August 28th, 2014
Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.
In a 1923 interview entitled “Makes Money From Just Fun,” Broadway star Eleanor Williams is described as the “chief laugh-maker” in “The Love Child,” the show running at the time (ca. 1922-1923). “At last a comedian has been found who does not wish to do serious roles,” observes the reporter, “only in this case the player happens to be a comedienne!” The interview continues: “No,” said Miss Williams emphatically, “I do not care to do serious parts at all, am not ambitious in that direction.” “I think it’s wonderful to be able to make people cry. But I get an actual thrill from laughter and it’s the thrill that I love best.”
This interview was selected from among clippings in a scrapbook apparently kept by Eleanor Williams herself, recently acquired by the West Virginia and Regional History Center. Documenting her career on and off Broadway from the teens to the twenties, its contents show that she made quite an impression back then.
In a 1923 review entitled “They Call Her a Natural-Born Cutup,” for example, it’s said that she’s even able to enliven an otherwise gloomy play: “… she achieves her purpose just as readily and as easily; that is, she makes the people laugh, and vociferously.”
From other clippings and documents in the scrapbook, we learn that she was born and raised in Clarksburg, West Virginia, and attended King’s School of Oratory in the Knoxville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1914. A “stage favorite in Pittsburgh,” as one clippings says, she was noticed by and recruited into the major league of theater by an agent of New York impresario David Belasco to work with David Warfield.
In 1920s Broadway, her path crossed with those of other female comedy greats, as evidenced by a letter from Claudette Colbert, who she co-starred with in “The Barker” from 1927, and a well-wishing note from Fanny Brice:
Letter from Claudette Colbert.
Note from Fanny Brice
The Eleanor Williams scrapbook provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of a vaudeville and Broadway performer from the teens and twenties with its clippings, telegrams, notes and letters, travel itineraries, theatre programs, and other material. It has survived intact in its journey over the decades, and now has a home at the West Virginia and Regional History Center where it will be preserved and cataloged for future researchers.