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.'”