Of all the great forgotten stars of vaudeville, no one more regrettably forgotten comes to mind than the great Irene Franklin (born 13 June 1876 in New York City – 16 June 1941 in Englewood, New Jersey. Long before there were female comedy stand-up pioneers such as Jackie “Moms” Mabley or Joan Rivers there were other pioneers, including Jessie Mae Hall (The Doll Comedian), who did a routine with little dolls as if she were a little girl playing. There were also impressionists such as Nan Halperin and Elsie Janis, who also wrote music, organized shows and starred on Broadway. But for pure stand-up monologues satirizing other women’s foibles of her time, nobody could hold a candle to Irene Franklin, still hilarious to hear even today. At one time ca. 1909 she was the number one female star in all of vaudeville.
She appeared on Broadway at age six in The Prodigal Father, which ran for five years and was known as “Dainty Irene Franklin”.
She toured Australia in a vaudeville team and later toured the world before going into films. She outlived two husbands, Burton Green who died in 1922 and Jerry Jernigan who died in 1934, apparently shot to death upstairs during a party at her home, a mystery that was never solved and ruled a suicide.
Irene could tap dance pretty well, sing with leather lungs that would give Ethel Merman a run for her money and tell situational humor jokes better than anyone else. Her signature song, sung as if she were a little girl, was called “Redhead”. Another of her encores was called “I Want to Be a Janitor’s Child”. She was also a big hit on Broadway in numerous shows, enhanced by the fact that she could project her singing and speaking voice so loudly that she didn’t need a microphone. Her recordings of 1911 to 1917 also sold reasonably well as novelty songs. Later in life after her 1910s era starring all over the country and playing the Palace was gone along with her svelt figure, she put on weight and took on character roles in movies where she remained in demand playing feisty yet sympathetic mother figures.
One of her most delightful later roles was in the movie Along Came Love (1936), playing a former vaudeville star who wants to relive her old glory days. In the film, despite being 60 years old in real life, she dances, acts and even sings a bit of “Redhead”, while beautifully counterpointing the wonderful acting of her “daughter” Irene Hervey. In fact this movie, produced by a young Blake Edwards long before his Pink Panther days, is one of the most enjoyable romantic fantasies of the 1930s, a paean to old vaudeville, the Palace Theatre in New York and romantic comedy, also abetted by Charles Starrett as the male god in the film. Starrett, despite starring in more than 150 movies, is another name totally unknown by film-goers today. Irene Hervey married tenor Allan Jones and is the mother of pop singer Jack Jones. She plays the daughter of Irene Franklin in this film.
JUST ONE GIRL 1898 – Karl Kennett, Lyn Udall. From “Song Successes by the Favorite Young Artiste IRENE FRANKLIN”, including in the series My Coal-Black Lady, Sadie My Lady, Bye Bye Belinda, Black Annie, And They All Joined in and Darktown is Out To-Night.” During this period Irene was singing many racist songs as was the popular fashion for white performers at the very end of the 19th century. Irene was just 21 years old and already making a big impression in vaudeville.
WHEN THE FIELDS ARE WHITE WIT
H COTTON 1902 – by Robert F. Roden, Max S. Witt. “A Simultaneous Success in London and New York Introduced Originally by DAINTY IRENE FRANKLIN.
WITH THE ROBINS I’LL RETURN 1906 – by J. J. Walker, Max S. Witt. “Successfully Sung by IRENE FRANKLIN”
REDHEAD (REDHEAD-REDHEAD-GINGERBREADHEAD) 1908 – written and composed by IRENE FRANKLIN and Burt Green. On this Irene poses as a little girl which was one of her most popular impressions.
I’VE GOT THE MUMPS 1909 – by Irene Franklin and Burt Green. Burt was her pianist and husband and co-author of her material. From the series “Character Songs by IRENE FRANKLIN and Burt Green, Creators and Writers of the Following Famous Character Song Successes: Red Head, I’ve Got the Mumps, The Pony Ballet Girl, I’m A Bringing Up the Family, The Talkative Waitress, The German Prima Donna, I Don’t Care What Becomes of Me, The Awkward Age.”
I WAS ONLY A GIRL AT THE TIME 1911 – Irene Franklin, Burt Green. Cover photo IRENE FRANKLIN.
DIMPLES 1913 – Edward Madden, Percy Wenrich. “Especially Written for and Exclusively Sung by MISS IRENE FRANKLIN. During this period of time Irene was battling weight gain and was losing her cuteness and girlish qualities. She was now 36 and had to abandon portraying little girls and move on to other subjects.
BREAD AND JAM 1916 – Lyrics by Irene Franklin, Music by Burton Green. “Frederick McKay presents MISS IRENE FRANKLIN in what she hopes may prove to be a comedy entitled THE MELTING OF MOLLY, adapted from the novel of the same name by Maria Thompson Daviess. Cover photos of IRENE FRANKLIN and BURTON GREEN. This one lacks its interior music pages.
For Irene Franklin performing see: