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Eva Tanguay, Vaudeville’s Star

October 29, 2015 Archive Insight

Eva Tanguay in Vaudeville Costume, 1910-1919 THF82177

Eva Tanguay was a showstopper—one of vaudeville’s most charismatic stars. Long before performers like Madonna made their mark, Eva Tanguay was wowing ‘em on the vaudeville stage.

The flamboyant singing comedienne was the highest paid performer for over a decade during the heyday of American vaudeville in the early 1900s. Known as the “I Don’t Care Girl” after her most famous song, Eva’s bold, self-confident songs symbolized a new, emancipated American woman.

As a child, Eva was already touring on her own, appearing in productions like “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” THF82173

Born in Canada in 1878, Eva Tanguay grew up in Holyoke, Mass. As a child, Eva was already an actress, touring in productions like “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” By the turn of the 20th century, Eva turned from stock and Broadway plays to the two-a-day vaudeville circuit, making her New York vaudeville debut at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater in 1904. About this time, she made a huge splash with her performance of the tune, “I Don’t Care,” which became her signature song. Eva steadily rose from being a $500 a week performer to earning as much as $3,500 a week by 1910.

In an era when women wore long skirts, Eva’s costumes were considered quite risqué. THF82169

Outrageous, full of energy, and often risqué, the wild-haired blonde defied conventional values as she flaunted her irreverent sense of humor and sensuality. Eva’s audiences flocked to her performances— not to hear a lovely voice (which was average and rather brassy), but for her ability to light up the stage with her performances.  Eva could really sell a song. People were intrigued by what she was wearing and how she was behaving. Her daring, revealing and, often, flamboyant costumes caused scandal in their day. Eva once quipped, “When I put on tights, my name went up in lights!” Eva toured not only the American circuit, but was a hit in cities like Toronto and London as well. Tanguay also made two movies, “Energetic Eva” (1916) and “The Wild Girl” (1917), though they met with little success.

Eva well understood the value of self-promotion. She would take each city by storm, spending liberally on publicity and advertising. She was often billed as “The Genius of Mirth and Song,” and “The Evangelist of Joy.”

Eva Tanguay in Flag-Themed Vaudeville Costume, circa 1918. THF82175

Eva Tanguay’s many fans loved her—her exuberant personality fascinated vaudeville audiences for more than three decades. Late in her career, the show business publication Variety wrote, “What Ruth is to baseball, Dempsey to pugilism and Chaplin to pictures, Tanguay is to vaudeville.  She embodies the spirit of youth in her work, her personality is elusive and baffling as ever, and she has the color that penetrates beyond the four walls of a theatre and cashes in at the box office.”

Yet, as vaudeville began to fade in the late 1920s, so too did Eva’s luck.  She lost a fortune during the 1929 stock market crash. In November 1934, down-on-her-luck Eva Tanguay wrote to Henry Ford asking him to give her a Ford car. At this time, Eva was crippled by arthritis and very short of funds. She hoped that improved mobility would help her get around to look for work as a radio performer. Frank Campsall, Henry Ford’s secretary, regretfully replied that Mr. Ford could not fulfill such requests as he received so many of them.

Dear Mr. Ford-

This letter is from Eva Tanguay (of the stage) I hope you [remember] me, once you were in the audience when I played Detroit- and anyone who has seen me before the footlights is interested in me. Somehow I prompted to write you- I'm not asking for money- you may know of my case, I went almost totally blind a few years ago. This stopped my success at the theatres, I had invested three hundred thousand in real estate, fourteen houses in Hollywood, thinking it would protect me in my old days. But now I have lost all, after two operations on my eyes I now have perfect vision (wearing glasses) but have an alarming case of arthritis. It is a terrible ailment being unable to walk, I was thinking in the generosity of your heart could give me a car. I know you have given many away and to people who could buy one. I have always had a car having owned eleven, but now have nothing. I live off a sort of an alley in a small house which is set in back of a big one, there is no view other than the backyards of other houses paying twenty a month* you get an idea of what it is like. I do not go out for I cannot walk far. It is very sad to have had so much and be cut down to poverty, but my illness prevents me from doing any work. Although I could sing on radio if the programme was without the audience viewing the entertainer, I have earned thirty-five hundred a week, three thousand and most always a twenty-five hundred, so you may know I'm no tramp, having lived the very best, my home consisted of gold glasses silver plates and everything that meant refinement, now I'm alone and cut off entirely from my world I so loved. If I had a car I could go out afternoons and might connect some way with managers, agents- and find something to do. Think it over Mr. Ford- I would give the story to the newspapers although you don't need the publicity, it would be thought a mighty noble deed on your part. I can drive but there is no way of me getting one- God Bless you.

Respectfully, Eva Tanguay

Cataracts had dramatically affected her vision by the early 1930s, but her sight was restored by an operation paid for by admirer Sophie Tucker.  Her arthritis slowed her in1937 and she became more and more reclusive. By the time of her death on January 11, 1947 in Hollywood, California, her once vast fortune was reduced to $500.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. This post is part of our archived Pic of the Month series.

vaudeville, vaudeville stars

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