In the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the music industry was dominated by sheet music publishers. The group of New York City-based music publishers, songwriters and composers dominating the music biz was known as “Tin Pan Alley”. In the mid-19th century, copyright control was not as strict, and publishers would often print their own versions of the songs popular at the time. With stronger copyright protection laws late in the century, songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers started working together for their mutual financial benefit. New York City publishers concentrated on vocal music. The biggest music houses established themselves in New York City, but small local publishers, often connected with commercial printers or music stores, continued to flourish throughout the country. An extraordinary number of East European immigrants became the music publishers and songwriters on Tin Pan Alley, the most famous is, of course, Irving Berlin.
The late-19th century saw an explosion of “Parlor Music”. Most households had a piano and having someone in the family who was skilled at playing the piano becoming de rigueur for Americans. If a family wanted to hear a popular new song, they would buy the sheet music and then perform the song in their home. But by the 1920s, the phonograph and recorded music grew greatly in popularity and along with radio broadcasting, made sheet music less important. The record industry eventually replaced the sheet music publishers as the music industry’s largest force.
While is was the dominant force in music, the sheet music industry grew, and the publishers competed for sales. To attract business, the publishers hired artists to make beautiful covers, although sometimes the cover artwork did not resemble the lyrics inside. Often the covers featured a performer’s photo or image. Publishers of commercial sheet music also used the back page to advertise their other musical selections.
Bert Errol, real name Isaac Whitehouse (1883-1949), in the first decade of the 20th century, became the most successful female impersonator in British music halls. From 1910 through 1921 he also made frequent appearances in big time American Vaudeville as well, which must have caused a certain amount of confusion, what with Bert Savoy (1876-1923) and Leon Errol (1881 – 1951) having Vaudeville acts in the same era.
Savoy, born Everett McKenzie, was an American entertainer who specialized a cross-dressing Vaudeville act that contributed to popular culture by adding phrases such as “You slay me” and “You don’t know the half of it.” He played in the Ziegfeld Follies Of 1918. His star was on the rise when he was struck and killed by lightning while on the beach at Coney Island. His last words:
Mercy, ain’t Miss God cutting up something awful?
Errol was also big in Vaudeville, starring in the 1911 Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, working with the legendary Bert Williams and the Follies star Fanny Brice, and she appeared with him in the Ziegfeld Follies doing one- and two-act plays. He appeared every year in the Follies through 1915, doing his schtick with W.C. Fields, Ed Wynn, and Ziegfeld Girl Marion Davies. Balancing vaudeville appearances and a dozen Broadway shows, like the original 1920 production of Jerome Kern‘s Sally, in 1919 Errol achieved the very pinnacle of Vaudeville success: headlining at the Palace Theatre. His trademark was a wobbly, unsteady rubber-legged walk.
Confused? Back to Bert Errol. To ward off whispers about his queerness, Errol included his wife Ray Hartley in his act. When he got older and past the point where it was impossible to create the illusion that he was a beautiful young woman, he worked playing old dames in British Pantomime. His long and successful career took him all over Europe and on several highly successful tours of America. Despite his large and decidedly masculine features, photographs show that he was very stylish and fashionable figure. He had a long and successful career.
Here is the only known footage of Errol: