Hadji Ali, The Great Regurgitator
Hadji Ali was never a big-time performer in vaudeville – probably because his act was considered too freakish, and even a bit disgusting. He was alternately billed as “The Egyptian Enigma” – perhaps for those bookers not interested in hiring a man who vomited for a living. He opened with a few small feats of regurgitation – usually ingesting and regurgitating nuts and watermelon seeds. Motion Picture Herald described the big finale of Ali’s act in a May 23, 1931 review of a performance in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: “Hadji Ali… drinks a bowl full of water and then expels it. He also drinks water and then kerosene, which he expels upon a flame and later extinguished with the water he originally drank.” A film of the act survives and portions can be seen in the PBS documentary Vaudeville.
Violinsky, the Eccentric Entertainer
Violinsky was born Sol Ginsburg in Kiev, Russia, on July 4,1895. The centerpiece of his act came when he simultaneously played piano and violin by strapping the bow to his leg, but he also received a lot of acclaim for a bit in which he spoofed silent movie accompanists. The act was preserved in a 1929 Vitaphone short film. Violinsky was on the bill for the week of September 19, 1915 when the Four Marx Brothers were at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, California. He would later work as an uncredited writer on Monkey Business – allegedly providing only one line used in the film. (If it is true that the line is, “You bet I’m shy. I’m a shyster lawyer,” Violinsky made the most of the opportunity.) He also co-wrote Chico Marx’s theme song, “I’m Just Daffy Over You” and a subsequent version with alternate lyrics, “Lucky Little Penny.” Violinsky died on May 5, 1963 in Binghamton, New York.
Mons Herbert, the Musical Waiter
Harpo Marx described Mons Herbert’s act in Harpo Speaks! “Mons used to set a dinner table on the stage, and play ‘The Anvil Chorus’ by blowing knives and forks against each other. For a finish he would blow up a prop roast turkey and deflate it in such a way that it played ‘Oh, Dry Those Tears’ out of its rump.” Herbert was on the bill with the Three Marx Brothers at the Orpheum Theatre in Waterloo, Iowa for the week of March 13, 1911. The Waterloo Evening Reporter called Herbert’s performance a “very novel musical act.” The German-born Herbert seems to have started doing the act around 1903. He performed it in Australia in 1913 and was still doing it on American vaudeville circuits in 1935. He died on February 17, 1936 in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 64.
The Cherry Sisters
The Cherry Sisters – working at various times as a duo, a trio, a quartet, and a quintet – are generally considered to be the worst act in the history of vaudeville. Five sisters from a large Iowa family – Addie, Effie, Lizzie, Ella and Jessie – took to the stage when their parents died and they were left destitute with a farm they could not manage. Historians offer two possibilities. Either the Cherry Sisters were aware of how bad they were and in on the joke, or they were blissfully ignorant of their lack of talent. They sang, played piano, thumped a bass drum and acted in original dramatic scenes. (The Cherry Sisters did not dance because they believed it was immoral.) They drew audiences equipped with rotting fruits and vegetables and were essentially targets. And not just for hurled produce. Critics were occasionally so unkind that at one point the Cherry Sisters sued the Des Moines Leader newspaper. The review in question likened their singing to “the wailing of damned souls” and also featured unflattering remarks about their appearance. After the Cherry Sisters performed their act in court the judge ruled that the review was not libelous. In his vaudeville memoir Much Ado About Me, Fred Allen wrote of the November 1896 New York debut of the act at Hammerstein’s Olympia, for which a protective net was strung across the front of the stage. “The net hung down from the flies and covered the entire stage, protecting the Cherry Sisters from impulsive members of the audience who had come to the theater laden with throwing tomatoes and sundry passé fruits. When the fame of the Cherry Sisters spread, society people used to come from Park Avenue to toss avocados.” They retired from the vaudeville stage in 1903 when the youngest, Jessie died of typhoid fever. Several comebacks were instant failures, but for at least a few years, the feeling was that the Cherry Sisters were so bad they were good. Variety once called their act “perfectly terrible.”
Orville Stamm, The Strongest Boy in the World
Fred Allen’s description of this act in Much Ado About Me is enough to qualify it for consideration as one of vaudeville’s oddest. “Orville played the violin; as he played, he had suspended from the crook of his bow arm an enormous English bulldog. The bulldog made graceful arcs in the air as Orville pizzicatoed and manipulated his bow. For the finish of his act, Orville lay flat on the stage and arched his back; in the better acrobatic circles, this was known as ‘bending the crab.’ When Orville’s chest and abdomen attained the correct altitude, a small upright piano was placed across his stomach. An assistant stood on Orville’s thigh and played the piano accompaniment as Orville, in his ‘crab’ position, sang ‘Ireland Must Be Heaven ‘Cause My Mother Came from There.’ This finish was a sensation…”
Officer Vokes and Don, the Inebriated Canine
Animal acts were an integral part of vaudeville and many comedians played drunk, but a drunken animal act was a pretty unique twist. When the Four Marx Brothers scored a big hit in Brooklyn with ’N’ Everything, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of July 8, 1919, ran under the headline 4 MARX BROTHERS BEST AT ORPHEUM. Discussing the rest of the bill, the reviewer said: “Officer Vokes and Don, the inebriated canine, ran the Marx act a close second for the honors of the evening.” It was a popular big-time act. The dog even appeared drunk in the 1919 Mary Pickford film Daddy Long Legs. But when Prohibition came, drunk acts would have to sober up or be cancelled and Don wasn’t about to take the pledge. Officer Vokes and Don the Inebriated Canine made their week with the Marx Brothers in Brooklyn one of their last engagements before leaving the country. Their full-page ad in Variety on June 13, 1919, poked fun at vaudeville’s insistence that Don quit drinking. “Office Vokes and Don the Inebriated Canine deny that their sailing for England August 2nd is the result of this country going dry… but rather to accept a tempting offer… Don is one of the few inebriates who can feign intoxication without the smell of liquor… When interviewed at B. F. Keith’s Palace, last week, Don was busily engaged sipping a lemonade, which would verify Mr. Vokes claim that Don can get along without liquor.”
Swain’s Rats and Cats
Charles Swain was born Charles Schwein in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 4, 1867. The earliest record of his career as an animal trainer is with Professor Charles Swain’s Barnyard Circus in 1900. The Buffalo Courier on September 24, 1900 described the act: “… there are performing goats, chickens, pigeons, geese and ducks with a rooster orchestra.” Swain soon became legendary in vaudeville for his act, Swain’s Rats and Cats, which can first be documented in 1911. The act was frequently described in billings as “Household Pests and Pets in Perky Pranks.” In defiance of all logic, the felines and rodents worked together in intricate stunts including tightrope walking and boxing. But the most memorable portion of the act featured a miniature racetrack and rats dressed as jockeys riding cats wearing saddles in a steeplechase race. Inventive as it was, the act was not welcome everywhere. A New York Clipper review of a performance at Loew’s Boulevard Theatre in the Bronx, from March 14, 1917 noted, “While Swain’s Rats and Cats are very clever, it is questionable whether this kind of an act is suitable for a vaudeville audience. To many the sight of rats is repellent. As a proof of this contention, when one of the rats started to run front of the stage and it appeared as if he was about to get into the audience, many of the women screamed in fright.” Swain also had a popular act called Swain’s Cockatoos, which was handled by his wife Cora and often toured separately when Swain was out with his cats and rats. Both Swain acts were fixtures on small-time vaudeville circuits from 1907 – the earliest days of Cora Swain’s Cockatoos – until Charles Swain retired in 1931. He must have considered retiring before that because he offered to sell Swain’s Rats and Cats in an advertisement in Variety on September 15, 1916. Swain’s Rats and Cats was also part of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus during this period. Swain died on May 6, 1935 in Effingham, Illinois. Groucho Marx often recalled being on a bill with Swain’s Rats and Cats – as did nearly every other legendary vaudevillian – but no such bill has been found. If the Marx Brothers were actually on a bill with Swain’s Rats and Cats it would likely have been around 1911 or 1912. Swain stayed in small-time vaudeville playing numerous split weeks in remote locales as the Marx Brothers moved up in the vaudeville hierarchy. (Chico Marx worked briefly with Swain’s Cockatoos as part of Shean and Marx in 1912.)