Al Reeves

This one caught my eye because of the copper banjo and tambourine on top. And even though it’s not all that exciting of a monument, Al Reeves was a pretty interesting character.

Al Reeves’ (1864-1940) largely self-appointed title was “The King of the Burlesque.” He also referred to himself as “The World’s Pal” and “The World’s Greatest Banjoist and Comedian,” so maybe take that whole “King of Burlesque” title with a grain of salt.

I couldn’t find out too much about Reeves’ upbringing or family. One of the things he is best known for is encouraging Al Jolsen to pursue a career in vaudeville. At the turn of the century, he was quite well known for having a huge burlesque company–his “Big Beauty Show” was tremendously popular and toured to sold-out houses for over 20 years. So maybe he was “The King of the Burlesque,” what the hell do I know?

Here are a couple of clippings from that time–including one with a rare photo of Al:

For a famous entertainer who didn’t die until 1940, it’s odd how few photos I could find of him online. I did, however, find an ancient cylinder recording of him playing his banjo, which is pretty cool. You can hear his signature catch-phrase at the end of the performance: “Give me credit, boys!”

It sounds like Al was a real character. From Second Nights: People and Ideas of the Theatre To-day, by Arthur Brown Ruhl:

“One catches a glimpses of him, now and then, bowling down Broadway in his pale-green limousine, his name on a brass plate on each door…and in the back seat Mr. Reeves, himself a ruddy orchid, smoking a fat cigar.”

Onstage, his gimmick was to abuse the members of his company, often threatening to throw them out or not pay them. To quote Second Nights again:

“I have seen Mr. Reeves grab one of his singers by the throat and give a lifelike imitation of choking her until she gurgled, ‘Hey, let up! I’ve got a sore throat.'”

On a side note, there are two symbols, one on either side of his mausoleum: The first is for the Shriners, and the second is marked “B.P.O.E. No. 22” with an Elks head. Obviously, that is the Elks Club symbol (“Benevolent Protective Order of Elks”)–but I had to look up the No. 22. Turns out that was Lodge #22, which was located at 144 South Oxford St. here in Brooklyn–near to what is now Atlantic Center. Looks like it’s home to a nursing home now–but it is listed as a notable historic building in the AIA’s guide to New York. Here’s a picture from Google Maps:
144-south-oxford

5 thoughts on “Al Reeves”

  1. My great aunt was Al’s wife, I have cuff links that belonged to him, some other misc jewelry, a few letters, some chinese vases and a great picture.

    Alas no Banjo

    I’ll post the picture if somebody has an idea how to get it on here

  2. Really great info posted here! I have discovered that Al was either remarried or had kept my great great aunt as a mistress, and have recently discovered her naturalization papers as Helen Reeves,. We know that she was living with him before he passed away and that she stayed in one of his many properties in NY, we also have letters from Al and some of his custom made furniture with his initials are at my uncles house to this day, but no banjo either 🙁

    Would love to know more as my Great great aunt Helen passed away when I was very young!

    Thanks for posting

  3. Hi. I’m the local historian at the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library in Florence, AL and I’ve been researching Al Reeves and one of his wives, Willie Almeda Fowler Reeves, for twenty years.

    On Oct. 30, 1907 Al Reeves married Florence, Alabama native Willie Almeda Fowler (1886-1964) in Newark, New Jersey. Almeda had in 1904 in St. Louis, MO while visiting her aunt, joined his “Big Beauty Show” as one of the girls, and quickly became the star of the show. Several period newspaper ads for Al’s “Big Beauty Show” reference Almeda.

    Several national newspapers covered their spectacular wedding.

    This was apparently not Al’s first marriage however, as in November of 1887 he had married a 16 or 17 year girl girl named Abbie Dennison, who he had run away from Albany, NY with and was accused of kidnapping. Ms. Dennison insisted to the judge at the trial that she hadn’t been kidnapped by the much-old Reeves but was in love with Al and the judge allowed the couple to couple marry. I’m not sure how long Al and Abbie were married, only that several national newspapers chronicled Al’s arrest on kidnapping charges and subsequent marriage.

    In Nov. of 1901 Reeves declared bankruptcy, as he explained it, to protect the assets of his wife, who was one of his girls and whose stage name was supposedly Fanny Fern Thatcher. His wife, he insisted, was the sole owner of Al Reeves’ Big Burlesque Company. I’m not sure if Fanny was Abbie Dennison of another wife, but Al seems to have been a real playboy so multiple wives and even mistresses wouldn’t be a bug shock.

    By 1930 if not earlier, Almeda Fowler and Al reeves had separated, with Reeves remaining in NY and Almeda moving to LA where she had minor roles in several movies between the 1930s and 1950s. Almeda died in September of 1964 and is buried in the Forest Law Cemetery in Los Angeles.

    Almeda has an IMDB page and I’ve written a biographical sketch of her on our Florence-Lauderdale Public Library Digital Archives Page.

    I’d love to swap documents and data with anyone who has information on Al and Almeda.

    Lee Freeman

    Florence-Lauderdale Public Library Local History/Genealogy Dept.

    350 North Wood Ave.,

    Florence, AL 35630
    lee@flpl.org
    256-764-6564 Ext. #130.

  4. Our FLPL video on Al’s third wife Almeda Fowler is up now. There’s some material on Al, too. Thanks for allowing us to use photos from the site. We credited Lost to Sight on the credit slide at the end. Here’s a link to our Facebook page:

    https://www.facebook.com/FLPLibrary

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