The Kill Kare Couple: John and Winnie Hennings by David Soren

This series consists of photocopies and digital printouts of press clippings and photographs describing the lives and careers of John and Winnie Hennings, who performed together as The Kill Kare Kouple from 1908 through the World War I years, and of John Hennings’ subsequent work in Hollywood during the 1920s. Some of the clippings and other photocopies relate to an island summer community frequented by vaudeville performers, Put-In Bay, Ohio, on Lake Erie, where the Hennings spent the summers early in their career. There are articles and images related to the band leader Sam Pryor, his son Arthur Pryor who performed with John Philip Sousa, and Winnie Henning’s mother, Mary Baker Hamlet. There is also correspondence, a biographical sketch, a list of songs composed by the couple, and an excerpt from a draft of a biography, “Back Drop: A Vaudeville Love Story”, all written by their daughter, Nancy (Hennings) Tomlin, who contributed these materials to the American Vaudeville Museum. Biographical Note John Hennings (1886-1933) began performing as a young child with his father, John Bernard Hennings, and his sister Mamie; they were known as the Hennings Trio. His mother had performed with her sister as the Lee Sisters; his cousin Bessie McCoy was also an entertainer, the “Yama-Yama girl.” As a young man John performed in vaudeville acts with his sister and her husband.
The Navassar Ladies Band at Luna Park in Scranton, Pa. Hamlet (1882-1961) was the daughter of Mary Baker Hamlet and Charles Hamlet. Her mother was a talented instrumentalist who studied with Sam Pryor, a military band leader in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Winnie was born. The family played locally as the Hamlet Family Band, with Winnie on cornet. At sixteen Winnie joined The Navassar Ladies Band as a cornet player, and toured with them for nine years. An offshoot of this group played in vaudeville theaters, and Winnie joined them. She met John Hennings in a vaudeville theater, and they were married in 1908.

John and Winnie named themselves¬†the Kill Kare Kouple and developed a popular act that included his trombone, piano and dancing, her cornet and songs, and comic banter. He capitalized on his slender build in a humorous manner that lent him the nickname “The Grasshopper Dancer.” He wore spiked hair and appeared to resemble a spider in his movements. In 1910, living in St. Joseph, Missouri, he copyrighted a song entitled “Nobody Loves a Skinny Guy Like Me.” He claimed he was so thin that he had to eat spaghetti one strand at a time.
By 1913 they had developed a reputation as one of the funniest comedy acts in vaudeville, spearheaded by John’s eccentric dancing and crazy piano playing and singing of songs with silly lyrics. His zaniness was complemented by her good looks and talented cornet playing and singing, although critics described her as “slightly plump”. The act often began with John trying to attract the attention of Winnie, to no avail, and after she rebuffed him he would sing a lament such as his copyrighted song and she would ignore him and play a cornet solo. As he would accompany her singing the piano would make strange noises like a car and John would attempt to drive it, evoking much laughter.

In 1913 they toured with the Sarah Bernhardt and Lou Tellegen tour as the top vaudeville act. In 1915 they were the number 3 act at the Palace Theater, the pinnacle of American success in vaudeville. In 1915 also they traveled to London where John performed in a show at the London Hippodrome, “Push and Go!” With the flare-up of war, they performed in hospitals and elsewhere; John also entertained troops in France and Belgium. It is possible that he was affected by poison gas at Ypres, since he suffered chronically from pneumonia after that. They returned to the U.S. and continued to perform in war benefits, including with Lily Langtry.

John performed in several musical shows in the early 1920s. Winnie was raising their daughter and missed performing herself, but she contributed a song to John’s act in “A Trial Honeymoon” and as a result their infant daughter was included in the act. John then went to Hollywood, and in 1930 he played in his only film, The Poor Millionaire, directed by Richard Talmadge. His health failed and they relocated near extended family in St. Joseph, Missouri, where John died three years later at age forty-seven having never regained his health after World War I. Depressed and ill for so long he shot himself in the head. Winnie never remarried and although never noted for her cooking prowess opened a restaurant after that, and died at the age of eighty. The couple is buried side by side in St. Joseph, Missouri with the simple headstone “Kill Kare”.


boxfolder461 Correspondence from Nancy (Hennings) Tomlin462 Biography (3 pages) of John and Winnie Hennings, by Nancy (Hennings) Tomlin463 Excerpt from draft of biography, Back Drop, by Nancy Tomlin464 Papers, miscellaneous

Thank-you in “Celtic” style handwriting from John F. Lloyd (photocopy)

List of films by Richard Talmadge (photocopy)

465 Mary [Hamlet] – Sam Pryor, Winnie & Navassar Orchestra – pictures (digital and photocopy)466 John Hennings – pictures (digital and photocopy)467 John and Winnie Hennings – pictures (digital and photocopy)468 Press clipping photocopies: Sarah Bernhardt [in “Phedre”], New York, 1913469 Press clipping photocopies: “Push and Go!”, London, 19154610 Press clipping photocopies: “Take It From Me”, 19234611 Press clipping photocopies: “A Trial Honeymoon”, 19244612 Press clipping photocopies: “Dutch Girl”, Hollywood, 19254613 Press notices4614 Press notices (duplicates)

Name: Kill Kare
Topics: Comedians