There was a great deal of mayhem in the life of MAE WEST when her marriage to Frank Wallace was first exposed — — and divorce proceedings began.
• • As all Mae-Mavens know, on the morning of 11 April 1911, a teenager wed her 21-year-old co-star Frank Wallace [birthname: Frank Szatkus] in Milwaukee. He and Mae West had been performing at the Big Gaiety Theatre there, part of the Columbia Amusement Company, an Eastern burlesque wheel run by Henry Jacobs and John Jermon.
• • Mae, who was still 17 when they eloped, had met the entertainer the previous year. Matchmaker Matilda West had gone backstage to tell this soft-shoe artist that she had a youngster who was a “comer” — — a good partner to pair up with.
• • A dark-haired, wiry acrobatic dancer, Frank was determined not to follow the example of his sedentary father, a Lithuanian tailor from Queens, New York. Threading his way through the vaudeville and burlesque circuit, he shared the bill with Mae West and Willie Hogan at Canarsie’s Waldo Casino in Brooklyn. In those days, they often rehearsed in the basement of the house that belonged to Mae’s parents. Following rehearsals, Matilda would serve a Bavarian supper of pig’s knuckles and sauerkraut.
• • When singing ragtime favorites — — like “Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary” and “Everybody’s Doin’ It” — — West and Wallace consciously imitated black performers, sliding, shuffling, and stepping in a sultry, passionate, smooth style that brought them bookings in Brooklyn, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.
• • According to Frank Wallace, after a few weeks of rehearsal, “we went on the Fox circuit. Later we signed with Jacobs and Jermon, the burlesque producers.”
• • Mae claimed she only wanted to sleep with Frank, not tie the knot. However, Etta Woods, an older singer on the bill with them, persuaded Mae that it was better to be married in case she got pregnant accidentally. After they said their vows, Mae insisted that the marriage be kept a secret from her family and their booking agents.
• • The length of their tour in “A Florida Enchantment” lasted a few months, after which Mae returned to her parents in Brooklyn and encouraged Wallace to join a different road company, which he did.
• • West and Wallace never lived together as man and wife. Their secret elopement only came to light when Mae became a Hollywood headliner in the 1930s and Frank, run down at the heels and looking for a meal ticket, decided to sue his successful wife.
• • The final divorce decree was granted in the month of May — — on 7 May 1943.
• • Come up and see Mae every day online: http://MaeWest.blogspot.com/
• • Photo: • • Mae West • • in Milwaukee Gaiety 1911 • •
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