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Grandpa Was a Clown

John J Doyle

“I have a weak back.”

“How long have you had it?”

“About a week back.”

I was only six when my grandfather, John “Jack” Doyle, passed away, but I still smile when I remember his face and little comedy bits like this one that he would say.

Grandpa was a vaudevillian in his younger years. According to a handful of undated, poorly photocopied news clips, he was a “well-known” Chicago comedian from vaudeville and traveling shows before and after his military service. Some of the little articles are about upcoming shows and others are updates on his condition after being injured in France during World War I.

Vaudeville was a specific type of entertainment in the United States and Canada from the late 1880s until the early 1930s. It was a variety-type show that featured multiple different acts on one bill. Musicians, dancers, comedians, acrobats, jugglers, and magicians offered an evening of family amusement. It was a time when live entertainment was still king until motion pictures took over that role.

The first official vaudeville theater in Chicago opened at the West Side Museum in 1882. The Clark Street Museum, Olympic Theater, and the Chicago Opera House soon followed. Some of the largest Chicago theaters seated 2,000 such as Academy of Music, the Haymarket, McVickers, and the Majestic, which was later renamed the Shubert.

I can imagine the patrons attending these shows out for a night of fun, dressed in their finery. Men would be dashing in hats and coats while woman were particularly sassy in shorter dresses and flirty hair accessories in the 1920s style.

A few years ago I dressed in a flapper dress for Halloween, and I have to tell you, it was so much fun. There is something about that dress that attracted men and women alike and felt festive while wearing it. It also made me feel a little closer to my grandpa, imagining how it would be to have attended one of his shows.

©2013, Mary K. Doyle

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