Leon Errol: The Rubber-Legged Scoundrel of Vaudeville by Frank Cullen

Comedian, dancer, producer, director and writer Leon Errol never told jokes, but he was among the finest comedians. Squinty-eyed, bald and beaked, Errol looked and acted like an aggravated chicken. Often his film character was a befuddled, lecherous, lying sot, and his signature act was a rubber-legged drunken stagger that sometimes segued into dance. Like W. C. Fields’ character, Leon Errol’s was a reprobate. Unlike Fields’, Leon’s character was not redeemable, yet he was a loveable rascal.

Errol’s multi-pronged career began as a premed student at Sydney University when he wrote, produced and starred as a physical comedian in revues that helped finance his education. By 1896 he had ditched a medical career to switch to circus (clown, bareback rider, acrobat), Shakespeare (Edmund, Macduff, the Nurse!), and operetta (singing and dancing).

Leon and his dance partner and future wife Stella Chatelaine arrived in San Francisco about 1904. For much of the next half-dozen years, Leon Errol was chief comedian, composer, lyricist and librettist and manager of musical burlesque troupes until one of his shows arrived in Manhattan in 1910. There, Broadway powerhouse Abe Erlanger hired Errol for the Ziegfeld Follies, which Erlanger financed.

Leon figured prominently in Follies’ casts from 1911 through 1915 and made socio-political and show business history by teaming with black comedian Bert Williams in what critics claimed were the funniest of all Follies sketches. Like classic comedia del’arte, Leon was the dim, bumbling boob that Bert played for a fool. At Bert’s funeral, Leon Errol was the only white pallbearer.

Errol took over directing the revues during his final two years with the Follies. Then, much in demand as a comedian and director, Leon Errol starred in twenty-one shows on Broadway and one in London between 1911 and 1929, appeared in top-notch vaudeville and started a silent film career in New York before moving to Hollywood. During his ensuing thirty-year film career, Errol made fifty-six feature films (including his dual roles in the Mexican Spitfire series with Lupe Velez) and starred in ninety-eight shorts. He died in 1951 just as he was planning his television series.

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