Thursday, July 29, 2021

The girl who beat Houdini

Houdini was a superstar in American vaudeville and even once held the distinction of being its highest paid performer. But vaudeville had other superstars who drew crowds and salaries that sometimes matched Houdini. One of these performers was Eva Tanguay.

Today Eva Tanguay is largely forgotten. But if you were around in Houdini's time, you would have certainly known who she was. By many accounts, Tanguay could neither sing nor dance. But that didn't dampen her enormous appeal. A profile of her at the New England Historical Society (Eva Tanguay, The Lady Gaga of Vaudeville) says:

Her celebrity was no accident, but a well-planned assault on stuffy Victorian convention. She provoked reaction, singing songs with titles like Go As Far As You Like and wearing bizarre costumes like a dress made out of pennies. The tabloids ate up stories about her love life, which included a romance with the African-American vaudeville star George Walker. You couldn’t escape her from 1904 to the early 1920s.

Like Houdini, Tanguay was a headliner on the big time Keith vaudeville circuit, thus they played many of the same theaters. This invited direct comparison. Such was the case in Boston in January 1911 as you can read below:

Boston Sunday Post, Jan. 15, 1911.

Not only was Eva beating Houdini's attendance records, but she was also surpassing his salary, making as much as $3500 per week. By 1912 Houdini had to put a spin on his claims of being Vaudeville's highest paid performer. Check out the below ad from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in which he now calls himself "the highest salaried male performer in the world."

Courier Sun, Feb. 25, 1912. 

After losing her fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, Eva Tanguay retired in 1930 and slipped into obscurity. She died on January 11, 1947 at age 68. In another Houdini parallel, in 1953 a highly fictionalized biopic was made of Eva's life, The I Don't Care Girl, starring Mitzi Gaynor. This was the same year as the Houdini biopic with Tony Curtis.


If you'd like to learn more about Eva Tanguay check out the book Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay by Andrew L. Erdman. Below is the only known recording of Eva made in 1922.


UPDATE: Today I went to the 94th Rudolph Valentino Memorial Service at Hollywood Forever cemetery (Rudy being the other big celebrity death of 1926), and I paid a visit to Ms. Tanguay.


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15 comments:

  1. I met her great-nephew when I was auditioning contestants for a game show. He was very flattered when giving his name, I asked if he was any relation. Some then asked, "Who was she?" Others replied, "She was the I Don't Care Girl."

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    1. I admit I had never heard of her until I found this clipping.

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  2. She has the combination & "naughtiness" of both Mae West & Betty Boop!

    Despite her also having a film-bio made of her life, she is forgotten by the general public (as is Dunninger), because she:

    * Didn't have an "Ed Saint" to constantly keep her name in the news,
    after her death.

    * She didn't die on Halloween - which allows News Medias around the
    world to feature annual stories about Houdini.

    * Her name isn't utilized as a noun/verb, in the english language.

    Still, she sounds like a fascinating person, and I will read up on her.

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    1. That book might be worth reading. I did watch the movie. Not great.

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  3. That photo and illustration of HH in the Orpheum ad are new to me.

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    1. Dorothy and Dick at the Houdini Museum own the wood block that made that photo.

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    2. The print block that tipped over during their seance.

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  4. Her final resting place is at Hollywood Forever. She has an unostentatious top-level crypt you would have to crane your neck to see (unless you are Joe Fox), with a plaque that just gives name and dates.

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    1. Hi Lisa! Yeah, I saw that. I will need to pay her a visit this Aug 23. Maybe Mr. Fox can put me on his shoulders. :)

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    2. Check out my update, Lisa. Paid my respects today.

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    3. Hollywood Forever cemetery is in the dead center of town. People are just dying to get in there.

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    4. Glad you made it, John! Hollywood Forever is a strangely living dead place. I add my respects to yours, for both Valentino and Eva Tanguay!

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  5. She was a huge star with the Ziegfeld Follies. At The New Amsterdam Theater in NYC, (where The Follies played) which is now owned by Disney, in the lobby today are life size photos of Follies stars, (Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, etc.) including Eva Tanguay.

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  6. You know her birthday was on Sunday. The Vaudeville FB page had two posts about her. Suddenly she's everywhere. Wild About Eva!

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