There had been other comedic sister acts in vaudeville that preceded them, such as The Watson Sisters, but none were as clever and funny as the Duncan Sisters and the University of Arizona has a large collection of sheet music featuring the Duncans. Enormously popular in the 1920s, they have failed to transfer their humor into later eras in a major way due to their owing much of their fame to blackface comedy, which went out of fashion with the Civil Rights movement and legislation of the 1950s. Many still feel that the Duncans deserve the obscurity they have been relegated to but those who take the time to view their 1929 musical film It’s a Great Life can see the comedy genius that influenced such later stars as Lucille Ball.
Vivian Duncan (Los Angeles, June 17, 1899- Los Angeles, September 19, 1986) and Rosetta (Los Angeles, November 23, 1896- Acero, Illinois, December 4, 1959) were the daughters of a Los Angeles real estate agent who became one of the famous Gus Edwards’ child performers that included the likes of Eddie Cantor, George Jessel and many others who graced his numerous shows with kids. The act slowly developed and featured the lovely, taller Vivian as the innocent ingenue and Rosetta portraying the wise-cracking comedic core of the team. They also harmonized together doing straight songs and well as funny ones and over the years they amassed quite a number of big pop hits such as Rememb’ring.
Their rise to superstardom was the result of their taking the plays about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a popular pre Civil War 1852 novel by abolitionist and teacher Harriet Beecher Stowe and turned frequently into a popular play put on by traveling companies and dealing with the plight of poor black people, the need for Christian compassion and the insistence that people should not enslave others. It is credited as one catalytic force that helped to start the Civil War by no less a source than Abraham Lincoln. But the novel and the subsequent plays especially helped to reinforce black stereotypes such as devotion to the master, little pickaninnies (a word often used in vaudeville and which comes from pequenos or little ones) or spirited black children, sad slaves of long-standing who didn’t speak correct English, and so forth.
It seems an amazing act of insensitivity today but the Duncan Sisters took the play and turned it into a racist comedy laugh-riot that caused a sensation with white audiences. It was called Topsy and Eva, which started its run in San Francisco’s Alacazar Theatre in 1923. Catherine Chisholm Cushing, a woman noted for her successful work on Broadway and herself a graduate of elite girls’ schools, wrote the book for the musical play. The Duncan Sisters themselves wrote the score, both music and lyrics, and Rosetta’s Topsy character looked ridiculous, mouthed fractured English and generally portrayed a rather nasty little kid (shouting Boogie Boogie and always up to some devilry) with Vivian, as always, playing the sweeter white child with the golden hair.
Despite the blatant exploitation of black stereotypes, something of the meanness of white America to the black children came through as well as Frank W. Wallace portrayed the diabolically cruel Simon Legree. Despite a good deal of critical pasting and even expressed shock at the subject matter, the show was a big hit, several of the musical numbers became major popular music hits (including Rememb’ring, which they wrote), and the show opened in New York. It then became a road show for them and the Duncans were even well known in England where sheet music was issued for their popular tunes from the show over there. They even played France, Germany and South America, doing the play as much as possible in the actual languages of the countries in which they were performing. They even made a silent film of Topsy and Eva in 1927 but without sound the effect was lost. It is a bit difficult to condemn the Duncans for this racist ferrago because within it was also a good deal of criticism about the treatment of African-Americans and a good deal of sympathy was developed for their characters within the show.
In 1929 they made the talking film It’s a Great Life which featured some of their vaudeville routines, non blackface, and produced a major hit song called I’m Following You which became another of their regular features when they performed. Rosetta’s mugging onstage in the film is a delight to see, especially in their version of Tell Me Pretty Maiden which was a parody of the first big Broadway musical hit in America called Floradora in the year 1900. Rosetta dresses up as a lecherous turn of the century male complete with handlebar mustache and attempts to seduce Vivian who as usual is unaware of what is going on but has a bust so big it seems to have its own area code. The comedy that ensues has to be seen to be believed and is quite risque for its day even though it is a pre-code film but it shows the kind of crazy slapstick that inspired Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy.
As with many vaudevillians, the later life of the Duncans was not so happy. They struggle to continue on top in vaudeville and only a number of their proposed projects in the 1930s and 1940s were able to be realized. Rosetta became an alcoholic and suffered apparent inner torment over her lesbianism while Vivian married Nils Asther, a homosexual with a fondness for three-way sex with another male, a situation which left Vivian in a state of depression at times. By the 1950s the racism of their work had exacted a toll and bookings of their number one performance were rare although they did continue to perform in blackface until the later fifties.
One highlight of their later time performing was a special guest appearance on the Liberace half hour television variety series. He was known for admiring vaudeville and as he often put it, “performers of yesteryear” and he always went out of his way to find the former great stars and present them with great reverence. Such was the case in 1955 when a much aged Vivian and Rosetta sang a medley of their songs. In 1959 Rosetta was driving, perhaps after a few too many drinks after a performance near Chicago, and her car struck a bridge, severely injuring her and she died three days later. Vivian struggled on with a new partner and old material but gradually she was forced into retirement.
Have a look at the Liberace reunion of the Duncans in 1955, followed by a bit of their vaudeville act in 1929 as they sing their hit tune, composed by them, called I’m Following You. It’s enough to bring a lump in the throat and a tear to the eye of any old-timer viewing this:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has a good number of sheet musics from the Duncan Sisters including the following (all of the pictured sheet music in this listing is from our collection):
OH SING-A-LOO WHAD’YA DO WITH YOUR QUE? 1922 – by Lew Brown, Sidney D. Mitchell, Lew Pollack. “Featured with great success by the DUNCAN SISTERS in C. B. Dillingham’s production Fred Stone’s Tip Top Show.
REMEM’BRING, IN THE AUTUMN and I NEVER HAD A MAMMY 1923 – by The Duncan Sisters. Cover THE DUNCAN SISTERS in Topsy and Eva suggested by Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Book by Catherine C. Cushing. Presented by Thomas Wilkes. All words and music by The Duncan Sisters. 3 different sheet musics.
IN SWEET ONION TIME (I’LL BREATH MY LOVE TO YOU) 1924 – The Duncan Sisters, Sam Coslow. Cover photo THE DUNCAN SISTERS in Topsy and Eva, the big musical comedy success. Published by the Duncan Sisters Music Publishers at the Garrick Theatre in Chicago.
MEAN CICERO BLUES 1924 – by Billy Baskette, Billy Waldron. Cover THE DUNCAN SISTERS: ROSETTA (TOPSY) & VIVIAN (EVA).
STICK IN THE MUD 1924 – Vivian and Rosetta Duncan. “Written and featured by Rosetta and Vivian THE DUNCAN SISTERS, composers of the big musical comedy success Topsy and Eva”.
HAPPY-GO-LUCKY DAYS 1928 – by Al Wilson, James A Brennan. “Featured by THE DUNCAN SISTERS now appearing in the Big Musical Comedy Success Topsy and Eva”.
I’M FOLLOWING YOU 1929 – Dave Dreyer, Ballard MacDonald. DUNCAN SISTERS in It’s A Great Life. Cover art by LEFF.
I’M FOLLOWING YOU 1929 – Dave Dreyer, Ballard MacDonald. A Super Special Fox-Trot. Sung by THE DUNCAN SISTERS. From the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture It’s a Great Life. British sheet music for the film.
A GAY CABALLERO 1929 – Frank Crumit, Lou Klein. “Sung with Sensational Success by The Peerless DUNCAN SISTERS”