ABOUT 100 years ago, if you lived in North America—and unless you lived under a rock—you knew the name Eva Tanguay. In fact, everyone knew the name Eva Tanguay. She was called the Cyclonic Comedienne, the Madcap Wonder, the Wild Girl. She was the Queen of Vaudeville.
She was the Lady Gaga of her day, the Madonna of 1910.
Simply put: Eva Tanguay (1878-1947) was the most popular live entertainer in the United States from about 1905-1920. She made her name in sparkling Broadway musicals and then, more famously, in the circuit of variety theaters that presented a hugely popular entertainment form known as vaudeville. In vaudeville, crowds paid about a dollar to see a few hours’ worth of one merrymaker after another: dancers, contortionists, stand-up comics, trained seals, precocious kids, trick piano players, maybe some more trained seals…
…And Eva Tanguay.
In 1908, she played a barely-clad Salome in a hugely popular and scandalous stage routine. In 1909, she headlined the famous Ziegfeld Follies.
She happily admitted she couldn’t really sing, dance, or act. She insisted that she wasn’t even pretty (though her many lovers and several husbands begged to differ). But it didn’t matter. Eva had that special something, that magnetism, that personality, that verve that pulled in the crowds night after night. More than anyone before her, Eva showed that you didn’t have to be formally skilled to have loads of talent. She made millions. She lost millions. She went from high-flying superstar to forgotten legend, a lady clown who never made the leap to movies and radio like so many of her peers back in the day. But she was a megastar, and she paved the way for so many others, from Mae West (who took Eva as her inspiration) onwards.
Get Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay, by Andrew L. Erdman (Cornell University Press, $29.95). Purchase or pre-order now at Cornell University Press or Amazon.