A celebrity came to Jamestown 114 years ago this month.
He didn’t get much billing in the newspaper but it was early in his career.
“The Ham Tree” was billed as a musical extravaganza with a large company by The Jamestown Alert in its March 7, 1907, edition.
Part of “tramp juggler” was W.C. Fields.
William Claude Dunkenfield was born in 1880 and more commonly used the stage name W.C. Fields. He developed a juggling act that included sarcastic patter as part of the entertainment.
One of the lines he may have used said he “had grown up in a poor family, and as the oldest child, he was poor first.”
In the early 1900s, Fields was headlining as the tramp juggler in touring companies. In 1905, he debuted on Broadway in “The Ham Tree.” It was the start of Fields' transition from a juggler who made sarcastic comments to a comedienne.
"The Ham Tree" moved off Broadway and toured the country with a variety of headliners.
By 1907, the touring company of "The Ham Tree" worked its way through North Dakota. The show cast included W.C. Fields as the tramp juggler.
The show’s plot told the story of a couple of vaudeville performers who were forced to travel to their next show on foot. Parts of the show were described as a “minstrel” show and probably would not have been considered politically correct in the modern world.
Fields was not a big-name performer in 1907 when he came to Jamestown. In fact, The Jamestown Alert even spelled his name wrong, leaving the “C.” out of his name.
A one-paragraph article about the show ran on the seventh page of the newspaper immediately under an advertisement for Sarsaparilla Pills for “hair vigor.”
Fields’ popularity continued to grow. By 1913, he became the first American performer to give a command performance before the king and queen of England. In 1915, he signed with the Ziegfield Follies at a weekly salary of $1,000.
That was real money 106 years ago.
In the 1920s he expanded into films beginning as a comic juggler and transitioning to strictly comedy.
His films include “Never give a sucker an even break” and “You can’t cheat an honest man.”
In the 1940s, Fields transitioned to radio before his death in 1946 from complications associated with alcohol abuse.
Fields is credited with one of my favorite quotes, although he probably didn’t use it here in Jamestown: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.”
Author Keith Norman can be contacted at www.KeithNormanBooks.com