Posted by Susan Doll on February 13, 2012
I love vaudeville and old-time vaudevillians, probably because I grew up watching Hollywood musicals that romanticized that heady era when the underprivileged, the penniless, and the disadvantaged used any speck of talent they had to get on to the stage and out of poverty. Yesterday, I caught The Seven Little Foys, featuring Bob Hope as Eddie Foy, a huge star in vaudeville, in musical revues, and on Broadway. The entertainer died in 1928, but “Eddie Foy” remained a well-known name for decades because his children continued in show business, particularly Eddie Foy, Jr., a character actor in films and stage musicals, and Bryan Foy, the main producer in MGM’s B-unit during the Golden Age.
The Seven Little Foys tells the story of Eddie Sr.’s decision to bring his brood of boys and girls into show business. In the film, Foy forms the act to keep his family together after wife Madeline Morando Foy dies, but in actuality, he formed the Seven Little Foys about 1912 or 1913. Madeline did not die until 1918. In the movie, the kids sing and dance onstage dressed in matching yellow or red suits, providing Hope as Foy the opportunity to crack asides and one-liners with his exquisite timing. Some of the wisecracks spoken by Hope had been used by Foy onstage, including the line he always uttered after introducing the kids onstage: “It took me a long time to put this act together.”
The first part of the film covers just enough of Foy’s solo career to suggest the heyday of early vaudeville and to depict one of the most famous incidents in his career. On December 30, 1903, Foy was performing at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago when it caught on fire, killing over 600 people. The Iroquois disaster remains the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history. In Chicago, ghost stories about Death Alley, the passageway behind the theater where bodies were stacked, and tales of the political cover-up of the theater’s many safety violations are part of the city’s lore and history. I have known about the Iroquois fire for many years and have even visited the site on a tour of Chicago’s old theater district, including Death Alley. The theater was razed in 1924 and replaced by the Oriental Theater, which became the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in 1998.
I did not realize Foy had been the star attraction at the Iroquois on that day in 1903, and I was riveted to find out how it would play out in The Seven Little Foys. In the film, Foy became a hero when he comes out onstage while burning debris falls all around to calm the audience by performing a soft shoe and encouraging them not to panic. I wondered how much the incident had been exaggerated for the sake of the movie. I spent the afternoon uncovering the tragedy of the Iroquois and the true story of Eddie Foy, whose remarkable career path weaved in and out of U.S. history, touching the lives of the famous and the infamous.
Foy’s musical extravaganza Mr. Bluebeard, a spoof of the sinister actions of the nefarious wife-killer, had been the first attraction booked at the brand new Iroquois. The play opened to sold-out crowds on November 23, 1903. On the night of December 30, everything in the theater was packed to the rafters and crammed to the hilt. The production featured 150 performers, including professional aerialists. In addition, dozens of extras had been hired in Chicago to round out the crowd scenes. There were 1600 costumes, 3000 square yards of curtains, and dozens of oil-painted backdrops hung tightly together in the space above the stage. The lighting effects for the show required a heavy load of electrical power, which had taxed the wiring in a Cleveland theater two months earlier, setting off a small fire. The theater held 1,724, but, like many venues at the time, space was made available for standing room to accommodate even more people. About 2,000 men, women, and children jammed the Iroquois on December 30, 1903, to see Eddie Foy, a Chicago favorite.
The fire started about 3:15 just after the second act began. Some recall seeing a bright flash near one of the floodlights on stage right: It was speculated that the red velvet curtain had brushed up against the light; or, the lighting effects in the opening number of the second act caused the wires to overheat. A small flame shot along the bottom edge of the curtain and then quickly moved up into the fly rafters. Most of the audience and performers did not realize there was a major blaze until smoke and sparks were visible in the main theater, and fire began to curl down and around the lower part of the proscenium arch. As people panicked, they ran for the exits, which they could not find or could not open. Dozens of spectators fell and were trampled to death, including children. When firemen and others finally entered the theater, they found bodies stacked so deep at the doors they had to pull them into Death Alley to actually move into the interior. The other major cause of death was incineration. Theater employees and performers opened a rear set of double doors, sucking the wind inside and causing flames to fan out under the main curtain and into the auditorium. A second gust of wind created a fireball that exploded into the balconies filled with people. The supposedly fireproof curtain, which was likely not asbestos as claimed, collapsed and dropped into the theater seats on the main floor.
The owners of the Iroquois Theater had actually bragged that their new venue was completely fire-proof, reminding me of the White Star Line, which nine years later would boast that the Titanic was unsinkable. Whether they were in a hurry to get the theater finished for Foy’s production, or whether they were arrogant, the theater owners made some crucial miscalculations and took too many short cuts—from the unfinished vents in the roof to the doors looked from the outside to the turned-off exit signs. The official investigation led to a cover-up by city officials and the fire department, who claimed no knowledge of construction or fire-code violations. They blamed inspectors who had overlooked the problems in exchange for free theater passes. A grand jury indicted several individuals, including the theater owners, fire officials, and the mayor. But, this is Chicago, where city residents are accustomed to corruption and graft, idolize gangsters, and tend to laugh off crooked politicians as though it is good sport. So, the only person charged in the aftermath of the fire, let alone convicted, was some schmuck who robbed the dead as they were stacked outside waiting to be carted away. Families of the victims filed some 275 lawsuits against the theater, but no money was ever collected. The Iroquois Theater Company filed for bankruptcy. I could understand why The Seven Little Foys left out many of the details of the fire.
But, what about the real Eddie Foy? Did he perform heroically as depicted in the movie? According to accounts by survivors and in Foy’s own autobiography, the depiction in the film was close, though some details were simplified or changed. In the film, he was performing a vaudeville-style act instead of starring in a musical extravaganza, and he did not dance a soft-shoe to calm the audience. Instead, Foy was in his dressing room when he became aware of the fire and quickly ran into the wings. His son Bryan had come to the theater that day, and Foy immediately rushed him to the stage door and thrust him into the arms of an exiting stagehand. Then he bolted to the stage, where he told people to stay calm and remain in their seats. He asked conductor Herbert Dillea to play something to let the audience know that things were under control. Several musicians had already escaped the pit, but a few stuck around as Dillea asked them to play the overture to Sleeping Beauty and the Beast, a musical that had been a hit the previous season. Foy yelled backstage for the crew to drop the fireproof curtain, but it was difficult to get anyone to listen. As burning chunks of curtain and set design dropped around Foy, he realized that the fire was rapidly getting out of control. He told the audience to exit their rows calmly, while pushing Dillea to continue playing—all the while yelling for the crew to lower the fireproof curtain. Finally, a few stagehands attempted to drop the curtain only for it to get stuck a third of the way down. The last of the musicians exited the pit, with Dillea following closely behind them. Foy continued to try to calm the crowd until a burst of fire rushed out behind the curtain, and the noise of the fire and screams of the people in the galleries and balconies drowned him out. With chunks of burning set design falling around him, Foy finally left the stage as the crowd surged through the aisles. Some sources say Foy exited through the back door; others say he escaped through a sewer. Once outside, he began frantically searching for little Bryan whom he finally spotted on Dearborn Street still in the safe keeping of the stagehand.
After reading a bit about the life of Eddie Foy, I am not surprised that he jumped into the chaos to help. Audiences knew him mostly as a comic who sang in a funny, high-pitched voice and danced well enough to headline musicals, but like many entertainers, he had honed his talents to escape a rough life on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Born Edward Fitzgerald in 1856, Foy was 47 at the time of the Iroquois Theater fire. His father had been a Civil War soldier who had contracted syphilis and died a raving madman during the war. To escape the draft riots and prejudice against the Irish in New York, Mary Fitzgerald moved her family to Chicago. Later, she became a nurse-companion to Mary Todd Lincoln, who suffered from severe melancholy and mental illness. In his biography, Eddie recalled Mrs. Lincoln’s eccentricities, including her belief that gas lighting was the invention of the Devil, and the hardships his mother endured caring for her.
I found Foy’s career interesting not only because it paralleled the development of American popular entertainment in the 19th and early 20th centuries but also because of the historical figures he crossed paths with. Around the time of the Great Chicago Fire, Eddie began singing and dancing in beer halls, eventually teaming up with Jim Thompson. Their first success was on the saloon-theater circuit in the Wild West. The duo was particularly successful at the Comique in Dodge City, where it wasn’t unusual for bullets to fly through hotel rooms and saloon walls when the trail-hands were in town. Apparently, Foy’s bawdy songs, including one about a girl and her one-legged lover, were a hit with Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday. Doc asked the comic to sit at his table after the show one night to meet his lady companion, Big Nose Kate Horony, who was a fan.
Foy soon graduated to musical variety theater, where he became a popular solo performer. By the 1890s, he was a star of musical comedy plays, particularly in the Midwest. According to some sources, his headline-making heroism from the Iroquois Theater fire helped him become a headliner in the major theater circuits in New York, though I think he may have already been a big star at the time. As an elder statesman of American show business, newcomers sought his advice. When baseball legend Ty Cobb decided to try his hand at acting in the 1911 play The College Widow, he asked Foy about how to use his natural personality traits in creating a character.
After Foy gave up the theater for the vaudeville act with his seven children, he crossed paths with a young generation of performers who later became movie stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Eddie Foy, Jr., taught young Ginger Rogers how to do the Charleston in the alley behind the Majestic Theater in Fort Worth, Texas, a skill that landed her a small part in the Seven Little Foys show when one of the siblings became ill. Later, the Charleston helped her win a talent contest, which launched her career. Jimmy Cagney recalled that the Foys offered him food and shelter when he was a down-and-out newcomer trying to break into vaudeville. Years later, when he was asked to reprise the role of George M. Cohan for The Seven Little Foys, he refused to accept a salary out of respect for Foy. From Mary Todd Lincoln to Doc Holliday to Ty Cobb to Jimmy Cagney: Reviewing Eddie Foy’s career in show business is a like history lesson come to life.
Eddie Foy died in Kansas City on February 16, 1928—still a headliner on the Orpheum circuit. Now, that’s show business.
Brandt, Nat. Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. Southern Illinois University Press, 2006.
Cowan, David. Great Chicago Fires: Historic Blazes that Shaped a City. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2001.
Fields, Armond. Eddie Foy: A Biography of the Early Popular Stage Comedian. McFarland, 2009.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies