Clowning Through Life
If Eddie Foy is remembered at all today it is for the film, The Seven Little Foys which was about Foy's late-in-life vaudeville act with his seven children and starred Bob Hope as Foy. However, the Seven Little Foys act was just a part of Foy's long career, which he chronicles in this wonderful autobiography, which he wrote with Alvin Harlow.
In the book Foy gives us a great look into life in the second half of the 19th century and the pre-vaudeville days of saloons, medicine shows, camp shows and traveling minstrel companies. Early in life he witnessed the Draft Riots of 1863 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, where he raced through the streets of Chicago with his infant nephew while the city burned around him. He started his career in the late 1870s in the legitimate theater in Chicago as an extra and spear-carrier, working and learning from such theater legends as Edwin Booth and Joseph Jefferson. Going on the road with a succession of partners, Foy played mining camps and cattle towns like Dodge City (befriending Doc Holliday and meeting the Earps), Tombstone, Leadville (where he witnessed a lynching), Angels Camp, and Butte before moving on to bigger bookings in Denver and San Francisco. He found his way east as part of Carncross’ Minstrels and then made a name for himself as a solo performer in a series of lavish musical extravaganzas with such recondite titles as The Strollers, Mr. Bluebeard, and Piff! Paff! Pouf!
It was while on tour with Mr. Bluebeard that Foy became nationally famous for his actions during the Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. Although over 600 people were killed in the fire it is said that many more would have died if Foy had not come out onstage to calm down the crowd while the fire was raging. The early part of the 20th Century saw Foy becoming the most famous comedian in the country, working in musical comedies as well as vaudeville.
Thrice widowed, Foy spent the last 20 years of his career with his children as part of their vaudeville team before the death of his wife (and the mother of all seven) and his subsequent fourth marriage broke up the family and act. Foy doesn't spend much time in his book on this last phase of his life and doesn't mention the breakup of the act at all. The book was serialized in Collier’s magazine in 1926 and 1927 and published in 1928. A short time before the book came out, Eddie Foy died at the age of 71 in Kansas City while touring the Orpheum circuit with a solo act. Headlining, of course.
Long out-of-print, this is a book and life that begs rediscovery.