May 10, 2012 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
Nineteenth century Broadway star May Irwin never wore blackface, but she was known far and wide as one of America’s best-loved “coon shouters.”
May Irwin, a Canadian native who began her stage career in Buffalo in 1874 and last performed on Broadway in 1922, spent her final decades in Upstate New York. During her 48-year career she summered in the Thousand Islands. She purchased Club Island which she dubbed Irwin Isle.
The term “coon shouter” was used to describe white female vocalists in the 1880s and ’90s who specialized in singing “coon songs.” Those wildly popular ditties of the day, composed both by black and white tunesmiths, typically featured lyrics in Negro dialect which carefreely caricatured African-American life set to the strains of ragtime tunes.
Although a well-known entertainer during her lifetime, May Irwin is all-but-forgotten now except as the actress who received the first filmed kiss in an 1896 short shot by Thomas Edison.
And next week, she’ll be one of the subjects of a television documentary which explores her role in promoting Thousand Island salad dressing.
Singer liked salad
Eric J. Roberts, a Liverpool advertising expert with experience in television writing and production, and Andrea Reeves, a graphic designer who works at WCNY-TV, co-produced a documentary exploring the salad dressing’s origin. Titled “The Mysterious Origin of Thousand Island Dressing,” the one-hour doc will air on WCNY-TV Channel 24, at 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 16.
Roberts and Reeves consider three possible sources of the recipe:
–A maitre d’ at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
–The wife of a Clayton charter-boat captain.
–The chef at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, possibly inspired while vacationing in the Thousand Islands.
May Irwin, then one of the highest-paid performers on Broadway and a frequent visitor to the islands, may have had connections to each of these. It’s said that some time around 1905 after she enjoyed the dressing at a restaurant near Clayton, Irwin gave the recipe to another Thousand Islands summer resident, George Boldt. As proprietor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Boldt instructed the hotel’s maitre d’, Oscar Tschirky – the same gastronomic genius who invented the Waldorf salad – to put Thousand Island dressing on the hotel’s menu.
Born in Whitby, Ontario, May Irwin made her stage debut at age 13 with her sister, Flora, in Buffalo in December 1874. She first came to the Thousand Islands two years later when the sisters were booked on a tour which included stops in Ogdensburg and Kingston, Ontario.
By 1883, May had gone solo. She made her London debut in 1884, and by age 25 she was earning $2,500 a week. Some time during the 1880s or early-90s, Irwin bought Club Island, off of Grindstone Island.
Though ambitious, the Canadian showgirl was hardly a looker. The buxom, blue-eyed blonde displayed a fashionable full-bodied hourglass figure, but her face was pleasant at best. May made up for her lack of natural beauty with a personality that sparkled and a singing voice with verve and vitality.
Lewis C. Strang, theater critic for the Boston Journal, observed, “May Irwin is a personality rather than an artist, an entertainer more than an actress … [She] is a famous fun-maker. Of jolly rotund figure and with a face that reflects the gaiety of nations, she is the personification of humor and careless mirth,”
Over the next 20 years, Irwin rose to prominence along the Great White Way performing in melodramatic musicals and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. By the late-1880s, Irwin was singing coon songs which were all the rage from coast to coast. Unlike other coon shouters such as Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker, however, Irwin declined to perform in blackface.
One of the first coon hits was “New Coon in Town” (1883) by J. S. Putnam. The biggest coon hit ever was Ernest Hogan’s “All Coons Look Alike to Me” (1896) about a woman rejecting her lover for another man with more money. Like many coon song composers, Hogan was black. In fact, around the turn of the century, American blacks also enjoyed coon songs.
‘The Bully Song’
A New York Times article from Feb. 5, 1897, details a charitable appearance which Irwin made at the Colored Home and Hospital at First Avenue and 65th Street in Manhattan. The reporter wrote that her all-black audience “swayed in time with the music and broke out hilariously at the familiar ideas she expressed” in her coon songs.
While other vocalists such as Clarice Vance also made good livings as coon shouters, Irwin turned it into a franchise. In 1895 May hit the mother lode, starring in “The Widow Jones,” followed for four years thereafter by similar shows with titles like “The Swell Miss Fitzwell.”
Irwin’s most famous role was as the Widow Jones. That show debuted “The Bully Song,” her biggest hit. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre attests that “The Bully Song” put Irwin “in the forefront of what then were termed ‘coon shouters.’”
The street-patrolling “bully coon” was often used as a stock character in coon songs, according to Jim Dorman, author of “Shaping the Popular Image of Post-Reconstruction American Blacks: The ‘Coon Song’ Phenomenon of the Gilded Age.”
In May 1907, Irwin recorded “The Bully Song” for Victor. The disc apparently reached No. 7 in the U.S. during the week of Dec. 28, 1907, largely on the strength of its catchy chorus:
“As I walk this levee round, round, round. Ev’ry night I can be found. As I walk this levee round, round, round. I’m lookin’ for de bully of de town!”
At that 1907 session Irwin also waxed “When You Ain’t Got No Money, You Needn’t Come Around,” “The Frog Song,” “Mat-ri-mony,” “Don’t Argify” and “Moses Andrew Jackson, Goodbye,” all coon songs.
These recordings can be heard on a 2011 CD also featuring songs sung by Louisville-based coon shouter Clarice Vance. The disc, “Clarice Vance and May Irwin: The High Priestess of Jollity & The Southern Singer,” can be found at archeophone.com.
The coon song craze died out by 1911, according to musicologist Tim Gracyk, and Irwin retired from show biz in 1920 although her final Broadway appearance was in The 49ers in 1922. Not far from her summer getaway near Clayton, a street was eventually named in her honor.