FOCUS ON HISTORY: Vaudeville days — from dancing to roller skating

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Red haired Amsterdam native Inez Courtney was 15 when she performed a specialty dance act during a three day run in 1923 in a vaudeville show at the Rialto Theater on Market Street, part of the Keith vaudeville circuit. 

People referred to her as St. Vitus, Mosquito and Lightning. Born into a large Irish-American family, Inez took up the stage after her father died.

Vaudeville was a mix of specialized stage acts including dancers, singers, comedians and even roller skaters. Vaudevillians toured America, some visiting big cities and others going to smaller towns like Amsterdam.

My father, a teenager at the time, recalled he could watch a movie and four or five vaudeville acts at one of Amsterdam’s theaters for 25 cents in the 1920s. 

One Amsterdam movie theater prided itself on not providing vaudeville. The Orpheum, on Market Street did feature movie stars on tour making personal appearances.

Dancer Inez Courtney left vaudeville for Broadway, and was performing in “The Wild Rose” and other musicals in 1926. She won acclaim for her role in the 1927 musical “Good News” about college life. 

In 1930 she went to Hollywood. Under contract with Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, Courtney appeared in non-musical roles, usually as the wise-cracking friend of actresses such as Jean Harlow or Ginger Rogers.

Courtney performed in 58 films between 1930 and 1940 including “The Raven”, “Suzy”, and “Turnabout”, her last movie.

She was married twice, the second time to an Italian nobleman. When she retired from the movies in 1940 they moved to Rome Italy where her husband Luigi Filiesi was a wine merchant. She died of undisclosed causes at a hospital in New Jersey in 1975 at age 67.

Another vaudeville act that originated in Amsterdam had a long run but never made it to the movies. Hyman and his brother Barney Nathan were roller skaters.

According to the American Vaudeville Museum, there was a roller skating vogue in the early 1900s including Dare Devil Frank, Fielding and Carlos and the Skating Macks.

The Nathan Brothers’ act was created by Hy Nathan when he ran the roller skating rink at a facility called the Colonial on Liberty Street in Amsterdam. 

Roller skating was advertised four days a week at the Colonial in 1906.

A 1912 newspaper story reported that Hy Nathan canceled a ten mile skating race between Alfred Shrubb, the English champion, and Billy Queal, the American champion, which had been scheduled for the Colonial. Nathan said there was not sufficient interest in the race.

Hy and Barney Nathan toured on the Keith vaudeville circuit in America starting in 1918. They also performed in Europe. In February 1922 Hy Nathan was quoted by the Recorder as saying that the brothers were on tour in Ireland with their self-described “sensational” roller skating act. The Nathans performed in Ireland during the first day of freedom for the Irish Free State.

The news account stated, “They expect to fill a number of European engagements before returning to America. Hy Nathan was home last summer on a brief visit.”

In 1924 a newspaper story reported the Nathan Brothers were in Paris and about to tour Germany with stops in Berlin and Munich. In 1928 the skating brothers sent a card from Hamburg to Amsterdam friend James Aiken via the mail service of the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin.

A 1929 Amsterdam newspaper account of a contested will involving property in the Nathan family lists Hyman Nathan as one of the heirs. No further word turns up, however, on the career of Hy and Barney Nathan, the vaudeville roller skaters.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, Opinion

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