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Frank Bush: Jewish Headliner

From Douglas Gilbert, American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1940), pp. 287 - 290.

The racial acceptance of the 1900's audiences is further attested in their hearty response to Jewish character comedy. The faithful will recall Burt and Leon who, with Frank Bush, flourished as Jew comics from the seventies to the nineties. They were the great exceptions. Beyond these there were no Jewish acts of importance during the nineties. There were plenty of excellent Jewish performers, but they were doing Dutch, blackface, or singing and dancing acts. Some of them were good Irish comedians. Indeed, Weber and Fields at one time did a neat Irish act. Ed Rush and his wife (Rush and Bryant) were grand Irish comics, with all the trimmings: cape coats, lace falls, knee pants, and conical hats.

Frank Bush hung on to reap his reward in the twentieth century when his type of comedy was best appreciated. Then he really flowered as a headline attraction. He had the foresight, and the talent, to mix up his characters-his versatility was as amazing as his off-stage character was unique.

According to Bush's own story, he made his first public appearance in the Grand Duke Theatre where, as the reader may remember, Sam Bernard made his debut. It was run by Dave Conroy, who was also stage manager, producer, scenic artist, actor, and played the accordion-his "orchestra" for accompaniments and overtures. For the most part the performers were newsboys and other kids who did jig dancing, bone solos, blackface acts, and dialect specialties. Bush did a routine of imitations and character bits which were of such merit he had no difficulty in booking himself into the regular variety houses.

In his original act he opened in grotesque Jew make-up: tall, rusty plug hat, long black coat, shabby pants, long beard which ran to a point and large spectacles. As a youth he was tall, thin, and limber-a physique that accentuated his crazy song and dance and funny gestures. Here is one of his first songs; a jargon of his own invention, no doubt:

Oh, my name is Solomon Moses I'm a bully Sheeny man,
I always treat my customers the very best what I can.
I keep a clothing store 'way down on Baxter St.,
Where you can get your clothing now I sell so awful cheap

CHORUS: Solomon, Solomon Moses, (Break).
Hast du gesehen der clotheses- (Break).
Hast du gesehen der kleiner kinder,
Und der sox iss in der vinder?
I sell to you for viertel dollar,
You will say was cheap,
Oskaploka overcoats
For fimpf sehn dollar and half.
My name is Isaac Levy Solomon Moses hast du gesacht?

His dance was no dance at all; it was more like a Hopi Indian ritual, except for his spectacles, as he shuffled around with his with his hands behind him and peered at the audience over his glasses. For his exit after the second verse he accomplished a kind of schottische movement, using his hands and arms more than his feet. Bush may well have been vaudeville's first eccentric dancer. Certainly this was the first specialty of its kind in early variety theaters.

Next he impersonated a German entering a saloon; then a Yankee farmer; and they were remarkable. They had no continuity or meaning in relation to story; they were pure characterizations. As the German he made up with a mop of iron-gray hair, a walrus mustache to match, a straw hat, and a long linen duster.

Ach, guten morgen, Schwartburger. Ich bin heis. Ich will ein glass bier haben. (Business of drinking) Ah-h-h-h, das bier ist gut! Ich bin gangen geworden down sein binz eber ganz Laudenschlager Strasse. Das is two mein alles schwartzzingenpfeifer bicht mein Landsmann unt seden gegeneber. Ich habe mein pantoffel veloren. Wo hast mein pantoffel gesehen- Wo hast mein pantoffel gesehen-

And so on; getting louder and faster until exit. The gibberish matched his eccentric performance and was received with guffaws.

His cow-swapping Yankee was an astonishing contrast:

There she be neighbor-not a finer critter in this whole county -sound in eye, wind and limb-not a blemish on her the size of a pin point - kind and gentle, good milker and light feeder-every word I'm telling yeh is true as the noon-day sun-I'll swap even for that roan heifer of yourn if you'll throw in a couple of plugs of store tobacco and come over next Tuesday and help break in a yoke of steers - Is it a swap?-Shake hands on it-The halter don't go with the cow, you'd better fetch along a rope when you come to git her - Goin' down by the cider mill?- Reckon I'll go along part ways- Tarnation dry weather, ain't it? (Exit)

After this he obliged with a tin-whistle solo. The man was an expert on the tin whistle, which sounds like a gag in itself. Yet Bush got as big a hand for his tin-whistle triple-tongue polka (featured by Jules Levy, the famous cornet soloist) as he did for his characterizations. An eccentric, Bush, between shows, would make a pitch on the street (often near the theater, to the management's embarrassment) and sell tin whistles. With a satchelful of them dangling from his neck, he'd mount a soapbox and when the crowd collected he'd call for tunes: "No trouble to play it, gents. Give me a tune. Look-it's easyÉ" With his gentle kidding and his friendly personality thousands at a dime apiece-no small addition to his performer's salary.

With a poignant attempt to seize the forelock of the times that begat audiences alert to brushed clothes, clean boots, and daily shirt and collar changes, Bush junked his Baxter Street costume and wig make-up and appeared in a dinner jacket, retaining only the spectacles, for a monologue that consisted mainly of stories in all dialects. But he lost caste as the new century drew toward the close of its first decade. And it bothered him, too, that the success of a show he took out on his own, "Girl Wanted," in which he played a protean comedy role, was only middling. He was forced to return to vaudeville. But his oars were gone; there was nothing to rest on. The new generation didn't care what he had been. They saw only a funny old man in a tuxedo who might have looked more agreeably comic in duster and mop wig.

But nothing can take credit from him for surviving through the years of a vaudeville that was changing with a chameleon America. As a pioneer Jewish single he made that type of comedy a staple in our variety theaters. To his moss-green coattails figuratively was tied nearly every succeeding Hebrew comedian. Their ultimate acclaim is largely due to his efforts; and so from 1900 on we enjoyed a wake of Jewish acts that enlivened and diversified vaudeville.

 

See also Frank Bush newspaper clippings and an obituary of Frank Bush.


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