It’s not often that a theater takes out an ad apologizing for a show it has booked. But apparently Arthur Ungar, manager of The Miles Theater in Schenectady, felt the need to do so at the end of 1920.
“‘Oh Girlie Girlie,’ the musical Revue with Harry Jolson playing the stellar role, which had been booked to play this theater last night and the matinee and night performances today, was such a disappointment to the management that the engagement was concluded with the initial performance, last night. It was a ‘try-out’ and under those circumstances no information was available as to the merits or entertaining qualities of the production.”
Ungar goes on to explain that the producer was reputable, but that “from the onset of the performance, I saw the hopelessness of further continuing the presentation of the attraction and decided to conclude its engagement.” Was it really that bad, or was it somehow lewd or offensive? We guess we’ll never know. Now, of course, we consider blackface itself offensive, but like a host of other ethnic comedy tropes, it was considered the height of low comedy at the time.
What do we know about Harry Jolson? He’s generally described as Al Jolson’s older, and lesser, brother. That he also performed a blackface act is probably no surprise, given the time and the penchant for vaudeville acts to simply copy anything that had success for anyone else. Harry was known as “The Operatic Blackface Comedian.”
Some weeks later, the New York Clipper told the tale of the Schenectady disaster, and gave a little bit more information on the provenance of the show, which had gone on to play in other cities including New York. It said the show, produced by Joe Woods Enterprises with book by Tommy Gray and music and lyrics by Leo Woods, received very negative reviews. “The dailies handed the show an awful rap. The book, by Tommy Gray, was given a special pan, in one of them, which said in part: ‘As for material, “Oh, Girlie, Girlie” offers a series of antiquated burlesque bits, some of them so old that they squeak about the joints.’ Harry Jolson, featured in the piece, evidently had little faith in it for, according to the critic, near the end of the first part of the show he leaned across the footlights and said, ‘I’m not to blame for this.'” The article says that the show was an “elaboration” of another Joe Woods vaudeville production, “Around the World.”
The single performance in Schenectady didn’t mean that Capital District audiences were completely deprived of the show, however. On Christmas Day of 1920, it was to be performed at the Amsterdam Theatre, billed as “The Whirly Girlie Musical Revue Oh, Girlie, Girlie, with the Famous Blackface Comedian Harry Jolson and Chorus of Cute Chic Charming Darlings. ‘Just Chock Full of Pep.'” The New York Dramatic Mirror reported on it in advance, without any mention of the disaster in Schenectady, but saying it was a reworking of something called ‘Hanky Panky Jr.” No word on how that went over in Amsterdam.
It took a little bit of digging to figure exactly what and where the Miles Theatre was, as it didn’t bear that name for very long (and in fact ducked being listed in the city directory under that name at all). The Miles was briefly the name for what had been the old Van Curler Opera House, as 117-119 Jay Street (so being near State Street, as the ad claimed, was relative; the building was along Franklin Street). The Miles featured burlesque and vaudeville, more than a bit of a comedown from the level of acts and Broadway shows that had featured at the Van Curler. In fact, it operated under the Miles name for only about a year.
The Miles was part of a fairly obscure vaudeville circuit, the Miles circuit out of Detroit (also with offices in New York, apparently). It was a name that meant pretty much nothing anywhere, and certainly not in Schenectady, and it wasn’t to last. In January 1921, the Gazette wrote, “An announcement from the general offices of Charles H. Miles in New York last night said that Monday, February 14, the name of the Miles theater will be changed back to the Van Curler Opera House. When the theater was undergoing alterations last summer and it was voiced about the city that the name of the Van Curler, which was beloved by all Schenectadians on account of past associations, was going to be changed there was much protest on the part of the theater patrons and local residents. An associate of Mr. Miles was obdurate to all of these appeals and had the name changed.” You can believe the press agent’s story that manager Arthur Ungar brought the concerns of the city’s residents to the attention of Charles H. Miles, who then proclaimed that under no circumstances did he “wish to deprive the people of Schenectady of any such coveted name.” It’s more likely that under the name of Miles they were having a very difficult time filling a big house that they planned to make bigger, at 2,200 seats.
We’ll have more to say about the Van Curler Opera House soon.