Arthur McWatters (1871-1963) grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, and returned there throughout his life to hunt and fish in the area. He taught piano and organ there as a young man, and advertised himself as a “tenor balladist” already with several compositions to his name. In the mid-1890s he and three friends went to New York to seek careers there. By 1898 he and Grace Tyson ( Scotts, Michigan, February 6, 1881 – October 20, 1942), who became his wife, were appearing together as McWatters & Tyson. Grace had been a child entertainer in Kalamazoo and cousin to Charles and Burton Fischer of the Fischer Expedition Orchestra and by age 9 was a singer and dancer in a minstrel show with Getter’s Minstrels and known as “that charming little soubrette”. She was already touring in shows by age 13 where she met up with her future partner when she was 15 and he was accompanying her and writing for the shows. Being very lovely and personable it was only natural that the composer and writer and the beautiful performer should start performing together in these shows for the Columbian Stock Company.
They sang, danced, and did comic skits, with Arthur playing guitar and banjo as well as piano. More than a dozen of Arthur’s compositions were actually published as sheet music and the group became known together and Grace also singly as significant national performers in vaudeville. McWatters became increasingly known as a writer of popular music. And Grace was chosen to star with Oliver Doud Byron as female juvenile lead in a series of plays although after this she and McWatters formed a permanent business arrangement and principally performed together although also sharing bills with Oliver and Kate Byron. Grace was a firecracker on stage, dancing and doing the popular cakewalk of the later 19th century and singing coon songs (songs that parody black people) also in vogue in this era. Grace also performed with her sisters Lena and Pearl who became significant musical comedy performers in their own right.
In 1899 the two had joined McIntyre and Heath’s Refined Vaudeville Company, one of the top minstrel groups in America where their act called “Scenes in a Dressing Room” became an American classic. New York City beckoned and work with famed comedienne Marie Dressler and a tour with the noted Proctor’s Circuit in vaudeville took them past the turn of the century and led to work with the famed Gus Hill’s Minstrels. Grace was becoming an amazing impressionist practicing before a mirror to contort her face also into the character she was spoofing, much as Jim Carrey did at the beginning of his career. She was particularly noted for being able to turn herself into a monkey before the audience’s eyes!
By 1907 Grace, who took solo work as well, starred with Will Rogers in The Girl Rangers in Chicago. And by 1910 she was a star in the fourth Ziegfeld Follies in New York. There she performed with the great comedienne Fannie Brice in a skit called In The Music Publisher’s Office and she introduce an actual national hit song by no less a composer than Irving Berlin called That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune (Mendelssohn Rag). At this point Grace Tyson had become a superstar in constant demand, more so than her husband. In a publicity stunt she insured her expressive eyes for $15000.
McWatters and Tyson however did not break up and continued to perform both together and, for Grace, singly. They shared the bill with the great minstrel king Lou Dockstader and Broadway’s greatest superstar George M. Cohan and the famed comedians Weber and Fields. Clearly, they were at the top of their profession in this period. Grace was described as being so dynamic and full of energy on stage that it was hard to imagine her being able to calm down when the curtain fell. The pair was so famous that in this period 1910-1913 they were earning $1000 a night for their engagements and were having to turn down thousands of dollars in offers because they were already booked everywhere they could accommodate.
In 1913-14 they toured to South Africa and London. At that time Grace was touted as “the actress whose eyes are insured for £5000.” They continued performing in an active tour schedule until at least 1925. Post World War I entertainment was very different from the early days but the duo remained popular although they performed less and less and took up permanent residence on Long Island at Freeport. The couple was in Hollywood performing in 1939 when Grace suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered and she spent her final years in a convalescent home visited by her husband.
With Grace’s death in 1942 at age 61, Arthur retired definitively from the stage and managed a chain of movie theaters around Freeport. He died at age ninety-two. The University of Arizona’s American Vaudeville Museum Collection is proud to house materials of two of vaudeville’s most dynamic and important stars, in hopes of increasing their visibility and memory for future generations.
61 6 Correspondence
61 7 Papers
61 8 Photographs