VAUDEVILLE’S LAST MAN STANDING
By Marshall Frank
This is not about a pandemic virus, or the economy, world war or the rate of crime. No sex, no violence, no destitution. It’s about a little man named Arthur who died in 1941 in a mental institution across the Hudson River from Sing Sing prison. No one was there, but the hospital attendants. No family, no friends.
So who would care? Who would bother to read this story when, in the year 2020, this fellow would not be known to anyone on planet Earth other than a handful of distant relatives. Why would any writer take the time?
Arthur was born in 1899 in New York City, one of nine kids whose Jewish parents had set foot in Ellis Island as immigrants from Eastern Europe in 1886. William McKinley was president while the Spanish-American War raged on and the United States welcomed Guam, Samoa and Puerto Rico as new possessions of the United States.
So what was it about Arthur that set him apart?
Arthur’s four brothers all grew up to become professional businessmen. His sisters were mostly single women relying, in part, on the brothers for support. While encouraged to get an education, he chose to follow his natural talents to become a professional cartoonist. That eventually introduced him to Vaudeville and all the glitz and stardom that came with it. Arthur was fascinated with live on-stage show business, where he commiserated with singers, dancers, jugglers, musicians, and more, bringing audiences to their feet.
Arthur met many show-biz stars around the theater circuit who taught to him to dance. He worked up a series of comedy routines while applying make-up to appear as an old man, from the confederacy. His comic dance steps glided hysterically around the stage, only to be dubbed as a “moonwalk” 60 years later by Michael Jackson.
He always had beautiful dancing girls as straight-women for his jokes. By 1928, Arthur was a huge star, working the same stage at the Palace Theater in Manhattan with the likes of Milton Berle, Ginger Rogers and Rudy Vallee.
Arthur eventually met his dream woman, Vivien, after she landed a dancing/singing audition at age 19. He was hooked. Then they were married. A redheaded bombshell who could sing plus dance and play classical piano, Vivien easily mingled with the stars of Broadway.
They were a perfect team. They traveled the Orpheum Circuit around the nation by train, bringing all audiences to howl in laughter in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, and more. They also enjoyed bookings at the Palladium in London and other theaters in Paris. This was during the infamous Prohibition Era that sparked the moniker of the times: The Roarin’ Twenties.
Meanwhile, the depression waged on while Arthur and Vivien earned enough money to not only support themselves, but Arthur’s unmarried sisters as well. Then came a baby boy named Bennett. Vivien had to begin adjusting to a new life staying at home. But, the income was gone.
By the late 1930’s, Vaudeville bookings diminished drastically as talkie movies and radio emerged as the preferred sources of entertainment. Agents no longer found Vaudeville welcoming. Bookings vanished. Arthur was devastated. He refused any other opportunities in radio and movies. He desperately wanted to continue the embrace of live audiences and the infectious laughter that was so addicting. Not to be.
Arthur paced the floors night after night, babbling, singing, writing, calling agents during late hours, smoking four packs a day and writing jokes upon jokes all night long. Now pregnant with another child, Vivien was unable to keep her sanity nor make a living to support two children. Arguments ensued. Vivien went into a state of depression. Doctors determined that Arthur was severely manic depressive and schizophrenic. He was placed in a New York mental hospital called Creedmore.
The story is sad, indeed. Two years later, at another psychiatric hospital, Arthur was given insulin shock treatment which inadvertently destroyed his immune system. Arthur died from pneumonia in November, 1941.
The 42 year-old comic never laid eyes on his second son. But as long that second son is still living, Arthur Robert Frank will always matter.
By the way, today is April 9th. Happy Birthday, Dad.