Sometimes a great vaudeville star will be so forgotten and so lost in the mist of time that it is difficult to find out anything about him or her. In the case of JESSIE MAE HALL, THE DAINTY DOLL COMEDIENNE, I became so intrigued with the sheet music I had that I had to find out more about this once obviously famous and now totally obscure young lady. There is still much mystery about her but a few facts have come to life, revealing a fascinating life and family connections.
It appears that Jessie was born in Portland, Oregon around 1880 but this is not certain, and it is only known that her sister was born there in 1873. She was apparently raised in San Francisco, attended public schools there, had a father named F. M. Bates (presumably the original family name) and both she and her sister were attracted to the entertainment industry at an early age. At some point around the turn of the last century (between 1899 and 1904) she became part of the stock company of the enterprising Al Trahern, headquarted in New York City but making trips all over the United States, especially to areas not serviced by mainstream vaudeville, such as Galveston, Texas for example. Independent of the major booking organizations such as were run by B. F. Keith or the Orpheum Circuit, the Trahern Stock Company was known to have flourished for at least 15 years and possibly longer between at least 1899 and 1914, repeating more or less the same circuits every year, doing a lot of entertaining throughout Long Island in particular and around the east coast but with many longer circuits.
Jessie Mae Hall was the star of his company appearing both in mini-productions but also doing sometimes a. vaudeville act in which she pretended to be an 11 year old girl playing with and talking humorously to her dolly. This was not an act that was original as there were other doll comediennes who preceded her such as PAULINE HALL who performed the song Take It Home And Give It To the Baby aka Doll Song in the comic opera The Honeymooners in New York in 1894. But Jessie Mae Hall was the most successful of this genre and her routine included a number of songs she would sing to the doll. Apparently, she performed this act to great acclaim between 1906 and 1913. She also had the starring roles in mini-musicals such as The Princess of Patches in 1902, The Street Singer in 1905 and 1906 and The Cutest Girl in Town 1910, and there were other shows too, but these have yet to be identified.
At some point young Jessie married Al Trahern who produced, directed, wrote music for and organized the Trahern Company productions. Indeed, Trahern himself was a talented composer. In 1899 he gained a small measure of fame with his Chinese music flavored work entitled Wing Lee’s Ragtime Clock. This work has long been a favorite of rag musicians and the music is still sought after today and often played by rag afficionados. Trahern published many songs, even writing one with famed composer Percy Wenrich. Nonetheless, no photo of Trahern has come yet to my attention.
LIfe as part of this stock company must have been very difficult and one account survives of Lee O’Rorke, the orchestra leader for the Trahern Company, finding out that his infant son had died while he was on the road in Texas with the stock company and how the company was overcome with grief for him but had to continue on and complete their contracted tour. Conditions for moderately successful vaudevillians on the road in small town America must have been rugged, with con artists trying to stiff you, different towns each night or several nights and lodgings not of the highest standard. Trahern had a good reputation and kept his company returning to his same venues season after season but one can imagine that 15 years of this road life could take quite a toll. There were normally 15 in the road company for Trahern, including ca. 5 members comprising the orchestra while the others might be touring a show or vaudeville entertainment. Self-contained show units were often welcomed by vaudeville theaters since the theaters would not have to go to the trouble of booking acts individually.
While we are on the subject of doll comedians, we should also mention the nefarious MAY WARD AND HER EIGHT DRESDEN DOLLS, who came into a measure of popularity around the same time Jessie Mae Hall was doing her doll act. But these ladies dressed up as dolls and performed such songs as Jim and the Jumping Jacks, I’d Like to Be Your Little Girl, That Summer Night in June and When Uncle Sammy Sings the Marseillaise. It seems that the not so talented May had been in burlesque when she saw Laura Howe and Her Four Dresden Dolls perform an act on stage in which girls dressed as Dresden dolls, then all the rage in America, jumped off of shelves and danced around. May completely stole the concept of the act from Laura, and bettered her, adding multiple costume changes, sexy and patriotic songs (when in doubt wave the flag!) and four more girls and she continued on for about seven years with a degree of success while poor Laura soon disappeared, her original concept ripped off and developed by someone else. But vaudeville was often all about stealing and even Jessie Mae Hall was far from the first doll comedienne, as we have seen. It was just that someone could take an idea and improve upon it. This happened all the time in show business. The great dance director, Busby Berkeley, stole many ideas, such as overhead shots, multiple set-ups for a musical number, and close-ups on film, from the Canadian theater and film director John Murray Anderson and yet today it is Berkeley, who took these ideas to new heights on film, who is credited with inventing them, which he did not do. Ed Lasker, Hollywood producer and attorney, once told me that the secret of his success was never having an original idea but always striving to make a successful idea better.
Jessie Mae Hall’s sister with whom she worked onstage occasionally became very famous as a dramatic actress on Broadway. Blanche Bates (1873-1941) was one of the principal American theater stars of the turn of the century and her fame lasted from approximately 1895 to 1920. Accepted as a member of the John Augustin Daly Company in New York in 1898, she became a star in the role of Cigarette in the play Under Two Flags at the Garden Theater in New York in 1901. However, she found Daly himself bullying and insufferable and longed to escape his domineering clutches. She then became a protege of the theater impressario David Belasco who found suitable dramatic fare for her including The Darling of the Gods ( 1902) and the Girl of the Golden West (1905). In 1894 Bates married Milton F. Davis, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and later a Brigadier General. After they divorced she spent time visiting with her sister and appears to have worked with Jessie Mae occasionally but Blanche became so famous as a great dramatic star of the stage that they spent little time together. Blanche married again in 1912 by which time she was a grand dame of the American theater, this time the husband being George Creel who became one of America’s first great political spin masters and whose job it was to “sell” World War I to the general public after Woodrow Wilson had at first embraced neutrality. Blanche became more of a political wife and mother after this marriage and raised two children, while adapting to a beautiful farm in Ossining, New York in Westchester County along the Hudson River where she enjoyed raising and riding horses and had chickens. She was also known for lavish parties among the rich in her area and appears to have had a wonderful life, succumbing to a stroke at age 68. Whatever happened to Jessie Mae Hall however and Al Trahern however is another matter and one that none of our investigating has resolved. It is also possible that some of the information set forth here may be inaccurate so, dear reader, if you have more pieces of the puzzle of the doll comedienne that you are keeping secret, please let us know!
After reading this article you may wish to hear one of Al Trahern’s compositions, this one from 1899 being Wing Lee’s Ragtime Clock which is still considered a delightful and sprightly composition for ragtimers to play:
Music from the University of Arizona School of Music / David Soren Collection:
TAKE IT HOME AND GIVE IT TO THE BABY (DOLL SONG) 1894 – Music by William Furst. Words by C. M. S. McLellan. From the comic opera The Honeymooners. Cover shows PAULINE HALL holding two dolls.
UNDER TWO FLAGS MARCH AND TWO STEP 1901 – Composed by Harry L. Newman. “Respectfully dedicated to MISS BLANCHE BATES”, shown on the cover in the role of Cigarette in the Broadway show Under Two Flags.
THE DARLING OF THE GODS WALTZES 1902 – by William Furst. “Introducing Yo San’s Theme as played by the Belasco Theatre Orchestra, from the Japanese drama by David Belasco and John Luther Long. Starring MISS BLANCHE BATES as Yo San in The Darling of the Gods.
THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST WALTZ 1905 – by William Furst. As played by the Belasco Theatre Orchestra in the David Belasco production The Girl of the Golden West. Cover photo BLANCHE BATES.
LIGHTS OF HOME 1905 – Words and Music by Al Trahern. “As sung by JESSIE MAE HALL of the Street Singer Company”. This appeared as a supplement to the New York American and Journal newspaper.
THE LANTERN DANCE 1906 – Composed by Louis Maurice. “As played nightly at the Belasco Theatre New York”. Cover MISS BLANCHE BATES in THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST
I’D LIKE TO BE YOUR LITTLE GIRL 1907 – Lyrics by Earle C. Jones. Music by Karl Weixelbaum. One of the “song successes rendered by MAY WARD AND HER EIGHT DRESDEN DOLLS.
THE FIGHTING HOPE MARCH 1909 – by Louis Maurice. Dedicated to MISS BLANCHE BATES. This was another David Belasco production in New York.
MY OLD RAG DOLL 1913 – Words and Music by N. S. Carter. “Sung by The Dainty Doll Comedienne JESSIE MAE HALL”. Song originally copyrighted in 1906. Published by Vandersloot Music Publishing Company of Williamsport, Pa.
I WISH I’D BEEN BORN A BOY 1913 – Words and Music by Al Trahern. “Sung by the Dainty
Doll Comedienne JESSIE MAE HALL”. Song originally copyrighted in 1906.