This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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The Great Weber & The De Rue Brothers Minstrels

07 October 2011

In a continuation of last week's vaudeville theme, I introduce to you "The Great Weber", a most unique and startling musician, whose like you may never have seen before - a cross-dressing, singing mellophone player. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, every community in America that was large enough to have a train station, would have at least one, if not two or three theaters devoted to the traveling artistes of the vaudeville variety circuit. These acts toured the country offering every style of music, comedy, melodrama, illusion, and athletic stunt to a public eager for entertainment, and willing to pay good money for it. 

"The Great Weber"  is a wonderful example of the novelty act. As you can see in this promotional photo postcard he was One Person but Nine Characters - at least. He sang, performed on both the violin and mellophone, and to make it worth watching, he dressed in women's clothing.



Female impersonators, and for that matter male impersonators too, have been part of the theater since Shakespeare's time. In this era there was no real dividing line between the early vaudeville acts, music hall shows, circus and carnival performers, and burlesque reviews. It was all showbiz. They each had cycles of popularity and varied levels of sophistication - from classic opera to lowbrow humor. But risque titillation could always sell tickets.

This illustration came from the October 26, 1910 Evening News in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and shows The Great Weber - impersonator, soloist, duetist, and musician dressed as both a woman and a man. He was finishing a run at the Dreamland Theater and was described as "one of the best singers to play any vaudeville house." No comment on his playing the mellophone or violin.



On the back of the card is a note from the Great Weber to his friend, Mr. Benny G. Van of Rochester, NY. He writes from Janesville, Wisconsin that he is still on the road and living with his brother and sister in Chicago. Benny is Benjamin G. Van or Van Olinde in later census records. His father, George W. Van was a "showman traveler" and in 1910 Benny was a "theatrical manager", but his circuit was described in one eBay auction reference as the carnival side shows displaying freaks or "Big Lady Minstrel Shows". Interestingly in 1900 at age 25, Benny's employment in the census was listed as "cripple." 

Infuriatingly, because Benny G. knows him, The Great Weber signs only his stage name. Though he does leave an address, 7710 Emerald Ave. in Chicago, despite a very deep search of census records, city directories, etc. I could not find his brother and sister, or a full name for the Great Weber. And was Weber even his real surname? It is one of the more common names in America and certainly in Chicago, and it to make it more difficult, an internet search for "Great Weber" includes thousands of hits for: "great Weber & Fields" vaudeville comic act, "great Weber Duck Farms" c. 1910-20, and "great Weber gas grill".

Still there were just enough hits in the newspaper archives to date the Great Weber  from around 1910 to 1921, and everywhere from Michigan to Iowa to New York. By chance though, I found his act listed under the headline of another group whose photo postcard is also in my collection. 


The De Rue Bro's Minstrels and Concert Band shown in this promotional card, were in the genre of minstrel shows. This card was never mailed so there were limited clues, but research revealed that they were popular from around 1910 to around 1925. Billy De Rue, "That Talkative Man" and his brother Bobby De Rue "A Satan for the Blues" traveled with a 22 man ensemble that probably played a hybrid version of the old comic minstrel show combined with military band music. I'm unsure if they performed in the traditional black-face. Note that beneath their top hats and long coats they are wearing army leggings. My guess is that Bobby is on the front right holding a cornet and wearing a cap. Which bandsman looks most talkative?


They included The Great Weber in March 1919 for an engagement in Olean, NY. It included the Leahy Bros., the Golden City Vocal Quartette, and Kelda the Human Frog. Guaranteed the best minstrel show ever here.

These musical acts were part of an elaborate industry which included a complex network of theatrical agents and theaters. It was also driven by a competitive industry of New York music publishers and song writers in Tin Pan Alley.  These shows were the predecessors of silent movies that would eventually take over the public's attention and ultimately lead to the "talkies" and finally television shows.




Eva Tanguay Digital ID: TH-54730. New York Public Library
This may be all the history ever written about The Great Weber, but it isn't enough to just look at his photo. What might his act have sounded like? I may have an idea.

One of the most popular vaudeville singers of this era was Eva Tanguay (1879 - 1947) shown here in a photo from the New York Public Library Archive. She was famous for her lavish costumes and extravagant lifestyle. An article on Slate.com,  Vanishing Act describes, Tanguay as the first mass media celebrity - a rock star. She became one of the most highly paid music hall artists of her time and her songs were all the rage in the America of 1900-10.

The song I Don't Care was written in 1905 and Torguay recorded it in 1922. I'm willing to bet that The Great Weber sang it too. And
I'll bet his costume trunk was every bit as heavy as Eva's.



I Don't Care
Lyrics from Musicals101.com

Verse 1
They say I'm crazy, got no sense,
But I don't care.
They may or may not mean offence,
But I don't care;
You see I'm sort of independent,
Of a clever race descendent,
My star is on the ascendant,
That's why I don't care.
Chorus 1
I don't care,
I don't care,
What they may think of me.
I'm happy go lucky,
Men say I am plucky,
So jolly and care free.
I don't care,
I don't care,
If I do get the mean and stony stare.
If I'm never successful,
It won't be distressful,
'Cos I don't care.
Verse 2
Some people say I think I'm it,
But I don't care,
They say they don't like me a bit,
But I don't care;
'Cos my good nature effervescing,
Is one, there is no distressing,
My spirit there is no oppressing,
Just 'cos I don't care.
Chorus 2
I don't care,
I don't care,
If people don't like me,
I'll try to outlive it,
I know I'll forgive it,
And live contentedly.
I don't care,
I don't care,
If people do not try to treat me fair.
There is naught can amaze me,
Dislike cannot daze me,
'Cos I don't care.

My contribution to Sepia Saturday
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11 comments:

Brett Payne said...

Mike - Thank you for an enthralling insight into the world that my great-grandfather entered into, albeit briefly, in the small towns around Chicago in 1891. the acts you describe fit perfectly the "Whistling Bird, Arizona Cowboy and Disappearing Lady" described by my great uncle to my Dad some 70 years later.

Postcardy said...

Fascinating postcards and story. I wish I could have seen his act.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I always think vaudeville must have been great fun, both for the performers (though hard work no doubt) and for the audiences. Eva Tanguay definitely sounds like fun. :)

Bob Scotney said...

A thoroughly entertaining post that makes you wish you could have seen the Great Weber perform.

Unknown said...

There used to be (perhaps still?) Vaudeville reproduction acts in restored theaters in Colorado tourist towns. The performances were a hoot but I often wonder how accurately they followed the real thing. There was definitely no one copying the Great Weber! His is an act I would love to see.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

What a tribute to an interesting and talented performer. I wonder if any of his family will find your post someday?

Thank you for all the work that you put into your post.

Kathy M.

PattyF said...

What an entertaining and informative post! Thanks for including the song, too. I'll bet Eva was a real crowd pleaser in her day! Thanks so much! This was a delight to read!

Alan Burnett said...

I don't know what to say - I've said it all before. I always look forward to your posts - like settling down to read a really good illustrated article in a Sunday magazine.

tony said...

[I Close My Eyes,Smile&Imagine)The Great Weber walking onto the X-Factor Stage!

Christine H. said...

Fascinating, as ever. it seems like the Great Weber would be a good subject for a movie.

Howard said...

I love the first postcard of The Great Weber. Absolutely fascinating story Mike.

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