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The Great White Wayback Machine
by Laura Frankos

Immigrants in Musicals, Part Two: Cinderellas Rampant

Also see Immigrants in Musicals, Part One: The Early Years, 1870-1910

Last column, we looked at some early shows (1870-1910) that featured immigrants. The next twenty years saw two simultaneous developments. First, the immigrants who came to the United States in vast numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became more assimilated while immigration quotas cut the flood of newcomers to a trickle in the twenties. Second, the American musical was finding its unique form, something distinct from Viennese operettas or English imports. Shows featuring immigrants continued to be popular, though in most cases, their ethnicities weren't as starkly depicted as in Harrigan and Hart. These immigrants, paralleling their real-life counterparts, were well on their way to becoming part of the general populace.

(I should perhaps include an exception here for the growing numbers of Jewish performers of this period, especially Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Willie Howard and Lou Holtz, who often played characters of ostensibly WASP backgrounds while spouting gags clearly revealing their true origins.)

The shows of 1910-1930 that featured immigrants—or characters of immigrant heritage— tended to follow two basic plots. The overwhelming favorite was the Cinderella story, in which a poor immigrant girl, usually Irish, goes from rags to riches. The queen of these is 1919's Irene, which ran for 675 performances, for years the longest-running musical of all time. Another type featured the heroine choosing domestic coziness with an honest but humble man, often a fellow immigrant, over fame and fortune in the big, bad city.

Cinderella Shows

While most of the Cinderellas were Irish, Nina Corelli, the little Italian street singer played by Emma Trentini in The Firefly (1912, music by Rudolf Friml, book and lyrics by Otto Harbach) predates the fair colleens. Seeking to escape her cruel guardian, Nina disguises herself as a local boy, Antonio Columbo, on a yacht to Bermuda. Also on the yacht are handsome, rich Jack (with whom she'd shared an innocent flirt); Jack's snooty fiance, Geraldine Van Dare (the yacht owner's niece); and Herr Franz, a noted choirmaster. Franz hears "Antonio's" voice, and wants him in his choir. When "Antonio" is accused of a crime and Nina must reveal herself, Franz adopts her. Three years later, when she has become a prima donna with Franz's guidance, she meets Jack—who had apparently broken up with Geraldine—again in New York.

The Firefly, while a comic romance, does show some of the bad side of immigrant life along with the good. Nina's guardian is an abusive drunkard; her tenement neighborhood has its own pickpocket in Antonio, whose name Nina adopts. Nina finds fortune not merely through marriage to a rich guy, but through her own skills, aided by Herr Franz (who seems to be thoroughly European, not an immigrant). Interestingly, Geraldine's family, the Van Dares, obviously came from the Netherlands—though it may have been back in the seventeenth century, like the Roosevelts!

We find another Italian immigrant in the Jerome Kern vehicle Head Over Heels (1918). Here acrobat Mitzi Bambinetti falls in love while in Europe, and follows her intended to America, with her father and other acrobats in tow, only to end up with the man's business partner.

But the biggest Cinderella of all was Irene (1919, music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy, book by James Montgomery), whose long run wasn't surpassed until Oklahoma!. The show begins with poor shop girl Irene O'Dare (Edith Day) dreaming of a better future on the fire escape of her tenement, a set that attracted much praise. On an errand to a mansion in Long Island to reupholster cushions, she and wealthy Donald Marshall fall for each other. He gets her a better job (working as a model for his friend "Madame Lucy," a flamboyant male fashion designer), but both families oppose their relationship. Donald's mother thinks he'd be marrying beneath him, while Irene's mother doesn't trust rich people. When Irene poses as a socialite in "Lucy's" gowns, her sweet nature wins over the upper classes.

Given Irene's success, imitations soon abounded. Some of these Cinderellas had no last names at all. Sally, the hit of 1920, was "Sally of the Alley," a foundling, not an immigrant, though her love interest, the Duke of "Czechogovina" could be considered one. Many had names and backgrounds most likely white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, e.g., Laura Lamb, Jane Lee, Mary Thompson, Joyce Baxter.

But plenty of Cinderellas came from hard-working immigrant families. They include:

  • The Girl in the Spotlight (1920). In this Victor Herbert vehicle, housemaid Molly Shannon cleans in a boardinghouse where a composer lives. She learns his songs while working, becomes an emergency understudy in his show, and gains stardom and a groom.

  • The O'Brien Girl (1921). Alice O'Brien, a stenographer, inherits $800, and, while vacationing in the Adirondacks, finds true love.

  • Molly Darling (1922). Molly Ricardo, daughter of Henri Ricardo, a violin maker, becomes a singing star on radio; when her estranged boyfriend hears her broadcast, he comes running back.

  • Sue, Dear (1922). Sue Milliken, a salesgirl in a jewelry store, agrees to impersonate a bride, and naturally ends up one herself, though with a different groom.

  • Helen of Troy, New York (1923). Stenographer Helen McGuffey, fired from her job at a shirt-collar factory for loving the boss' son, invents a better product for a rival firm. This forces the boss to merge their companies and approve the engagement.

  • Mary Jane McKane (1923). In this Youmans-Duncan-Hammerstein piece, Mary Jane moves from Slab City, Massachusetts, to the Lower East Side, and becomes a secretary in a factory. Her romance with Andrew Dunn, the president's son, gets them both fired, but after she helps him start a successful rival factory, his father has a change of heart. Sounds like a clone of Helen of Troy, New York, which debuted six months earlier.

  • The Dancing Girl (1923). Anna, a dancer from Spain, is a fast-working Cinderella, since she, a steerage passenger, falls for the rich American in first class before ever reaching Ellis Island! (Other steerage passengers include a Russian, a Czech, and the obligatory Italian tenor.)

  • The Chiffon Girl (1924), set in "Little Italy, NY" with an Italian, not Irish, Cinderella. Tonita Rovelli is a fruit vendor who can sing. A patron sends her to Italy, where she becomes a prima donna (as in The Firefly); when she returns to America, she marries a bootlegger, not her patron.

  • Sunny (1925). In the smash Kern-Harbach-Hammerstein show, Sunny Peters, a Swiss circus equestrienne, stows away on a ship to America to avoid an arranged marriage, pursuing the guy she loves. This marks the second Kern musical with a stowaway immigrant circus performer, but Sunny, at a whopping 577 showings, was a much bigger success than Head Over Heels.

  • Betsy (1926). Betsy Kitzel, a Jewish cleaning woman in a vaudeville house, has a sister and three brothers (a tailor, a barber, and a chef) who need her to marry so they can, too. Interestingly, Joe, Louie and Moe's girlfriends have pastoral, not Jewish, names: Winnie Hill, Flora Dale and May Meadow.

  • Bye Bye Bonnie (1927). Bonnie Quinlin, a secretary in a soap factory, manages to get her boss out of jail and elected to Congress as an anti-Prohibition candidate. This show is best remembered for Ruby Keeler's dazzling tap number.

  • Manhattan Mary (1927). Mary Brennan's family runs a restaurant, but she ends up performing in a hit revue when they need money. Comic Ed Wynn was the real attraction here.

How well do our immigrant Cinderellas reflect reality? Generally, they're much better off than the real women. In 1920, 75% of all women factory workers were immigrant or first-generation Americans, but most of them were working on the line, not in clerical jobs. (See Rags for a show detailing the often horrible conditions these workers faced. And they came from everywhere, not just Ireland: the factories in Lawrence, Massachusetts, mentioned in Ragtime, reported over forty languages spoken.) It's true that clerical jobs for women, including more assimilated immigrants, were on the rise throughout the twenties, but a genuine Cinderella would probably have been a seamstress or assembly-line worker rather than taking memos for the boss' son! Yet we see little of immigrant factory workers in these shows, save in Mary Jane McKane. Although Mary is a secretary, the supporting cast includes Joe McGillicudy (whose emphasis on efficiency is a clear forerunner to Hines in The Pajama Game three decades later) and workers like Maggie Murphy and "Cash and Carrie," the Keene twins, who sing about punching the time clock. There's also a charming opener with the ensemble riding the subway as a messenger boy, a shop girl, a stenographer, a laundry worker, a banker and a stock broker, designed to give a real-life feel to the production.

Domestic service was the most common occupation for immigrant women, especially Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Mexicans, Bohemians, and Slovaks through the twenties. As time passed, more of these housekeeping/nanny positions went to black women. Yet only two of the Cinderellas were in domestic service. The titular heroine of the Rodgers and Hart flop, Betsy (played by Belle Baker), was a cleaning woman in a theatre, and Molly Shannon, The Girl in the Spotlight, was a housemaid. Betsy progresses from singing "A mop! A broom! A pail! The stuff my dreams are made of!" to success on stage, and Molly also ends up in show business. Maybe it was something in the soap!

Many immigrant women worked in family businesses, most often in retail stores catering to their ethnic group. A few of our Cinderellas—Irene, the upholsterer's assistant, and Mary Brennan, the restaurant worker—worked for their families; Molly Ricardo got her start in her father's music store; and Mitzi's dad also was in the circus.

Given that musicals of this era tended to be frothy and fun rather than gritty and grim, it's not surprising that we don't see the realism present in later shows, especially those that featured immigrants in historical context (more on that in Part Four). The real world of the early twentieth century was harsh, especially for immigrants, and an accurate depiction of their lives would not have made for cheery musical production numbers. But it's interesting to note what the musical creators of this time thought were acceptable occupations for their heroines.

A "Little White House" over a Marble Palace

While less common than the rags-to-riches tale, a good number of immigrant heroines in musicals made a point of settling for a humble home, rather than a mansion. Their beaux, shown as having modest incomes but plenty of moral character, contrast with wealthy suitors from the big, bad city. These include:

  • Little Nellie Kelly (1922). In this Cohan piece, Nellie, the daughter of a police chief, works in a department store. She chooses fellow Irish immigrant, honest Jerry Conroy, over upper class Jack Lloyd.

  • Sally, Irene and Mary (1922). Designed by the Shuberts to cash in on the success of the hits bearing those girls' names: Irene has no last name, but Sally Clancy is Irish, as is Mary O'Brien. They live in the East Side tenements and want to break into show biz. Mary picks fellow immigrant Jimmy Dugan, a rising young politician, over rich Rodman Jones, while Irene and Mary also wed modestly.

  • Honeymoon Lane (1926). Tim Murphy loves Mary Brown, his co-worker in a pickle factory, and hopes to live with her in "The Little White House." The boss' son temporarily lures Mary to New York, but she picks Tim and Honeymoon Lane in the end.

  • Two Cohan pieces (The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly, 1923, in which Rosie is a flower seller under the Brooklyn Bridge; The Merry Malones, 1927, in which Cohan played the heroine's immigrant father) have the girls refusing to marry their fellows because they are too rich. The boys find ways to jettison their fortunes, and the girls relent, but somehow they wind up with the money anyway. Consider them quasi-Cinderellas, since they are willing to take their princes penniless.

  • Finally, there's the odd case of the Dorothy Donnelly-Sigmund Romberg 1927 flop, My Princess. Here the heroine is, as Henry Higgins might put it, "a social-climbing heiress." To further her goal of crashing the upper classes, she weds a penniless Italian organ-grinder, and gets him to pose as an exiled prince. Her plans fall through, and for a time the couple live in a tenement on Cherry Street. In the end, it's revealed he actually is a prince.

1947—Two Different Examples of Immigrants

Aside from a few cases like Toplitsky of Notre Dame (1946), a failed attempt to cater to Jewish and Irish audiences, there were fewer portrayals of immigrants and less emphasis given to ethnic background in the musicals of the thirties and forties. For example, Ethel Merman's "Nails" O'Reilly Duquesne in Red, Hot and Blue (1936) or Hattie Maloney in Panama Hattie (1940) and Patricia Morison's Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate (1948) are simply Americans, not Irish- or Italian-Americans. (Though I admit "Lilli Vanessi" could be a stage name.)

A notable exception would be 1947's Street Scene (book by Elmer Rice, music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes). Based on Rice's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it focuses on the lower-class and immigrant families in a New York neighborhood. The families include Irish, Swedes, a German-Italian couple, Jews, and blacks. One faces eviction, another expects a new baby, and jealousy tears another apart. The action of Rice's original play was little changed: the shared sorrows and joys of the neighborhood played out as they had nearly twenty years before.

In stark contrast to Street Scene, that same year saw the arrival of the most famous Irish immigrants in musical history, Finian and his daughter Sharon, who move from Glocca Morra to the state of Missitucky (Finian's Rainbow, music by Burton Lane, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy). Maybe the fantastic nature of Finian's Rainbow means it shouldn't be included in a study of this sort, but I couldn't resist the chance to close with one of Senator Rawkins' lines: "My whole family has been having trouble with immigrants ever since we came to this county."

Next column: A break from all this social history for a look at the udderly fascinating subject of cows in musicals. If you think Caroline and Milky White are the only ones, you're wrong!

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