Maggie Cline, Vaudeville Queen who based career on Ireland despite never having been

Her performances included jokes about her weight, and playing the sad Irish colleen

Maggie Cline, post 1888, courtesy of Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

Maggie Cline, post 1888, courtesy of Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

 

To hear Maggie Cline perform on stage, you might imagine that she had just stepped off the boat, fresh from churning butter and wrestling pigs in the old country. But this boisterous, imposing woman was actually born in Massachusetts in 1857, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and never set foot in Ireland. Having started work at a shoe factory at the age of 12 in Haverhill, near Boston, she ran away from home a number of times until she found her feet in a travelling troupe, Snellbaker and Benson’s Majestics.

Maggie soon decided to strike out on her own as a solo performer. She found that audiences responded to her Irish identity, and her costume became more reminiscent of the plaintive Irish colleen. As a young, red-haired girl, she first began her career singing wistful ballads that reminded the audience of a long lost (or in Maggie’s case, imagined) Ireland.

Finding Her Style

But as time went by, she found her figure, voice, and general demeanour suited to a more rambunctious style. Vaudeville in America at the time was fond of knockabout routines and the comic violence that would find its fullest flowering in the Loony Tunes cartoons of the mid 20th century. Richard Stott says of the era, “Comic violence remained a staple. The aggressive strain in vaudeville was general, but increasingly stage violence came to be associated with Irish and African Americans.” Maggie Cline would find her own way to access this stereotype, but in a surprising and crowd-pleasing manner. Alongside popular staples in her repertoire such as “Nothing’s too Good For the Irish”, she began to introduce comic songs with titles such as “Choke Him, Casey, Choke Him”.

If Cline had known how the song would come to define her career, perhaps she might have passed it by too

There was a thriving business in this line of songs, written for vaudeville performers such as Cline to perform, and stereotypical Irish pastimes such as drinking and fighting often made for popular subject matter. One such journeyman songwriter was John W Kelly (born John Walter Shields in 1857), a storyteller and performer known as “The Rolling Mill Man” – a reference to his long-time work in the mills of the Steel Belt. His song “Slide, Kelly, Slide” would become a staple of Maggie Cline’s, and was America’s baseball anthem until “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” was written in 1908. But the most successful partnership between Kelly and Cline was to come when he offered her a new song in 1890; one which had been passed over by a number of other vaudeville singers, “Throw Him Down McCloskey”. If Cline had known how the song would come to define her career, perhaps she might have passed it by too – crowds would demand it from her until her retirement in 1917.

“Throw him down, McCloskey,’ was to be the battle cry,
Throw him down, McCloskey, you can lick him if you try;
And future generations, with wonder and delight,
Will read on hist’ry’s pages of the great McCloskey fight.”

Physical comedy

Even in earlier ballads, such as “Mary Ann Kehoe”, a song about a love triangle, Cline has used a lot of physical comedy in her act. She played this up to great comic effect in this song about a 47 round bareknuckle fight, at the end of which “You couldn’t tell the dif’rence in fighters if you’d try, McCracken lost his upper lip. McCloskey lost an eye.” Cline’s act included banter and jokes with the orchestra, and the copious use of off-stage sound effects created by the stage hands.

The poster for On Broadway, written by Clay M Greene and Ben Teal, Wikimedia Commons
The poster for On Broadway, written by Clay M Greene and Ben Teal, Wikimedia Commons

She would joke with the orchestra about her weight, boast about her diamond brooches, play the sad colleen while comically hitching up her skirts, and even call for a drink of beer mid-performance. Her larger than life stage presence earned her the monikers “The Irish Queen” and “The Bowery Brunhilde”, and critics praised her stage presence: “the easy assurance of one who has arrived and conquered.” Cline shadow-boxed her way through every performance, and the song’s chorus was regularly taken up by everyone in the theatre – even the newspaper boys outside.

Cline had toured throughout the 1870s, and found a semi-permanent home in Tony Pastor’s Theatre in New York in the 1880s. In her private life, she married a publican called John Ryan in 1888, and had a home in the Hudson Valley. Two roles on Broadway in 1893 (The Prodigal Butler) and 1896 (On Broadway) didn’t quite allow her to demonstrate her real talent; the ability to connect with the audience on their own level. She returned to vaudeville, retiring comfortably to New Jersey with her husband in 1917 and living until 1933. Although she played to stereotypes of the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Irish, she also contributed to that more positive Irish ideal: the determined, unsinkable Irishwoman.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.

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