vaudeville. The World said little about Gordon in 1908, but when she returned to the Pantages in 1913, the paper noted that she had won the title of “champion lady bag puncher of the world” several years earlier. “She has continued to improve in her art until she is so adept that no other woman has had the temerity to challenge her. Her work with one, two, or three punching bags will be a revelation to many in her interesting and spectacular turn.”

Sources: Wallace the Lion, 1910, San Francisco Public Library #AAF-0155;  Torcat and Flora d’Aliza, RegieTheatrale.com; Harry Jolson, Jolson.org; The Great Lester, Vent Haven Museum; Bob “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons, iCollector.com; Belle Gordon, SpeedBagCentral.com

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