James Barton: The Complete Performer by Victoria Moses

James Edward Barton (November 1st, 1880-February 19th, 1962) was a critically acclaimed master of dance, comedy, drama, and singing. His success spanned vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, radio, film, and television. His stage career was launched by his performance of The Passing Show of 1919 when he performed a role intended for Ed Wynn. His most famous Broadway performance was in the role of Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road, establishing his type character as a “boozy, crusty, cantankerous sort” that he would play for most of his following performances. He was also a respected tap dancer, known for his mastery and ingenuity. Barton was an active performer throughout his life, from his first performance as an infant at age two through his later television and film appearances in his last year of life.

Personal Life  

James Barton was born in Gloucester, New Jersey in 1880 into a multigenerational family of entertainers. His grandfather was a showman and at one time owned an all-female baseball club. His father, James Charles Barton, was an interlocutor with the West and Primrose Minstrels and his mother, Clara Anderson, was a vaudeville performer, namely a toe dancer. His uncle was a famous tramp comic and dancer. His father also managed the Front Stage Theater in Baltimore during Barton’s youth. In 1912, Barton married Ottilie Kleinert, with whom he had no children. During a 1928-1929 tour, Barton suffered burns from a theater fire that scarred his face and disfigured his nose, but did not hinder his career. He divorced Kleinert in 1933 after many years of separation and shortly thereafter married fellow performer Kathryn Penman. While his main passion in life was entertainment, he also raised dogs and practiced sports. He was particularly fond of baseball; at his home he had a baseball stadium that could seat seven thousand and housed his baseball team, the Night Hawks of the New York Metropolitan Baseball League. He and his wife lived on Long Island, New York. While one of his final stage shows was running, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Barton and his wife were known to take the New York City subway to the bar and stay out until three in the morning. Barton died of a heart attack at the age of 71 in Mineola, Long Island.

Early Career

Barton began his career early. He was already appearing onstage as an infant, beginning with the 1882 melodrama The Silver King, followed by vaudeville performances with the family at age 4, and performing in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Little Eva at age 7. He continued onstage, touring with his family and various companies and gaining a reputation as a skilled dancer on the vaudeville stages. From 1915-1919, he joined Columbia, a burlesque company. From there, he transitioned from vaudeville and burlesque to Broadway.

Broadway Years

            Barton was known in vaudeville as a skilled performer all-around; instead of staying in the vaudeville circuit Barton successfully launched a “second career” of legitimate stage acting. While travelling with Columbia for the show Twentieth Century Maids, Barton caught the attention of Broadway theater owner and producer J. J. Shubert. Barton was cast in a minor role in The Passing of 1919. This became his Broadway breakout role. While The Passing of 1919 was running, Barton performed at a benefit for actors on strike with the Actor’s Equity Union. Barton and other actors participated in the strike and held a benefit performance in which Barton was a minor name on the bill. He performed a piece originally intended for Ed Wynn, but Shubert barred Wynn from performing. While Wynn performed the piece from the aisle in the audience in response to Shubert’s ban, Barton stole the show from onstage. His unique and agile dance style made an impression on the audience that night. He performed on Broadway regularly from 1919-1926 in plays such as The Last Waltz, The Rose of Stamboul, Dew Drop Inn, The Passing Show of 1924, and No Foolin’. In 1930 he starred in the Broadway musicals Artists and Models and Sweet and Low.  He consistently received high praise from critics.

            Barton’s dancing was creative and masterful. He was one of the few white dancers respected by black tap dancers. He pulled inspiration from his family upbringing, including Irish reel, clogging, and vaudeville comic dancers such as his uncle, but also from black dancers. When famed black dancer Bert Williams was unable to perform in Dew Drop Inn, Barton took the role in blackface and was extolled by critics for his excellent performance. Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Barton performed as a comedian and dancer on Broadway and on tour. He performed at several renowned New York venues, including repeat appearances at the Palace and the Boulevard Theater.

            In 1933, Barton took on his most defining role as Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road. This was his first dramatic appearance and was met with high praise. Here, Barton established the drunken, comedic role that he would be typecast into for much of his following career. He performed Tobacco Road 1,899 times on Broadway between 1933 and 1941.

            He returned to the stage for a few final Broadway shows in the 1940’s and 50’s. Breaking from his drunken type character, Barton performed the lead in The Iceman Cometh, opening at the Martin Beck Theater in 1946. This role was darker than previous characters and is known as his greatest dramatic role. He played a reformed alcoholic named Eugene Hickman. In this play, one of his speeches lasted eighteen minutes. The 1951 Paint your Wagon was Barton’s last musical-comedy role and his final appearance was The Sin of Pat Muldoon in 1957.

Film and Television

            Barton’s shift to drama with Tobacco Road launched him into the forefront of entertainment’s transition to film and television. In talking film’s early days, he performed in several two-reelers for the major production companies including Paramount, Vitaphone, and Universal. He appeared in about fifteen feature films during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, with his most influential being The Time of Your Life (1948) with James Cagney. His final feature film was The Misfits (1961). Most of his roles were as featured dramatic actor, such as in The Time of Your Life, The Misfits, Yellow Sky (1948), Lifeboat (1944) and The Naked Hills (1956)., Some of the musical comedies include Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), Wabash Avenue (1950), and The Golden Girl (1951). Barton also appeared on several early television shows, including Ed Wynn’s variety show, Kraft Television Theater, Studio One, Playhouse 90, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, among many others.

Contributions to Entertainment

            James Barton is a vaudeville and Broadway legend who transitioned successfully to film and television. Barton was, by all accounts, impressive on stage and on screen as a dancer, actor, comedian, and singer. Critic Kenneth Macgowan lauded Barton as “the greatest comic dancer in twenty-five years and two-hemispheres.” Writing in Variety, Robert Landry stated that “he was perhaps the most singularly talented of all headliners.” Critics at the time favored him above such famed dancers as Fred Astaire, Bill Robinson, Al Jolson, Ray Bolger, Eddie Cantor and any others considered dance masters. Barton has been all-around praised for his performances and was the preferred star of the time by critics, but strangely other stars from the era are more commonly remembered while Barton has been often forgotten.

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection owns the following music of James Barton:

THAT'S A LOT OF BUNK 1923 - by Al Wilson, James A. Brennan, Mack Henshaw. Fox-trot song. Cover photo JAMES BARTON (in blackface) in the musical comedy DEW DROP INN. Cover art by Politzer. "The Latest Topical Comedy Song Hit". Music lacks back page and is in poor condition.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Cullen, Frank, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly. 2007. "James Barton." In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 74-78. New York: Routledge.

 

"James Barton, 71, Stage Actor, Dies; Veteran Player in 'Tobacco Road' - in Films and TV." 1962. New York Times.

 

"James Barton." Internet Movie Database., accessed 12/16, 2016, www.imdb.com/name/nm0059165/

 

"James Barton." The Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League, accessed 12/16, 2016, www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/james-barton-31197.

 

Jones, John Bush. 2000. "Barton, James Edward: Stage / Screen Actors, Vaudeville Performers." American National Biography Online.

 

Slide, Anthony. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press.

Frank Cullen, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly, James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New : An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, (New York, Routledge, 2007), 74

John Bush Jones, Barton, James Edward: Stage / Screen Actors, Vaudeville Performers, (Online, American National Biography Online, 2000).

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 77

Ibid., 74

Anthony Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, (Westport, CT and London, Greenwood Press, 1995), 26

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New : An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 74

Jones, Barton, James Edward: Stage / Screen Actors, Vaudeville Performers.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 26

James Barton, 71, Stage Actor, Dies; Veteran Player in 'Tobacco Road' - in Films and TV, (New York, New York Times, 1962).

Ibid.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 25

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 75-76.

Ibid., 76.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 26

Ibid., 26

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 74-77.

Ibid., 77.

Jones, Barton, James Edward: Stage / Screen Actors, Vaudeville Performers.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 26

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 77.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 26

James Barton, 71, Stage Actor, Dies; Veteran Player in 'Tobacco Road' - in Films and TV, The New York Times.

James Barton, The Internet Broadway Database.

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 76-77.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 26

James Barton, The Internet Movie Database.

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 76-77.

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 25

Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, 25

Cullen et al., James Barton In Vaudeville, Old & New : An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, 75

Ibid., 75.

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