by Sterling Morris
music, Moses Gumble, words by Harry Williams.
Clarice said of the song in 1913,
In 1951 Variety columnist Joe Laurie Jr. included Clarice Vance in a list of "great artists" of the vaudeville stage. Her impish appearance on dozens of sheet music covers dating from before the turn of the [previous] century is testimony to her enormous popularity. Today her name is entirely forgotten by modern vaudeville biographers, but for those lucky enough to hear her recordings of I'm Wise, Goodbye to Johnny, He's a Cousin of Mine, I'm Afraid to Come Home in the Dark or Mariar, she's a personality you can't forget.
In the 1963 April and May issues of Hobbies magazine, Jim Walsh wrote of a long and futile effort to locate her and his eventual surprise at reading in Variety of her death in August of 1961. He had been able to trace her life and career to 1914 . . . and no further. Where was "The Southern Singer" for nearly 40 years? Most of that mystery still remains.
The 1908, The Actors' Birthday Book (New York: Moffat, Yard & Co.) has this entry for March 14:
All lovers of vaudeville, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Canada Border to Mexico Gulf, are familiar with the admirable methods of Clarice Vance, so well known by the sobriquet of "The Southern Singer." One need not be told that she is a Southerner born, Louisville, Ky., being her birthplace, for 'twould be be an impossibility for anyone save to the manner born, to render coon songs in so inimitable a manner as she. The first few years of Miss Vance's stage career were given over to farce comedy productions and it was not until about 1897 that she awoke to the full possibilities of the coon song. Since then she has made this particular style of song her one big feature in the vaudeville theaters and her popularity is truly amazing. Each season, if she so elected, she could play a full term of fifty-two weeks, but she prefers to book her own time as suits her fancy, though occasionally she appears in the olio of a traveling vaudeville organization: for instance, in 1901 she was the big feature of Scribner's Specialty Company, and in 1904 was at the head of the Orpheum show. In a word, to aptly describe Miss Vance one has only to quote a conservative Boston critic when he said of her: "Her charm is as powerful as it is indestructible." This summary most admirably fits this true daughter of the South and practically explains her strong hold upon the public. In private life Miss Vance is the wife of Mose Gumble, so long associated with the J. H. Remick Music Co., they having married on December 7, 1904 at Indianapolis.
In an interview with the Hippodrome News, March 25, 1908 Clarice said
. . . other people progressed and became famous. I was too big to play a leading part. Imagine a man making love to me on the stage. It would have been hilariously funny . . . Well, I could have kept on playing character parts. But what is there for a character woman? She starts as one and ends as one, and if she isn't so poor that they have to give her a benefit in her old age, after she has spent 30 years on the stage, the most she gets out of it at death is a few posies and a paragraph in the newspapers. I decided that I couldn't afford to waste my time at that line of work, so I branched out, and . . . have been singing dialect songs. How long is it? Oh, it's years and years and years, 79 of them I believe. It's long enough, so I am ready for a vacation. I don't care if I don't sing on the stage again, after my engagement is over at the Hippodrome, for the next two years. If I'd been a sweet little thing, they would have been paying two dollars to see me and my name would have been printed in big letters on the billboards - maybe. As Shaw says, you never can tell. But you can make a pretty sure guess when an actoreen is six feet tall and quite wide.
News and magazine clippings in the Locke Collection at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts indicate Clarice never got her wished-for vacation. Instead, managers were even more eager to engage her. There were trips to the Victor recording studios; she shared the bill with Harry Lauder at the American Music Hall on November 28, 1908; she partnered George M. Cohan in a skit for the Friar's Frolic; and played 27 weeks at London's Palace of Varieties in 1909. Upon her return on the Mauritania, friends and theatrical notables welcomed her back with a party at the Knickerbocker Hotel. Clarice recalled spending the better part of the voyage playing poker with the society women aboard. Following her London success her weekly salary jumped from $625 to $750 according to Variety.
It 1909 it was reported in the theatrical press that "Miss Vance has first choice of all songs submitted to Remick Music for her exclusive use in vaudeville." In fact, Clarice found a song called Salome and thought it might be a big hit but it needed work. Mose did not care for the song but he re-wrote it and it was a hit. One night Clarice got so enthusiastic during an encore of the song that she threw her "sixth and seventh vertebrae out of alignment". A cartoon in Variety caricatures her as a hilarious blur of squiggles and circles as she performs this number. At the same time it was noted that Clarice was stealing Eva Tanguay's audience with a "more refined manner"! In 1910 she starred as "Juno" in the lavish but short lived Broadway production of A Skylark. In New Jersey at the New Brighten Theater on August of 1911 she brought down the house with her rendition of the Oceana Roll. She even invented a cocktail . . . "a Clarice Vance is a pony of Plymouth Gin, two shakes of crème de menthe, a dash of bitters. Serve frappe' with grapes in the center."
Added to all that, the New York press reported that she knocked a vial of poison from a man's hand as he was about to drink his solution to a failed love affair. Her picture and a quip about her height appeared in Vanity Fair. She pulled a child from the path of an oncoming car, saving his life. Her Long Island summer home was burned to the ground to cover a "theft of her jewels". In short, Miss Vance's personal and theatrical life was a whirl of activity. Through it all, reviewers of yesterday (and listeners of today) note a marvelous quality of amused understatement in Clarice's song delivery. Critical of those who sang "suggestive songs", she stated that when they come her way she "gives those to her husband for 'cigar lighters'". The April 1909, Victor supplement describes: "A new record by this artist is a welcome announcement, as she invariably sings her numbers with droll humor and a method of expression which is simply irresistible." She did not record after January of 1909 although Victor announced that henceforth she was under exclusive contract.
In 1914 she and Mose Gumble divorced and that same year she was "coaxed back to the stage" but her appearances were infrequent. There are few references in the Locke files after 1914. In 1918 she was officially "retired" according to Variety. In April of 1919 she was half of a matinee bill at San Francisco's Tivoli Opera House. Variety noted that "Clarice Vance was a great success singing her old songs." Her accompanist at the Tivoli and during her last appearances was Tom Mitchell. When Jim Walsh researched his article for Hobbies, it was remembered by a veteran Remick associate that Clarice had perhaps married a young pianist who played for her in vaudeville. Tom Mitchell?
After 1919 there are no more contemporary theatrical references to Clarice Vance in the New York Public Library files. In 1922 Clarice appeared as "Nahoma" an Indian servant in the 1922 Clara Bow movie Down to the Sea in Ships. The film survives and Clarice's brief appearance includes one close up and some long shots that show her to be indeed "tall". Her vaudeville career far behind, one more documented movie appearance as "Mrs. Dabb" in the 1924 FOX movie, Daughters of the Night is the final known theatrical credit for Clarice Vance.
At the time of her death she had been a patient for ten years at the Napa State Hospital in California. She was admitted there in 1951 with "advanced senility". According to the Walsh article, all she knew was her name and that she was an "actress". At the time of her death there were no friends or family. She was buried by Actor's Equity by virtue of being identified by a San Francisco theater historian as a one time "star", although Actor's Equity could find no reference to her in their files. Cemetery records show that she rests as "number 31" in St. Helena Public Cemetery in the beautiful Napa Valley, thousands of miles, light years away from Broadway and her years of fame and fortune.
Where did she live and what did she do during those in-between years? Why did she suddenly quit recording in 1909 when her records were still popular? I'm Wise remained in the Victor catalog until 1923 as an equally popular backing to May Irwin's Frog Song.
Rare clippings and photos detailing Clarice Vance's life and theatrical activities are available in the Locke Collection at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, a branch of the New York Public Library. Photocopying any clippings and most photographs is prohibited. Details about A Skylark can be found in American Musical Theater by Gerald Bordman (Oxford Press, 1992). Another reference is a six-page vaudeville sketch written in 1900 by Clarice Vance called April First. It can be found in the Library of Congress, American Memory web site. [Ed: Try this link to reach the manuscript directly.]
Sterling Morris (email: email@example.com), Seattle, Washington.All photographs from the author's collection.
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