As a Folger staff member, I am used to seeing Shakespeare’s face everywhere, but the image from this month’s Crocodile Mystery made even me do a double take. This month’s mystery was a stumper! The Hamlet behind Shakespeare/Yorick was Edwin “Eddie” Foy, a famous comic performer of the vaudeville era.
Of all the roles available to a performer in Foy’s irreverent domain, it is curious that Hamlet is the one that haunts this jokester’s career. Hamlet is the centerpiece of three important moments during Eddie Foy’s long command of the vaudeville stage. As a longtime fan of the melancholy Dane, it appears that when Eddie Foy had a choice, he chose to “Play it again, Ham.”
Eddie Foy, as told in his 1928 autobiography Clowning through Life (with Alvin F. Harlow), got his start on the stage as a supernumerary in a wide range of productions. He recounts with detail his impressions of Edwin Booth’s deep voice and commanding stage presence during an 1870 production of Hamlet in which Foy appeared “sometimes as a guard or attendant, sometimes as one of the strolling players.”1
Edwin Booth as Hamlet, by Napoleon Sarony. Folger call number: ART File B725.4 no.61 part 4 PHOTO (size XS).
So much did Eddie Foy admire Edwin Booth he initially wanted to model his career after his idol:
I was particularly interested in Booth in my very youthful days because at that time I wanted to do tragedy—the heavier, the better—and I fully believed that I would someday achieve it. I used to stand spellbound, watching him do his marvelous Hamlet, and saying to myself, so fervently that it was a prayer, ‘Oh, God, will I ever be able to do that?’2
Foy, by his own admission, was a “goose longing to be a swan” in his attempts to model his stage dreams on Booth. Although his career took a comic turn, Foy was so inspired by Booth’s Hamlet performance he committed the role to heart should he ever be called upon to play it.3
‘Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane’
Fast-forward to the height of Eddie Foy’s clownish career in vaudeville as the star performer in the show Mr. Blue Beard in 1903. The show, like others of its time, included a plot interspersed with songs, dancing, acrobatics, animal tricks, and other entertainments. Eddie Foy presented a comic performance alongside a small elephant and sang two numbers—“I’m a Poor, Unhappy Maid,” and “Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane.”4 This show seems an unlikely place for us to find Hamlet, but that’s vaudeville!
“Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane” (1902) was the product of a collaboration between two songwriters, William Jerome (lyrics) and Jean Schwartz (music)—friends and song-suppliers of Eddie Foy. Their first co-written hit was a minstrel song called “When Mr. Shakespeare Comes to Town” (1901).5 The duo had their big break when they wrote a song called “Mr. Dooley” (1902), which sold over a million copies of sheet music and appeared in two separate shows in the year before Mr. Blue Beard.6
In my search for more information on “Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane,” I came across an invaluable resource for historic sheet music researchers and aficionados—The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection from Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries & University Museums. What I appreciate about this resource is that it is built for researchers and musicians. Along with important metadata and links to music research categories, the page provides a “performance view” that allows a musician to play and sing along with the digitized sheet music.
Recordings and sheet music were made to be used—to support public performance, provide home entertainment, and to draw fans closer to their favorite stars. In 1903, Dan W. Quinn recorded the song for Victrola, which the University of California, Santa Barbara has digitized and made available through the Discography of American Historical Recordings.
The exciting part about sheet music is that it allows me to relive this piece of history with my own hands. I played and sang my way through “Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane” like the home performers of 1903 did. The process of learning and performing this song reminded me of the hands-on experience with materials from the Folger that I have missed during our renovation. History came alive in my hands and voice, this time, in my living room.7
The video that accompanies my rendition of this piece allows the viewer to follow the music as it is played (you can view a larger version of this video, if you’d like to follow along). I extend my deepest thanks to my friend, Kyle Heise, for producing the audio recording. Any mistakes are my own (thank you for overlooking them!). The footnote at the end of this sentence links to liner notes that explain most of the baffling allusions in the song!8
Eddie Foy sung this humorous song in Mr. Blue Beard during the matinee opening performance at the brand-new Iroquois Theatre in Chicago on December 30, 1903—a performance that could not have been more tragic. During this performance, the deadliest theater fire in United States history took the lives of at least 602 people in 8 minutes. Eddie Foy and his son Bryan (who happened to attend the show that day) survived the conflagration—a miraculous outcome considering that Eddie Foy remained onstage until he could only see smoke, trying to calm the crowd fleeing toward the single, unmarked exit.9
Even though the show did not continue its run in Chicago after the tragic fire, the song “Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane” stood on its own as an Eddie Foy hit that typified the Jerome and Schwartz era of his career.
Mr. Hamlet of Broadway
Near the end of Clowning through Life, Eddie Foy recounts his successful performance in a production of The Orchid (1907), after which a reviewer wrote, “‘I didn’t believe he had it in him,’ was the remark made by many who have seen Foy only in his conventional roles. But take care, Eddie. This doesn’t mean that you can play Hamlet.”10 In an interview with the press shortly after, Foy countered, “I have as much right to play Hamlet as anyone else, I paid 15 cents for a copy of the piece, and that’s all it cost anybody else…Yes, I used to sing ‘Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane,’ but I did not state it as a fact, and even if it were so, that has no bearing on the case.”11
The rumor that Eddie Foy would shift his career to tragedy—and his surname to Fitzgerald—at the apex of his fame was fostered by his producers, the Shubert Brothers. They were at work with Foy on a top-secret show—a burlesque version of Hamlet. Eddie Foy strategically (and hilariously) kept the press in the dark and instead of owning up to the truth, treated himself to swindling earnest journalists into believing he intended to become the next Edwin Booth.12
The Shuberts and Foy mercilessly pursued their press gambit during the Summer of 1908 to conjure interest in their new venture. Upon learning this story, I promptly jumped onto my go-to website for researching in American newspapers—Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from Library of Congress. Using Advanced Search, I found a wealth of interviews, reviews, and advertisements for Mr. Foy ahem…Fitzgerald’s new Hamlet show.
The newspaper record for Eddie Foy’s press stunt provided more joy and information than I could have imagined. In this typical example, he starts the interview speaking only in Hamlet quotations or Shakespearean dialect—“Whither wilt thou lead me, speak”—but obviously the joke is on the interviewer who is “at a loss for a quotation.”13 Clearly, Foy enjoyed the practical joke—proving the comedian had not left comedy after all.
Cured of his “attack of Hamletitis,”14 Eddie Foy’s joke ended when the real show premiered in Fall 1908. We have come full circle to the images that began our post and solved the mystery—Mr. Hamlet of Broadway, “a screaming musical whimsicality,”15 included scenes from Hamlet situated in a story in which summer guests at “Starvation Inn, Lake Putrid” in the Adirondacks put together a summer theatrical.16 When the famous tragedian engaged for the show strands the production without a leading man, circus clown/hotel janitor Joey Wheeze (Eddie Foy) fills in as Hamlet.
The play was popular—some accounts describe standing-room only matinees and extended or sold out runs up to 7 weeks long.17
Today, if he is remembered at all, Eddie Foy’s legacy stems from his family act, “The Seven Little Foys.” Eddie Foy’s second act as the head of his family show captured the imaginations of screenwriters, who made both a TV movie and feature-length biopic—both called The Seven Little Foys—the latter starring Bob Hope as Eddie Foy.
In this scene from The Seven Little Foys (1955), Eddie Foy (Bob Hope) and George M. Cohan (James Cagney, reprising his role from Yankee Doodle Dandy) perform an energetic, tabletop dance-off—four minutes well worth your time!
Foy’s son, Eddie Jr., made a career of impersonating his father, snippets of which you can watch in a tribute video on YouTube. His impressions of his father are the closest we will find to his father’s spluttering speech and finger-snapping, collar-clicking song-and-dance routines. There have been many actors who have played Hamlet through the ages, but none quite like Eddie Foy. After sharing his song and story, I feel a stronger connection with him, the world of vaudeville, and the fans who sustained his six-decade-long career.
- Foy, Edwin and Alvin F. Harlow. Clowning through Life. E.P. Dutton and Company, New York, 1928, p. 71. Accessed from Internet Archive March 24, 2021, https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.167540/mode/2up. Booth last performed as Hamlet in 1891.
- Ibid, p. 73.
- Ibid, p. 74.
- Ibid, p. 271-272.
- “When Mr. Shakespeare Comes to Town” New York Public Library Music Division. Content advisory: the cover and lyrics of this document contain racist language, representations of racial stereotypes, and depictions of actors performing in blackface.
- A Chinese Honeymoon and The Wizard of Oz.
- There are always differences between recordings and live performances. In the instance of “Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane,” I recorded the song as written, which includes both choruses after each verse. This accounts for the approximately 2-minute discrepancy in run times between my rendition and the Dan W. Quinn recording.
- Liner notes for “Hamlet was a Melancholy Dane”:
- Omega oil: Fish oil—same anti-inflammatory supplement we know today.
- Boston College: The chorus line “icy and frapped as a Boston College maid” could allude to Boston College as a commuter college (wrapped up young women during notorious Boston winters) and/or a sexist satire of the (traditionally) Irish-Catholic women students’ supposed chilly and unapproachable demeanors. Additionally, around the time of this song, in New England, the word “frappe” came into use to describe a milkshake (or other blended frozen beverages), another chilly and frothy option to describe these young women.
- Dooley: Jerome and Schwartz’s “Mr. Dooley” appeared in A Chinese Honeymoon (1902) and The Wizard of Oz (1903). The song’s title character was based on the Finley Peter Dunne invention by the same name—an Irish bartender living in Chicago who commented on the news of the day from 1893-1915, 1924-1926. Mr. Dooley’s popularity reached its height during the Spanish-American war, garnering the admiration of Theodore Roosevelt, even though he frequently found himself on the wrong side of Mr. Dooley. The call out of “Mr. Dooley” in this song serves as both advertisement and a tip off to the listener who the composers were.
- Salary: In the United States, salaried employment was becoming more common during the early 20th century, but was not formally recognized as a legally separate type of paid work until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
- I’m t-i-r-e-d: Based on the lyrics of the song it seems likely this is a call out to another song, like the reference to Mr. Dooley, however, I was unable to find the source. Let us know in the comments if you know where it comes from!
- Eddie Foy recounts his memories of this event in Clowning through Life, chapter XX (pp. 271-290). Failures that led to the fire’s devastating outcome included a false asbestos fire-suppression, or “iron” curtain that failed to lower correctly, unmarked exits, an oversold house, and stage smoke chimneys that had been sealed shut. The reader should be advised that the account is disturbing, including descriptions of individual fire victims, human and animal death, and suicide.
- Foy and Harlow, p. 297.
- “Eddie Foy Determined to Play Hamlet.” Goodwin’s Weekly: a thinking paper for thinking people. (Salt Lake City Utah), 11 Jan. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress, p. 5, p. 6.
- Foy and Harlow, p. 297.
- The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 07 Nov. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1909-11-07/ed-1/seq-27/.
- The Topeka state journal. (Topeka, Kansas), 04 Dec. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016014/1909-12-04/ed-1/seq-17/.
- Foy and Harlow, p. 302.
- The Topeka state journal. (Topeka, Kansas), 27 Nov. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016014/1909-11-27/ed-1/seq-17/.