Elsie Janis (Born Delaware, Ohio 1-16-1889 – Died Beverly Hills, California 2-26-1956) was an American vaudevillian, Broadway superstar and World War I heroine who was once one of the most famous women in show business. While a little child she showed a gift for mimicry which was encouraged by her divorced mother Jennie, who was the ultimate stage mother. The Ohio governor was William McKinley in the 1890s and through a mutual friend, when McKinley became president of the United States, “Little Elsie” ended up entertaining at the White House, doing impressions of the big vaudeville stars of the time: Lillian Russell, May Irwin, and Fay Templeton.
Playing the Keith and Orpheum circuits except for New York where underage laws kept her from touring, she became fairly well known and eventually joined the Abom Opera Company and starred in a number of touring shows, including a role originally developed for the rising star and Florenz Ziegfeld protégé and common-law wife Anna Held—The Belle of New York. She also took the lead in a traveling version of Victor Herbert’s The Fortune Teller. She was just 14 years old!
By the age of sixteen she’d been performing with vaudeville and theater stars Harry Bulger and Emma Carus and was earning $3000 a week. Soon she was starring as Broadway’s youngest superstar in a musical hit about auto racing called The Vanderbilt Cup. Not only becoming a young master of dialogue comedy, stand-up comedy, impressions and singing/talking through her songs, she was now a guarantee of substantial revenues for her shows, among which The Slim Princess was an enormous hit in 1911. She was also developing her talents as a composer of music, even scoring some big hit songs and becoming a member of ASCAP, the society of musical composers and publishers. Working with the biggest stars such as Fred Stone, Charley King and Elizabeth Brice, and the best composers, such as Victor Herbert, Elsie fairly ruled Broadway in the early twentieth century with her succession of popular shows.
She helped to introduce tango dancing into America in 1914 and was among the first stage stars to star in silent films. In 1914 and again in 1915 she went to London to star in a British revue called The Passing Show and its sequel The Passing Show of 1915 and was again an enormous hit, but by this time she was able to witness the horrible effect on English life, the sign-ups among the young men who became missing, killed or wounded and the zeppelin bombings.
In London Elsie worked regularly with Basil Hallam, handsome young music hall and revue star. He became part of a balloon team which watched for zeppelin attacks from the Germans but he was shot down and killed and Elsie, who is rumored to have kept returning to London (three times in three years) to be with and work with him, was devastated. By 1917 she was famous for doing war promotions across the country in a vaudeville act, giving her impressions of famous stars singing patriotic songs: George M. Cohan singing Over There, Ethel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt singing Joan of Arc (one of World War I’s most popular songs), sultry Lenore Ulric and others.
At this point, before there was an organized USO, Elsie went to France and traveled everywhere to sing for the troops. She even did impressions of Will Rogers, the Ziegfeld Follies humorous lariat-twirler and she became proficient with rope-twirling and lassoing just for this impression. Often she was in the front lines or just behind them as explosions were going off. She was also using up much of her money by paying herself for much of this wartime activity. Back in London she spent a great deal of time, money and energy entertaining the American troops that were stationed there and passing through there at war’s end. Her show over there was called Hullo, America! In the meantime she had also become fluent in French.
After the war years, Elsie continued to be devoted to servicemen’s causes, hospitals, war survivors in London and France, and helped to keep their plight in the public eye, in New York, in London and in Paris. She also blossomed as a writer of motion picture screenplays, script adaptions and fixing, and songs for motion pictures. Her song Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere, became a big popular hit torch song and Gloria Swanson’s theme in the movie The Trespasser.
Elsie and her mother were inseparable and her mother’s death in 1932 hit Elsie very hard. Also she was becoming forgotten as vaudeville faded sharply in the 1930s and gave way to the popularity of radio and movies. At the time of her death she was totally forgotten, despite her superstar status in the early decades of the 20th century and her selfless service to the American, British and French armed forces, which termed her World War I’s “Darling of the AEF”.
The University of Arizona is proud to have a substantial collection of sheet music relating to Elsie Janis. It includes these songs:
Somewhere in the World, The Little Chauffeur, My House Boat Beau, Down the Mississippi, and Wine, Woman and Song, all from the Liebler and Company’s 1906 production The Vanderbilt Cup, produced at the Broadway Theatre in New York City and starring Elsie Janis with book by Sydney Rosenfeld and music by Robert Hood Bowers and lyrics by Raymond W. Peck. The cover shows Elsie, already a major Broadway star at age 17! Barney Oldfield, pioneering race car driver, appeared opening night and designed an on-stage race with treadmills to simulate the enormously popular real Vanderbilt Cup race! Similar treadmill on-stage racing had been pioneered in the 1901 production of Ben-Hur. This show managed 143 performances.
Put Me Amongst the Girls 1907 – C. W. Murphy, George Arthurs. On the cover is Elsie Janis starring in the Charles Dillingham production The Hoyden. This song was sung by co-star Robert Lett in the show but Elsie continued to wow the audiences in this follow-up show. She was now still only 18. This show was considerably less successful, managing only 66 performances.
Ev’ry Fellow Wants to Love Me 1907- Raymond W. Peck, Robert Hood Bowers. Cover image of Elsie Janis in The Hoyden.
I’m Growing Fond of You 1907 – by John L. Golden, Henry Blossom. This song was an interpolation into The Hoyden and this music features Eslie Janis on the cover and she received rave reviews, citing her impressions in the show of dramatic actress Ethel Barrymore and flirtatious Broadway star Anna Held. She also wowed the crowd by doing impression of male Broadway stars including George M. Cohan, comedian Richard Carle, and rubber-faced Eddie Foy.
Let Me Live and Stay in Dixieland 1910 – words and music by Elizabeth Brice and Charles King. From The Slim Princess, presented by Charles Dillingham and starring Elsie Janis with Brice and King. The song was the hit of the show, done by Br ice and King, but Elsie was a delight, featuring many impressions again of the great stars and celebrities of her time. The story dealt with a country where obesity was the standard of beauty and Elsie was slim. Not much of a plot but audiences packed in to see the 104 performances and box office receipts early on were high enough to make this one a big hit.
Bless Your Ever Loving Little Heart 1910 – Music by Henry I. Marshall and lyrics by Stanley Murphy. The cover is a full page image of Elsie Janis in The Slim Princess.
Queen of My Dreams 1910 – Music by Leslie Stuart. Book and lyrics by Henry Blossom. Cover illustration by Archie Gunn, the famous British magazine illustrator, of Elsie Janis in The Slim Princess. The show was adapted from a story by George Ade, longtime Broadway producer. It was described as a Comic Opera in Three Acts.
I’d Rather Love What I Cannot Have Than Have What I Cannot Love 1911 – words and music by Elsie Janis. Elsie, a remarkably creative woman, achieves this minor hit song all by herself in vaudeville. Her monologues, impressions and songs are perfect for the vaudeville stage.
Apres La Guerre / After The War 1917 – B. C. Hilliam. Billed on the cover as Elsie and Her Gang, she dresses in military uniform along with images of soldier toys and canons. Elsie remained devoted to the troops and a major star in Paris, London and New York and she was also thinking of taking care of the wounded and those still haunted by the horrors of battle, much of which she had personally seen in the front lines and at the hospitals. The war profoundly changed her into making much of her life’s work more relevant to society.
A Regular Girl 1919 – Music by Elsie Janis, words by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This is from the Selznick Pictures film (Lewis Selznick) A Regular Girl, one of several movies starring Elsie. The film was originally to be called Everybody’s Sweetheart, which was how Elsie was often billed in vaudeville.
Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo? 1924 – Al Dubin, Irving Mills, Jimmie McHugh, Irwin Dash. Allied soldiers are playing ukuleles and singing this song alongside the cover image of Elsie Janis with flowers. This song which goes back to the 19th century became increasingly identified with Elsie as she entertained troops in England and France in both of which the song was popular. Mademoiselle from Armentières was the original title and it was considered a risqué song with increasingly lurid verses about an unclean prostitute popular with the soldiers. This version is fairly saucy but also gets in licks about the soldiers not getting their promised bonuses after the war in America. Elsie was so identified with World War I that this song became part of her continuing repertoire in the 1920s.
You’re Just a Flower From An Old Bouquet 1925 – by Gwynne and Lucien Denni. Cover Elsie Janis featured in the Elsie Janis Bird’s Eye Revue Puzzles of 1925. This was an enormous popular hit, one of Elsie’s biggest songs ever, but it was to be her final hit and she would fade from the music scene after this, becoming more known as a comedy and screen writer and composer of songs. With changing popular tastes and the flapper era and jazz age having moved in, Elsie despite being only 36 years old, was much less in demand now but her constantly inventive mind found new directions in which to flourish.