Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Nat Wills, The Happy Tramp

By: Bruce Johnson

Nat Wills (Edward McGregor) (1873- December 14, 1917) was a vaudeville headliner. He was one of the first entertainers to perform at the famous Palace Theater, and he appeared in the 1913 edition of the Ziegfield Follies.

He was known for topical humor. During World War I, he would read telegrams he found in a trash can. "Here's one from a war correspondent, SCANDAL IN PARIS - FRENCH OFFICER FOUND IN BED WITH GERMAN MEASLES. From a troop commander to Allied headquarters, GERMAN TROOPS ISSUED LIMBURGER RATIONS. WE FIND THEIR TRENCHES UNAPPROACHABLE. From a foreign correspondent of a small paper, SAW THE CZAR ATTENDING THE OPERA IN MOSCOW. THE CZARDINE WAS IN THE BOX WITH HIM."

Wills created "No News," one of the most famous and copied vaudeville routines. He played a servant reporting to his absent master on the telephone, saying, "There's no news - except that you don't have to bring home any dog food - well, because the dog died - he was trying to save the baby - from the fire - the one your wife started when she ran off with the chauffeur.  Except for that there is no news."

Wills also sang comedy songs. His song "B.P.O.E." was preserved on a recording titled "They Stopped the Show." The song began, "Oh, young brother Elk by the name of McCarthy, He ran off with my wife, There was no need to run for when he took her from me I was his friend for life."

The Hippodrome Theater in New York was equipped to present shows with spectacular sets. When Wills appeared there in Cheer Up in 1917, a real steam locomotive pulled a string of box cars onto the stage. A group of tramp clowns exited the cars, and then Wills sang "When Old New York Goes Dry.""

In addition to his contributions as an entertainer, Wills tried to help all entertainers. He was an original member of the Board of Governors of the White Rats, the first entertainer's union. The White Rats (star spelled backwards) were organized June 1, 1900 to combat the abuses of the United Booking Office, a group of managers who had a monopoly on vaudeville bookings.

Wills died in his garage of carbon monoxide poisoning on December 14, 1917. Although he had been highly paid, he was almost destitute. Much of his income had gone to pay alimony to his ex-wives. It was never determined whether his death was an accident or suicide.

Excerpted from The Tramp Tradition

Copyright 1993 by Bruce "Charlie" Johnson, all rights reserved.

The Tramp Tradition is currently out of print.

 

 

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