Emma Carus (March 18, 1879 Berlin, Germany – November 18, 1927, Venice, California) was the daughter of an opera singer and a classical music concert manager, although very little is certain about her early life. As a child in Berlin, she had voice training and remained with her family for some years, no doubt learning to speak German and speaking English with a slight accent. The family emigrated to America probably due to difficulty getting work and Emma began working in a hotel where she also sang. Songwriter Monroe H. “Rosie” Rosenfeld helped her with her professional career although her personal life was less successful since she had two marriages and divorces before turning 25.
In vaudeville, operetta and theater from at least 1897, she received a big break in 1900 when she replaced star May Yohe in The Giddy Throng at the New York Theatre and carried off the role with distinction, causing her to be hired as a regular member for three years of the New York Theatre Musical Stock Company which featured prominent stars such as comedienne Marie Dressler and dramatic actress (and later convicted murderess in real life) Adele Ritchie.
She was of a physical type akin to other great beauties of the time including the somewhat earlier Lillian Russell and Carus’ contemporary Blanche Ring: heavy to the point of being almost fat, pleasant-looking and round of face. Her profile was often captured by artists or in photographs on sheet music. Her opening line was usually: “I’m not pretty but I’m good to my parents.” Her songs were enormously popular and sometimes also national blockbusters and she sold an enormous amount of sheet music. She excelled in story songs and in her music and her stage performances she played young girls just discovering boys, prominent society women and women of the world so she had considerable variety in her parts. For a time she was one of the leading female stars on Broadway, in roles such as The Defender and The Wild Rose, both in 1902. In the latter show she replaced a slightly earlier icon of the Broadway stage named Marie Cahill. In 1911, she had a major success in the highly successful Broadway show The Wife Hunters.
In 1911, Carus first popularized in Chicago a new song by Irving Berlin called Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Berlin always credited her with establishing the tune as a hit, although Al Jolson began to sing it in New York and has always been more famously identified with it. When the movie version of Alexander’s Ragtime Band came out in 1938 starring Alice Faye, special sheet music was made for the movie crediting Emma Carus with first introducing the song. No wonder Berlin was grateful for he earned over $100,000 in royalties from it, despite claims that he stole the melody partly from Scott Joplin! Carus had also posed for sheet music covers for Berlin when he was partnered with Ted Snyder.
Carus had a contralto light operatic voice, which was the vogue until the 1920s, but her voice had a deep resonance that gave it power in a room with no microphones. Her performances were enhanced by the fact that she could often play a person of refinement but who could be reduced to undignified slapstick style comedy at the drop of a hat, and she was not afraid to do wild physical gestures to contrast with her genteel appearance. She was at home singing artful staid ballads or nut songs with a voice that could range from operatic contralto to what was described as “coon-shouting”.
In her personal life, Carus had less success and had had two failed marriages before she was 25. Before this, in 1897, another lover killed himself and she attempted suicide as a result before she was out of her teens. In 1913 she believed that two men who had had business dealings with her had embezzled a large sum from her bank account, which led to a lengthy trial. On a lighter note, it is known that Carus was an avid sports fan, especially of the New York Giants baseball team, and she never took bookings during the World Series and attended every series from 1905 to 1913.
After several more years in successful Broadway shows she became part of the very first Ziegfeld Follies in 1907, which actually ran for just a short time but which led to years of Ziegfeld extravaganzas. Her last Broadway show, The Wife Hunters in 1911 closed in its fourth week and thereafter Emma worked in vaudeville until somewhere in the 1920s when new styles of entertainment marginalized her type of performance and led her to retire. She is buried in California at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. Her cause of death at only 48 is unknown but from 1923 on she exhibited signs of possible dementia and then suffered a stroke. There is little record of career activity after 1925 and no further sheet music.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has a large group of Emma Carus sheet music spanning her long career.
ON THE BANKS OF THE WABASH FAR AWAY 1897- Paul Dresser. “As sung with immense success by MISS EMMA CARUS”. The earliest appearance, we think, of Emma on sheet music and her first success, written by the eminent turn of the century composer Dresser.
THE CRIMSON CHAIN OR SET ME FREE AND LET ME GO BACK TO MY HOME 1897 – Louis W. Pritzkow, Emma Carus. Emma wrote the music for this early tune in collaboration with Pritzkow, a singer with the famous Primrose and West Minstrel Group.
MAMMY’S LITTLE ALLIGATOR BAIT 1899 – by Henry Wise and Sidney Perrin. “Sung with great success by EMMA CARUS”. Published by Charles K. Harris, the famous composer, in Milwaukee. This one features an African-American man trying to throw a rock at an alligator coming to eat his child while an African-American woman runs out of her cabin to the scene. From the era of many popular anti-black songs.
A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE 1900 – Harry Von Tilzer, Arthur J. Lamb. “Sung with great success by EMMA CARUS”. “The Most Beautiful Ballad Ever Written”. That may be an overstatement but it became one of the most famous songs of its era.
IN ZANZIBAR (MY LITTLE CHIMPANZEE) 1904 – Will Cobb, Gus Edwards. “As introduced by EMMA CARUS in Fisher and Riley’s musical comedy The Medal and the Maid.
BEHIND THE OLD OAK GATE 1906 – Sam M. Lewis, Ted S. Barron. Couple embraces in garden. Tiny inset photo of EMMA CARUS.
HANDLE ME WITH CARE 1907 – by William Jerome and Jean Schwartz. Cover photo of EMMA CARUS. The song is “as sung in F. Ziegfeld’s Successful Production The Follies of 1907 at the Jardin de Paris”.
WHOOP! WHOOP!! WHOOP!!! MAKE A NOISE LIKE A HOOP AND ROLL AWAY 1908 – “Longfellowed by Ren Shields” and “Beethovenized by J. Fred Helf”. “Originally introduced and featured by America’s Representative Comedienne EMMA CARUS”. Cover art by Starmer.
ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND 1911 – Irving Berlin. “Successfully introduced by EMMA CARUS”. Alexander appears in gazebo with his band. Emma Carus in on inset photo. This is the original sheet music with Emma introducing the famous song.
ON PICNIC DAY 1912 – Jack Coogan, Violinsky. Inset photo EMMA CARUS. Cover features band in silhouette playing instruments and marching.
THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART (YOU MADE ME WHAT I AM TODAY) 1913 – Henry Fink, Al Piantadosi. “EMMA CARUS’ Wonderful Hit, the Moral Song with a Blessing”.
MELINDA’S WEDDING DAY 1913 – Joe McCarthy, Joe Goodwin, Al Piantadosi. Inset photo EMMA CARUS. “That new idea Rag Hit”.
THE CARUS BREEZE 1914 – Jack Glogau. Cover EMMA CARUS. “The Real Fox Trot”
SHE’S DANCING HER HEART AWAY 1914 – L. Wolfe Gilbert, Kerry Mills. Cover art by Andre De Takacs of dancing couple. Inset photo of EMMA CARUS.
THE VIOLET, THE ROSE AND YOU 1915 – Joe Hiller, George F. Olcott. “EMMA CARUS’ sensational ballad hit”.
WHEN YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE WHO IS NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU 1915 – Grant Clarke, Al Piantadosi. “Successfully introduced by EMMA CARUS”.
BEATRICE FAIRFAX TELL ME WHAT TO DO 1915 – Grant Clark, Joe McCarthy, Jimmie Monaco. Inset photo of EMMA CARUS. This was a song about an advice columnist for the newspaper who became very popular under the name of Beatrice Fairfax. The cover shows someone writing for advice to the lovelorn and inset images of different social situations as a cupid mailman prepares to deliver the love letter. Really cute cover.
UNDERNEATH THE WEEPING WILLOW TREE 1915 – James Brockman, Nat Osborne. Inset photo of EMMA CARUS. Cover art of girl waiting for her lover is by Dunk N.Y. “By the writer of Down Among the Sheltering Palms”.
SOME GIRLS DO AND SOME GIRLS DON’T / A KISS FOR A SONG OR A SONG FOR A KISS 1916 – Howard Johnson, Alex Gerber, Harry Sentes. Cover photo of EMMA CARUS
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO MAKE THOSE EYES AT ME FOR (WHEN THEY DON’T MEAN WHAT THEY SAY!) 1916 – Joe McCarthy, Howard Johnson, Jimmie Monaco. Cover photos of EMMA CARUS and Larry Comer. This tune was also a hit for Anna Held.
THE RAGTIME VOLUNTEERS GO OFF TO WAR 1917 – by Ballard Macdonald, James F. Hanley. “Successfully introduced by EMMA CARUS”.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE 1917 – Howard Johnson, Percy Wenrich. Soldier on cover and battle raging behind him. Insert photo EMMA CARUS.
HOMEWARD BOUND 1917 – Howard Johnson, Coleman Goetz, George Meyer. “Successfully introduced by EMMA CARUS”.
THE DARKTOWN STRUTTERS’ BALL / I’LL BE DOWN TO GET YOU IN A TAXI, HONEY 1917 – Shelton Brooks. Inset photo EMMA CARUS. Cover shows stereotyped African-American dancers in elegant but gauche clothes. Brooks was an African-American writer and this lively hit was one of Carus’ big smashes.
MY FLOWER OF ITALY 1918 – Walter Maynard, J. H. Whelpley. Lovely lady photo on cover. Inset photo of EMMA CARUS. Rare sheet music is published by Buckeye Music in and the Terry Engraving Company in Columbus, Ohio.
OH! HOW SHE CAN DANCE 1919 – Words by Emma Carus. Music by Walter Leopole. Cover is facsimile signed “Sincerely, EMMA CARUS”.
IN YOUR EYES 1920 – Robert Levenson, Edwin Bernard. Rare music published by Billy Lang in Boston. Cover EMMA CARUS, featuring her distinctive signature with with vertical slashed in between and underneath her two names.
IS IT A SIN MY LOVING YOU? 1925 – by Emma Carus, Vinct Bryan, J. Walter Leopold. Cover EMMA CARUS, also facsimile signed by her. This is the last known sheet music issued by Emma Carus. We have two versions of it, in full color and green tint.