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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Great-Grandpa's Vaudeville Days

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Bill Morris (1895-1975) circa 1910-1912 with an unidentified companion (left).

As I was growing up, I frequently heard about my great-grandfather William "Bill" Morris's days as a vaudeville stagehand in Muskegon, Michigan. The story never included many details; nonetheless, Grandma liked to show us the photograph of her father dressed up as a western cowboy (pictured on the right), posed with an unidentified companion (pictured on the left), and refer to his "vaudeville days." The short story goes like this:

Bill's parents divorced when he was young. Consequently, he was raised by his paternal grandparents, although he did spend time with each of his parents. Grandma believed that Bill was living with his father, Charles Milton Irvin Morris, a railway employee, in Muskegon, Michigan, during his teen years when he worked for the vaudeville show as a stagehand for a short time. The only evidence for Grandma's story is the photograph at the top of this post. I decided to go searching and discover what more there was to be learned about Great-Grandpa's vaudeville days.

The first surprising detail about this story came to light a few years ago when my mother was assembling a collection of family photographs, stories, and genealogical details. As we studied the lives of his parents, we discovered that it was Bill's mother, Eliza Dell Jarrett, who lived in Muskegon, Michigan, not his father.

Eliza lived in Muskegon for an unknown period of time between 1905 and 1920. During this time, she was married and divorced twice. At the same time, Bill's father, Charles Milton Irvin Morris, was living in Elkhart, Indiana, and working as a "stationary engineer." This somewhat archaic term referred to the men who were in charge of maintaining energy-producing equipment and ensuring it operated safely. Also known as process operators, they worked in a variety of industries where boilers, steam engines, turbines, and related equipment were used. Grandma's memory is probably correct that Charles did work for the railroad, but more likely it was in Indiana rather than Michigan. His World War I draft registration card seems to support this theory, indicating he was a "special mechanic" at a "depot." His employer was the New York Central Railroad Company. In 1910, he was likely working for the South Shore & Michigan Southern, one of two railroad companies which merged in 1914 to form the New York Central Railroad Company.

We do not know the details of Charles's and Eliza's child custody arrangement, but the 1910 United States Census may provide a glimpse. Both households were enumerated just days apart in 1910, and both parents claimed that Bill, then 14 years old, and his sister, Wilma, resided with them. On April 23, 1910, Charles reported that Bill was a farm laborer in Indiana. Four days later, on April 27, 1910, Eliza and her new husband, Frank Monette, claimed that Bill was a millhand, likely in a lumber mill although the Muskegon paper mill was also then in operation. We cannot know for sure why both households claimed the children resided with them at nearly the same time. One explanation may be that the children moved from Elkhart to Muskegon during the intervening three days. While it is obvious that Bill and Wilma bounced back and forth between their parents' homes, this double reporting is the only time we find evidence of when such a move transpired. Unfortunately, it does not provide as much help pinpointing a date when Bill could have worked for vaudeville.

During this era, Muskegon became a popular destination for the vaudeville circuit's performers escaping the stuffy un-air-conditioned theaters of other cities. In Muskegon, these performers enjoyed the refreshing breezes of Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake. They established an actors' colony at Bluffton, a community at the base of Pigeon Hill—a large sand dune on the peninsula between the two lakes. The Keatons—Joe and Myra, along with their children Buster, Louise, and Harry—were among the many performers who made their summer homes in Muskegon beginning in 1908. They enjoyed performing in the Lake Michigan Park Theater, an open-air pavilion. Although many vaudeville performers, like Buster Keaton, transitioned to making silent films, the actors' colony remained active until 1938.

Apart from family stories and the accompanying photograph, there is no documentary evidence that Bill Morris was employed by the vaudevillians or the Lake Michigan Park Theater. Two months younger than Buster Keaton, one can easily imagine the sociable teenage Bill being attracted to the creative energy of the actors' colony. A summer gig as a stagehand must have seemed glamorous compared to the drudgery of a millhand. His daughters remembered him periodically bursting out with a silly song. When this happened, their mother would always say, "Oh, that's from his vaudeville days." The closest we can come to establishing a date is a range from 1910 to 1915, more likely the first half of that date range.

However, Bill soon returned to Indiana, joining his father in Elkhart. He took a job as a farmhand for Anna Maria Menges who was trying to support her daughter and sister on the family farm in Bristol, Indiana. Anna Maria liked the young man well enough to persuade her daughter, Edith, to marry him. Bill and Edith were married on November 24, 1915.

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