Today – April 9th, 2014 – Is his 115th birthday.
Other than some background interest from one granddaughter, there is only one person remaining left on plant earth who thinks about the life and times of Arthur Robert Frank, known publicly as “Art Frank – Vaudeville Performer” or otherwise, “Old Man Whoopee.”
Such is the cycle of life. We live. We die. Then we are remembered by the living, which keeps us alive in thought and caring. When the remembering people die, we are gone for all time for there is no memory, no more significance.
Does anyone really care that Maria Yketova was someone’s great, great, great, great, great grandmother in 1769? Yet, Maria Yketova was a living soul in those times, cared for by many, even after she passed away. When the memories of her died with the deaths of the rememberers, Maria’s life became but a grain of sand on the beaches of human history.
Thus it is proper and caring – while still possible – that we give tribute to the birthday of a great and loving man, a little man, a Jewish man, born in New York City this date in 1899, the youngest of nine siblings, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe who were processed through Ellis Island.
Arthur Frank was different than his brothers, he didn’t have the mind of an accountant, merchant or lawyer. Rather, Arthur Frank was an artist who began his professional life drawing cartoons and caricatures for magazines, newspapers and other publications, particular for the entertainment world which then translated to: Vaudeville.
He attended vaudeville shows, one after another, longing to become one of those singers, dancers, musicians, watching the enthusiasm of applause from audiences in New York, imagining himself standing on stage making people laugh and taking bows. And so it happened.
On his own, through friendships backstage, he learned to write and read music, and he learned to dance. Arthur had legs like rubber bands, leaving his cohorts and audiences howling in their seats at his eccentric moves, far and apart from most dancers of those times. Along with his routines, he used his make-up artistry skills to dress himself as an old Civil War veteran, capped, bearded, hunched, twisting and turning with moves that made everyone howl. He often hired pretty women as straight-girls, singers/dancers, to carry out the many skits on stage which he wrote.
He became a huge star, headlining the Palace Theater in New York, and other venues around the county on the vaudeville circuit. The marquees read: “Starring Art Frank.” Also in the show: Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Ruby Dee, Fanny Brice. He also wrote articles for Variety Magazine, the show biz tabloid of the day.
One of his early partners was a lady named Ginger Rogers, who would go on to movie fame. Then he met Vivien Peterson, a redheaded bombshell with music and dance talent equal to anyone. They worked well together. She was nineteen. They were married in 1929. She made Arthur the happiest man in the world.
The depression hit. Everywhere, people were poor and destitute. But Art Frank and Vivien managed a good income from show business, working with other celebrities, like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Ray Bolger, Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Fred Allen, Jack Benny and more. Many of the stars morphed into the movie business after talkies came in. Others started their own radio shows, a burgeoning new entertainment venue. Vaudeville’s period of popularity was on its last legs.
But not to Art Frank. Vaudeville would never die, he said.
His first son, Bennett, was born September 29th, 1935. When a toddler, he often brought the child on stage to perform little routines. They worked with acrobats. They loved the stage. Virtually addicted to live audiences, he begged agents for more bookings, but the demand was gone. Vaudeville was becoming a final page in history.
His last great stage performance was in Radio City Music Hall, where Vivien’s sister, Frances, worked as a Rockette.
By 1938, vaudeville was dead. The circuit was over. Arthur Frank went into deliriums, as manic-depression consumed his life and the life of his young family. He rarely slept, he continued to hound people, including Vivien, for more work, more breaks that were not there. Old friends and family thought he was crazy. He babbled incessantly. He thought people were putting steel wool in his food. Life became unmanageable for Vivien.
She was four months pregnant when she called the men in the white coats to take Arthur to Creedmore hospital. Her second son would be born to a troubled, desperate and lonely mom, on April 28th, 1939.
Vivien went to work as a show girl in New York City night clubs, dancing and singing to make a living to support her two boys. She often left the boys at her mother’s apartment in Queens. Meanwhile, Arthur’s diagnosis was labeled paranoid, schizophrenia, and manic depressive. He would never see freedom again.
After 2 ½ years of languishing in three different mental institutions, Arthur was given insulin shock treatment by the hospital brainery. The result was a destroyed immune system. Three weeks later, after contacting a cold, he died of pneumonia, November, 1941.
He would never know his youngest son, nor he, his father. Neither would he ever suffer the anguish of losing his eldest son to drowning at age seven in Flushing Bay, two years after his own death.
And, so Arthur Robert Frank lived forty-two years of a gifted life, often filled with love and conquered dreams, only to eventually struggle and die a lonely man in Stony Lodge Sanitarium in Ossining, New York with a view of Sing Sing Prison from across the Hudson.
He was a great man, who made his own way, who made many thousands of people laugh, and – in his best of times – cherished and adored his wife and son.
Yes, it is I – the surviving youngest son – who stands as the only person left alive who remains intimately connected to the life and times of Arthur Frank. Sadly, circumstance and death denied me from ever knowing the man who I could call “Dad.” But, thanks to an adoring mom, I have had an abundance of memorabilia. I thought it appropriate to honor his 115th birthday in a public forum, which he loved so much. After all, when I pass on, Arthur Frank’s life will become one of those grains of sand in the beaches of human history.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
(See video: Art Frank can be seen at 1:15)