Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Jewish Displacement of Irish Americans in Vaudeville: The Role of Religious and Cultural Values

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Jewish Displacement of Irish Americans in Vaudeville: The Role of Religious and Cultural Values

Article excerpt

By 1880, Irish Catholic immigrants were prominent participants, as both consumers and performers, in many popular culture venues. Their prominence was part of a remarkable ascent from being a destitute and despised group when they immigrated a generation earlier. Initially, traits ascribed to Sambo were part of the burden of the stage Irishman: "Both Paddy and Sambo were childlike, musical, hapless, exuberant, and irrationally loyal to their employers" (Dezell 2001, 19); "At his best, 'Paddy' was a happy-go-lucky buffoon, shiftless and tipsy. At his worst, he was a 'childish, emotionally unstable, ignorant, indolent, superstitious, primitive or semi-civilized, dirty, vengeful and violent'" (Curran 1989, 6).

As the Famine Irish entered vaudeville, though stereotypes remained, they were seen in a more positive light. Instead of loathing, their "wild" and "barbaric" traits now provoked mirth and laughter. It "evolves into the peasant Paddy who could be cleverer than his foolish behavior might suggest [and had] an instinctive ability to adapt himself to the insecurities and absurdities of his life" (Williams 1996, 61). The pre-eminent Irish American participants were Ned Harrigan and Tony Hart. In the 1870s, they wrote the first popular songs for musicals shows (as opposed to the vaudeville and minstrel stage) to find success in sheet music. Productions featured highly realistic sets depicting the Lower East Side. Most prominent was the Mulligan's Alley series. "Harrigan's characters were working class, and many were poor ... Harrigan's recognition and celebration of the Irish urban community was perhaps one of the most important aspects of his work, for it presented a positive picture of one of the essential realities of Irish-American life" (Williams 1996, 165).

Large numbers of Irish immigrants continued to stream into the United States through the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, between 1880 and 1899, Irish immigrants still outnumbered Eastern European Jewish immigrants. (1) Many of these newer Irish immigrants could have been expected to enter vaudeville, especially given the prominent position of Irish performers and producers. However, by the second decade of the twentieth century, Jewish immigrants had a dominant presence in commercial vaudeville, as the Irish presence plummeted. This paper hopes to provide some understanding of this transformation.

Irish American vaudeville performers and audiences in the 1870s and 1880s overwhelmingly comprised those that migrated during or immediately after the Great Famine. Most of the Famine Irish rarely observed formal religious obligations in the New World. In the decades immediately after their arrival, "at least half the Irish in New York City's Sixth Ward, including a great majority of the unskilled laborers, hardly ever attended mass. In Ohio, one priest lamented that among the Irish railroad workers 'one-half are grown up to 20-25 years and never made their first communion [and] know nothing of their catechism'" (Miller 1985, 327).

As Irish Americans gained a foothold in mainstream American society, more secure financial possibilities limited the number of second-generation men and women entering vaudeville. This was similar to the situation of second-generation German Jewish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century. However, unlike the newer Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the much large number of newer Irish immigrants followed their second-generation Irish compatriots and rejected commercial vaudeville.

Second-generation Irish Americans and newer Irish immigrants grew up in the devotional movement built by Cardinal Cullen in Ireland. After the Great Famine, he led a successful Catholic revival in Ireland that emphasized that sinfulness must be overcome by the rejection of bodily pleasures, and this perspective was brought to American communities by priests trained under his guidance. By 1900, three-quarters of US church hierarchy was Irish--officers in the devotional revolution whose "mission increasingly was one of 'immigrant uplift,' the tenets of which were as simple as those Cullen's Church had prescribed for the peasantry of Ireland" (Dezell 2001, 63). …

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