Harp Guitar Player of the Month

Vardon, Perry and...Wilbers?

by Gregg Miner, January, 2016

This article appears thanks to donors like you.


This is one of my favorite harp guitar stories ever.  Partly because I have nurtured it all these years, watching it grow from a simple small discovery to an evolving puzzle with endless surprises.  Faithful readers who have followed each new revelation on my blog will now be rewarded with, it not full closure, at least a semblance of sanity to the never-before-revealed story of Vardon, Perry and Wilber (abbreviated below as “VP&W”).

It has been an enormous amount of work – though with no end of amusement – to shuffle the clues and pieces and surviving ephemera into the story of the once-popular but now completely-forgotten vaudeville team of Frank Vardon and Harry Perry and their... imaginary? ...sometimes sidekick, “Wilber.”

Two key developments provided this opportunity: the discovery of the wonderful Lantern web site with their searchable database of archived Variety (and other) magazines, and the acquisition of copies of never-before-seen photos and ephemera from the family of Harry Perry...virtually everything the family has been able to find, collated and organized by Perry’s great granddaughter Kirsten Spanjer (with help from Christy Perry) and donated to Harpguitars.net.

And so, I can now tell you something of the career of Vardon and Perry (abbreviated below as “V&P”), including a good general timeline of their adventures.

I can show you a lot more details about the custom harp guitars they used.

And I can finally put to rest the thousand-dollar question: Was “Wilber” a real person or not?



Where’s Wilber?

For those new to this story, the reason this last question was such a puzzle is because we kept seeing Vardon and Perry with different men as Wilber in images of the famous trio.  In fact, there have been six seen so far!  This curious situation was initially explained to us by the great-granddaughter of Harry Perry, Kirsten Spanjer, who wrote:

“I know from my grandmother (Harry Perry’s daughter) that “Wilber” was actually a fictional character and Vardon and Perry would actually find a “Wilber” in whatever city they happen to be playing in. This is why you see a different person for this character in the advertisements.” 

Later, Harry Perry's son Al explained that “there were in fact several ‘Wilbers.’  Apparently the first one was a bit difficult to keep sober, so they would hire a ‘Wilber’ who could play the piano and do the act.  According to Al, sobriety was not necessarily a Wilber trait!”

But what the descendants had apparently never confirmed was that there was an original Wilber.  The truth was explained by Vardon and Perry themselves in a private personal letter and in a series of cryptic advertisements in Variety in 1909 (see Sidebar article Vardon, Perry & Wilber vs. The Three Kuhns).

It seems that beginning in 1892 or 1893 and continuing to at least 1902, there was an act called the Wilbur (or Wilber) Brothers, consisting of one Jess Wilbur and Lew Barron.  I’ve yet to find any other details on either man or their act, but presume that those were their real names (and if not, Jess still predates V&P).

(Left) Surely someone out there can identify his 6-string by its dimensions and fretboard inlay?  (Right) Note that from the very beginning they had come up with that bent leg “walking pose” as their distinctive and signature look.

Meanwhile, by 1904, two unrelated young men had teamed up as “The Vardon Brothers.”

They were Franck (Frank) A. Vardon (b. 2/20/1877 in Missouri; d. 8/8/1950) and Harry Hugh Perry (b. 6/15/1882 in Denver; d. 8/6/1961).  Apparently, “brother” acts were all the rage back then, whether real or fictional.  Perhaps this new duo voted to go under Vardon’s name as he was older by five years?  Kirsten says that “the two affectionately called each other Kid Vardon and Old Man Perry” (opposite of their actual ages).

The performers met in Denver where Perry was born and Vardon eventually moved to and by 1904 were playing up and down the West Coast where they both had new homes (In 1904, they were about 22 and 27 and bachelors).  Perry played mandolin from the start, while Vardon played guitar.

Then in late 1904, The Vardon Brothers merged with the eponymous member of the Wilbur Brothers to become “Vardon, Perry & Wilber.”  It’s fascinating how even though Jess’ given name was apparently spelled “Wilbur,” the team would most often use the “Wilber” spelling professionally – though they and the press would continue to use either somewhat indiscriminately.  Amusingly, in one handwritten letter by Harry Perry, he spelled several occurrences of both Jess’ and the act’s name with both spellings.  In 1909, after the interesting “act infringement” episode mentioned above, the team would trademark the act’s name with the “e” spelling.

The Perry estate happens to have perhaps the only evidence of this original VP&W incarnation.

This flyer mentions their “14 month Pacific Coast tour” and includes reviews from March to December, 1905.  This is undoubtedly the Jess Wilbur, who was never pictured again and left the group by 1907.

Was this the “perpetually drunk” Wilber that had to be replaced?  Quite possibly, as he didn’t last long.  The next man, the first of the “stage Wilbers,” would last much longer, his picture appearing often in ads and sheet music.  There’s at least one other stage Wilber during this period (who I conjecture was a “sub”), so perhaps V&P had difficulty keeping any of their Wilbers sober, as family lore suggests!


The First Harp Guitars

Like many vaudevillians in the pre-amplification era, Vardon, Perry & Wilber(s) discovered that harp guitars were not only eye-catching, but loud – and none were louder than Chris Knutsen’s.  While Perry (surprisingly) played a plain bowlback mandolin originally, and now a mandolin-banjo, the two guitarists sport Knutsen Symphony harp guitars that they undoubtedly obtained during their Pacific Coast tour, perhaps even from Chris himself!

Vardon’s instrument is a typical c.1900 Tacoma Symphony model, with what looks like a huge worn section under the soundhole (unless it’s an added pickguard?), while Wilbur’s is a later “Evolving Symphony” model from around 1905.  Vardon and Perry would later own a different c.1900 Symphony harp guitar that they would hand off to each next “Wilber of the Month.”

SIDEBAR: Where’s...Casey?

Included in my old blogs was this curious red herring:

Before I saw the Perry estate material I was led on a wild goose chase when this exact same 1905 VP&W photo was published in The Cadenza magazine in 1918 labeled “The Casey Trio”(!?).  There was no text whatsoever included with it; it must have been some bizarre editor mix-up – like an old photo found in their files or something!


First National Success and Wilber No. 2

After a busy year and a half on the west coast, the trio got some summer gigs in the Midwest and by the fall of 1906 found themselves in their first variety show, The Cracker Jacks.  The show played the Midwest and East Coast, garnering the team good reviews until it closed in May, 1908.  Though appearing as just one of many segments in the middle of the show, the trio was often singled out: “...the hit of the bill with their singing, dancing and musical act...,” “...present easily the best act of the olio...,” etc.

By now, their trio was subtitled “Those Three Boys” (Vardon, the oldest, had just turned thirty); they would trademark this subtitle phrase also.

One of the three “boys” was indeed a much younger “Wilber.”  Somewhere during this period, they replaced Jess Wilbur and just decided to keep the group name.  My suspicion is that the act had by now become well known enough that they didn’t want to risk changing it.  Or maybe they had already gotten used to having to substitute Jess Wilbur with others and this “alternate” third trio member eventually just became permanent...?

What’s funny is that – other than the brief mention of Jess to protect their act described above – they never revealed the new member’s real name...this guy, or any other “stage Wilber.”  To the public and even to the critics and booking agents, whoever they happened to have as the third man was “Wilber.”

“Wilber #2” first appeared on the cover of the boy’s first sheet music appearances published in 1907 (presumably from Cracker Jacks): “Honey Boy” and “When the Moon Plays Peek-a-boo.”  This Wilber is easy to identify in photos from his deep smile creases.  Less easy to spot is his gold tooth!  This is discernible in the two beautiful publicity photos from the Perry estate.  

Though Vardon & Perry (with or without a Wilber) sadly never recorded, one can get a sense of the kind of popular songs their act included from listening to other artists’ 78 records of these various titles on YouTube or elsewhere.  For me, these pre-Tin Pan Alley songs might have a historical quaintness, but that’s about it.  No Cole Porters here...
This incredibly obscure and rare image (left) includes Wilber #2 (I believe) and the trio has their original Knutsens.  The photo was likely taken in 1907 (though could have been taken earlier, whenever #2 first joined).  It appears with a blurb in The Fra – a journal “For Philistines and Roycrofters,” Volume 5, April 1910.  The text was certainly written upon publication, as it refers to their England appearance (they sailed in August, 1909) – but they must have used a much older photograph.
SIDEBAR: Variety Magazine

It’s fun to delve into all these harp guitar history projects as you never know what you may run into.  And it’s always valuable to get a better sense of the time and place of your subjects.  So while searching for VP&W in the Variety database, which included flipping through hundreds of digital pages, it was interesting to note all the other names found alongside our boys.  The majority of these – like V&P themselves – have been long forgotten; perhaps in some obscure fan or scholar circles, they somehow survive.  Occasionally I’d come across what was then just another name struggling for attention and bookings that I would actually recognize.  Like “Master Julius Marx” the solo singing act of a young teenaged boy who would of course one day become Groucho:

And soon, after their mother Minnie put all her sons on stage, the “4 Marx Brothers” were seen (and soon talked about) week after week alongside VP&W and their fellow acts:

And 13-year old Buster Keaton was already the star of his family’s show by 1909:

The vast majority of the hundreds of other acts advertised appear not to have left a mark.


The New Harp Guitars

There are no additional photos of the boys between 1905 and 1908 showing them with their instruments.  Presumably they continued to use the Knutsen harp guitars, and Perry could have easily used most any mandolin.  The January 12, 1908 Pittsburgh Press contained an interesting little story submitted by the producer of the Cracker Jacks show – something about a string of bad luck at an earlier Scranton, PA gig.  He told how Vardon “fell down the stairs which led from the dressing room to the stage with his large double guitar and smashed it into a hundred pieces.”

And so went his Knutsen Symphony harp guitar.  Perhaps this was what prompted Vardon and Perry to finally go shopping for better, newer instruments.

In or just before May, 1908, V&P acquired their brand new, custom Gibson harp guitar and 3-point F mandolin for “several hundred dollars.”  They may well have visited the Gibson Company factory to pick up their instruments, as they had just finished their Cracker Jacks run in South Bend, Indiana, a relative stone’s throw from Kalamazoo, Michigan.  We know they didn’t just stroll into some music store and buy them, as the harp guitar is an unusual one-of-a-kind instrument.

This photo at left from the Perry family archives shows its best original detail.  Vardon's instrument is unique in having just six sub-basses instead of the then-standard ten – obviously at the request of Vardon – but otherwise it is essentially the common trapeze tailpiece Style U.  Of course, the tailpiece is custom, and other features may be unique as well – after all, this represents one of the very earliest examples of Gibson’s newly reconfigured U harp guitar.  Notice how the carved headstock conforms to the typical design but is smaller and much closer to the body than the normal factory harp guitar.

(Right) Vardon may have been talented, but apparently he never finished school.  On a second copy of this same photo, signed to the future Mrs. Perry, his dedication reads: “To Little Violet – The knife & fort jugler – From Franck“.

Interestingly, Vardon’s harp guitar never had the new standard floating pickguard.

Speaking of pickguards...

Perry’s F-shape mandolin would have been the very last of the “three-point” models, before Gibson changed the body design.  At this point, it would have had a floating pickguard, which Perry did without.  Instead, it has an interesting large tailpiece cover that acts as a palm rest as he plays.  Here are the best images of it.  Was this custom-created by the Gibson factory?  It was there from early on and remained even after he had his fretboard replace years later.

Just as interesting as Vardon’s new harp guitar is the group’s new Knutsen.  Even without assuming the original was destroyed, we can tell it’s a different c.1900 Symphony by the headstock tuner slots – symmetrical on this specimen, whereas they were staggered on the first one.  The dark color threw me at first, as there were no black-top Knutsens from that period.  A trick of the light?  No, a total of three images of it have now been found, and all are dark.

The first image shows it best, with an extra surprise: it has a Gibson bridge and metal support strap!  Did the boys order parts from Gibson on the road and have somebody do this?  Or did they have a third Knutsen threatening to implode and decide to drop it off at the Gibson Company to have stained dark and beefed up with a new bridge and strap?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough, as they added a second Gibson strap on the bass side a few years later (next two images).  Surely these headlining performers could afford anything they wanted (uh, like a new Dyer?) – why would they bother Frankensteining this Knutsen?!

Note all the different Wilbers!  We’ll get back to them in a bit.

The new instruments would immediately appear in the team’s next Variety ad image (above), which ran very consistently from June, 1908 through July, 1912.

The circa 1908-1910 photo above shows portions of the two Gibson instruments in their “as new” original condition.  Note that both have standard ebony fretboards.   Wilber #2 is holding the refurbished c.1900 Knutsen Symphony harp guitar.  I know it’s not yet in the Knutsen Archives as I’ve never before seen that “heart” inlay on the first fret!  It has some sort of white (pearl?) circle added in the headstock.  We can see the dark stain on the soundboard at the end of the arm and assume it also already has its Gibson bridge.

Before we get to the next major chapter in the act’s career, I’ll just finish up the year of 1908 and first half of 1909.

1908 saw two more sheet music titles released.  As before, these were popular tunes of the day, and the songs would be published with different covers, typically switching the performer inserts.  Vardon, Perry and Wilber were one of several “name acts” popularizing these songs in their shows.  Both “Somebody Misses You Every Day” and “How Do You Do Miss Josephine” featured the same small insert photo with Wilber #2.  Another sheet music release ("Beautiful Eyes") appeared in 1909.

In September, 1908, after rehearsals in New York with “the Boston Belles,” VP&W appeared in a “Hastings Show” (Harry Hastings starred in and produced elaborate vaudeville revues) called “A Summer Night” in Kansas City and St. Louis.  After only one month it apparently wasn’t working out and it was announced that the boys would “return to vaudeville.”  This they did from October, 1908 through July, 1909, hopscotching around the country: Chicago>Milwaukee>Illinois, Iowa, Colorado, Joplin MO, Hot Springs AK, back to Chicago, Milwaukee, on to Cincinnati, OH, then Nashville, New York and Coney Island (and likely other locations not recorded in the weekly Variety).  A busy career indeed!

During the spring of 1909 VP&W became embroiled in a public feud with a similar trio called The Three Kuhns.  I alluded to this above and have created a whole separate Sidebar page about this episode, in which both acts claimed that the other was copying their “style of act.”  The final notice implies that VP&W “won” this battle, proving their originality.  I briefly referred to this above – had they not had to explain their act’s history for defense, we would have never known about the original “true” Wilbur!


England, Here We Come!

As popular as the boys seemed to be in America – sheet music covers, steady vaudeville work – they would become even more successful overseas.   In August, 1909, the trio sailed for their first overseas gig – three months in England.  They proved so popular that they played six months, jumping around England and Scotland.  Then they played Paris for a month, garnering a front page “success” story, returning again to England and also Ireland.  After a week or two in Germany, they finally headed home in September, 1910.  

They had now been absent from the States for thirteen months, but had kept up their visibility by continuing their weekly Variety ad and sending in personalized weekly reports of each new location and success.

One has to really scour these ads to find any scant impressions and details of their act, such as “songs in Scottish accents,” “’Chicken Rag’ sung in German,” etc.  Some reviewers noted their instruments, describing the Gibson and Knutsen harp guitars as “harp-banjos” or – more accurately – "accompanying themselves on mandolin and guitars, to which a harp-like arrangement is attached."  While the act mercifully never appeared in blackface, they were of that era and played that music – so one needs to be prepared when researching them (and any early American harp guitar history for that matter) for the invariable descriptions of "interpreters of negro minstrelsy" (with the stronger “n-word” substituted) and similar.

Immediately after the nine-day return ocean cruise from England, the boys hit the ground running, now on the Sullivan-Considino Circuit, which they played westward where they would “visit their homes on the coast.”  How long since they had last seen their homes?!  (Vardon and Perry had not yet married, incidentally.)  Once there, they played up and down the west coast for about five months, into 1911, then headed to the southeast for two months.  Then it was back to England for another full tour!

SIDEBAR: Time for another “Where’s Wilber?” break.
Though the act would use the same photo of the trio that included Wilber #2 up until July, 1912 in their Variety ads, we have no proof that he remained in place throughout this entire time.   We also don’t know if this Wilber was the “drunk” from the family lore who had to be subbed.  

My gut tells me that that wasn’t the case, and Wilber #2 appeared throughout this entire period.  Of course, even if he was the current permanent Wilber, he could still have had subs at any time throughout the American tours.  

That’s what I believe we’re looking at here in this postcard signed by Wilber himself!  I can’t make out if the fellow tried to write “Chuck” or “Chick” Wilber, but whatever it was, the joke was on the fan, as Wilber wasn’t his real name.  

This fellow has only surfaced once so far; he looks a bit similar to Wilber #2, but is not him.  I list him as Wilber #3 and date his “sub” appearance to the 1910-1911 American tour period, based on the instrument details (post-1908 and pre-1914).

On their second trip to England in June, 1911, an article mentions that Vardon, Perry and Wilber are among eleven artists on the boat, who apparently entertained the passengers during the voyage.  The boys would spend the next full year in England and Ireland to similar acclaim (the hit of the show now "Texas Tommy Swing,” a popular dance and song from 1910-1914), after which they embarked on another interesting tour.


South Africa and Beyond
From England, VP&W next booked a voyage to play Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa for a few months in the middle of 1912.  The Britain-ceded city had been a theater and entertainment scene there for many decades, and performers of all styles were going in increasing numbers since the unification in 1910.  

And as if the voyage to and from that gig was not already long enough, incredibly, in the middle of the engagement, they also sailed to Sydney, Australia and New Zealand for a month.  Apparently, this had become another viable option for entertainers beginning at the turn of the century, when “McAdoo’s Original Colored American Minstrel and Vaudeville Company” had spent a year in Australia and NZ, finally setting up a base in Sydney.

This post-1918 postcard confirms many of the act’s dates and performances all over the world, and provides additional surprising new ones!

July 24th, 1912: And here is where the whole “Wilber” business starts to get interesting.  On the return to Cape Town, the popular “act splits up” when Wilber (probably still #2 all this time, as explained in the above Sidebar) marries in Africa – almost certainly one of the show’s girls – and returns to London (perhaps he had gotten tired of all those long ocean voyages!).  Vardon and Perry stayed to finish the run. 

But again – the weird part is that the press seems to think that this is “the” Wilber, not “a” Wilber...and in fact, not even the mystery performer’s real name!   Unless they’re in on the “professional gag”?  The reporter’s words imply that this Wilber is the original (ie: the only), even though the team had announced in 1909 the truth of the “original” Jess Wilbur/Wilber.  Perhaps the press was simply unaware of this?  Or perhaps this Wilber #2 (the first “Stage Wilber”) had been in the act so long – the bulk of their seven-plus year career so far – that he was simply now seen as the “main Wilber"? 

Whatever the press knew or had forgotten, the Wilber “character” had by now become a real person!  (What did the Cape Town minister say?  “Do you, fake Wilber, real name unknown, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?”).  Then there is trying to deduce Vardon and Perry’s private and public strategy.  After Cape Town, they would continue as VP&W with new Wilbers!  So why would they bother to announce a split at all?  Was it a “professional necessity,” as they were now “stranded” publicly in Africa as a duo?  

Also strange is that photos of Vardon, Perry and a Wilber were featured in Variety and on postcards and sheet music – it’s not like people didn’t recognize the stars.  Perhaps the VP&W name (trademarked, remember) was simply too valuable to give up.


The Ragtime Six and Wilber No. 4

On October 23, 1912 Variety’s London office ran a small piece about the phenomenal success of a new type of music, presented by a group called “The Ragtime Octette.”   “...a scene the equal of which I do not remember...it is no exaggeration to say that the people in the crowded house lost hold on their senses...they just went crazy...”

Two weeks later they ran another article announcing six brand new ragtime acts that had formed after seeing the incredible response to the Octette.  The “headliners” of these new groups were “The Ragtime Six.”  This was Vardon and Perry, who in “less than a fortnight’s rehearsal” had put together a new act with a new “Wilbur.”  It seems that they “were in danger of losing their tour with the Variety Theatres Controlling Co. on account of the split” and so “got a third man and three girls.”

Here, the reporter clearly knows the score, and shares it with the readers.  “Vardon, Perry and Wilbur” (sic) are a contractually-obliged act, and a new performer was hired to “play” Wilber.
“Wilber #4” (whom I really consider the third “main Wilber” or semi-permanent performer) was apparently “cast” by Vardon on a quick stop to New York, sailing to Southampton with the new Wilber in tow on October 12th, 1912 (see final sidebar).

The newcomer was promptly handed the old dark-top Knutsen, now with an extra tailpiece strap added to support the sub-basses.

Whether this, or any other Wilber, ever played the basses we’ll probably never know, but the team did keep them strung at all times.

We have many images of this particular Wilber – costume stage shots, advertisements and publicity photos.  None but the above flyer are dated and nowhere is his real name written.  

Researcher/author Alan Black originally wondered if he might be Joe Bowden, who had a duo with wife Jenny Golder, later a Parisian star of the 1920's.  Jenny was her stage name; her given name was Rosie Sloman, who happened to be part of the Ragtime 6 – one of the original three girls.  Black wrote an entire monograph on Jenny/Rosie (unfortunately never finding any known images of Joe).  Recent clues suggest that this Wilber is not Bowden (and I will reveal his possible name(s) at the close of this article!).

SIDEBAR: The Ragtime Six Girls

As with “Wilber,” Vardon and Perry would hire various young women to perform in the act, and the Ragtime Six was no exception.  For the three R6 girls, we see different faces in the few images found, and Alan Black received information of a July, 1913 signed photograph featuring six Ragtime Girls (Daisy, Lily and Florence Gilbert, Olga Broadbent, Violet Blackburn and Gwen Whelan).  Did they expand the number?  Or was this at an R6 reunion?!

These two photos found in the Perry estate material show this group, but known (also, mainly?) as “The Six Gilberts.”

Indeed, the three Gilbert sisters mentioned above are easily identifiable in the second photo (“playing” the other girls dressed as bass violins) as sisters – almost triplets.

The three other girls seen in the first photo may be Broadbent, Blackburn and Whelan – they don’t seem to match those in the Ragtime Six photos (though hard to tell!).

Clearly there was some relationship and crossover with Vardon & Perry’s Ragtime Six; we even see those same cowgirl costumes.

The original and/or core Ragtime Six group, however, consisted of these three, who appear in multiple photographs.  The one at right is from Alan Black’s book The Life of Jenny Golder: Paris and London in the 1920‘s.  In the middle is Rosie Sloman, who would go on to become Parisian star Jenny Golder.  The left girl remains unknown, but the girl on the right I am almost certain is Vera Crackles – soon to become Vera Vardon.  She is easily spotted on the left as well in the photo below.  You’ll meet Vera again a bit later.

SIDEBAR: Selsior Film’s “Synchronized Dance and Music” films

This obscure British company produced shorts from 1912-1917 that successfully synchronized silent film and live orchestral accompaniment with a novel but extremely simple process.  They would film stage stars performing and dancing to popular tunes while the fellow conducting the live “temp music” pianist stood out in front where he would appear in the corner of the frame.  Then, when shown in theaters, the live band or orchestra would simply play from the same score and follow the previously filmed onscreen conductor.  (There’s a chapter devoted to this in The Sounds of the Silents in Britain, 2013, where the author Stephen Bottomore even sourced my original “Where’s Wilber?” blog!)

Interestingly, Selsior’s second film starred Harry Perry and Millicent Ray dancing to Irving Berlin’s “Ragtime Texas Tommy,” which the group may have been performing in their act.  However, the (book source’s) date of Sept., 1912 is curious, as Vardon & Perry – now Wilberless – were still sailing up the east coast of Africa, and wouldn’t be back in England until October or November.  Unless this represents the release date and Perry filmed it earlier in the spring before the Africa tour and the subsequent formation of the Ragtime Six?  Nothing more on his partner Millicent Ray has been found.

In October, 1913 the ninth Selsior production was either filmed or released and again starred Perry, this time co-starring new Ragtime Six girl Rosie Sloman.  The song was “The Cowboy Twist” which might have been included in their show, but was actually written by Selsior’s new house composer, Guy Jones.  Perhaps Jones wrote it specifically for the group – note the familiar Ragtime Six cowboy/cowgirl costumes the duo wears in this photo.

This unbelievably rare still from the Perry estate captured the filming of this incredibly obscure historical moment and shows the conductor doing his thing in the lower left hand corner of the frame.  Fascinating!

For the next fifteen months, the group would go by either “The Ragtime Six,” “Vardon, Perry and Wilber” or both, playing England, Scotland and France.  The seemingly-accurate “Globetrotting” postcard above shows them in Buenos Aires on March 13th, 1913, just a week after a Paris gig (then back in Scotland in May).  Could/would they really have done such aggressive traveling?! 

February, 1914 seems to mark the “official” end of the Ragtime Six, though the group would be mentioned as appearing in the next Vardon & Perry project, “Gee Whiz!” (“The Ragtime Six appear in the piece ‘The Flower Garden Ball’.”).

Vardon and Perry produced this London show, along with one Edward Marris, who wrote it (a bizarre fantasy revue featuring aviators and Neptune), using mostly existing America songs and some new U.K.-penned tunes.   Vardon and Perry naturally appeared in various numbers – separate, together, with a Wilber (or two), the girls and many other performers.   A February 26, 1914 Stage review singled out “...one of the best-danced Tangoes by Frank and Vera Vardon we have seen during the recent avalanche of these items.”  As for the songs, “Among the most attractive of the ditties are ‘Put, put, put’ (Frank Vardon and chorus)...(and)...’Swells of Broadway’ (Harry Perry).”

For reasons that will become clear shortly, note how the ad, which ran from February through October 1914, includes the original Ragtime Six-er, Wilber No. 4.

Gee Whiz! ran for less than a year, after which the team again performed throughout England and Ireland.  On March 20th, 1915, VP&W with girls in tow sailed for the second time to Cape Town for a few months.

SIDEBAR: Time for yet another “Where’s Wilber?” break.  

This fellow (who reminds me vaguely of Rod Serling), who I’ll call Wilber #6, appears only in this single postcard (a poor image from UK eBay).  The “Ragtime Six” caption would put this in the c.1913 timeframe.  

Curiously, the girls don't look familiar either, though the one on the left could be Vera Vardon or easily one of the Six Gilberts.

SIDEBAR: Hotel bookings
VP&W had an agent who must have booked their tours, including their first elaborate United Kingdom gig.  Did they also have a road manager?  I suspect not.  This rare postcard was sent by the act from the hotel they were then staying at on December 27th, 1913 (while playing the Hippodrome in Sheffield) to the manager of the next hotel they required in London.  It reads “Dear sir, Will you kindly reserve 3 double bedded rooms for next week. Arrive Sunday 1:30 PM, Yours Vardon, Perry and Wilbur.”

Hmmm...as the boys now had three girls in tow as The Ragtime Six, one wonders how they might have paired up...


Will the Real Wilber Please Stand Up?!

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I’ve assigned numbers to a total of six Wilbers now.  And you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t addressed No. 5.  It’s finally time, and, well, you’re really gonna get a laugh out of this one.

You saw part of this image above when we discussed the Knutsen harp guitar.   Irving Berlin wrote this song about British soldiers going off to fight the Germans in 1914 sometime after the July 28 start of the war.  After VP&W (still in England) presumably incorporated it into their act, this sheet music was published in London, likely by the end of the year.  Surprisingly, it doesn’t show Wilber No. 4, who was still in the act into 1914.

As with all of them, the identity of this “one time” Wilber was unknown even as I was finalizing this article...until I managed to track down Alan Black, who had once written a cryptic note about him on one of my old VP&W blogs.  By this time, one of Alan’s colleagues, Mark Berresford of the www.jazzhound.net web site, had published a photo of Black’s alluded-to c.1915-1920 group from England called the Savoy Quartet.

And what do you know?  A familiar face?!  Alan and I now agree that the banjoist on the left – who was a singer and banjoist on most of the Savoy Quartet discs (issued in the United Kingdom 1915-1920) – looks like our Wilber in the c.1914 sheet music.

His name...?

......wait for it......

Joe Wilbur.

Huh?!   Are you telling me that by sheer coincidence, Vardon and Perry hired an actual guy named Wilbur to play the fictional Wilber?  No way – the odds are too bizarre!

Naturally then, Alan Black originally concluded that Joe was the one “real” Wilbur/Wilber.  As did his source, H. Schlemann in the book Rhythm on Record.  As Schlemann told it, Joe Wilber, an American “came to London in 1913 with the revue Gee Whizz!...became a member of the trio Vardon, Perry and Wilbur...very successful at the old Empire, Leicester Square...".  This doesn’t quite line up with my findings, nor do we know Schlemann’s sources, but perhaps it’s not too far from the as-yet-unknown facts.  From what I have found (in Variety and the ephemera, one of which was dated January, 1913), Wilber #4 was definitely in the Ragtime Six in 1913, was clearly photographed much more than Joe’s single time, and also appears in every ad of Gee Whiz!.  As discussed above, this was an original London show that debuted in (or by) February, 1914 – not an existing American show.

Besides the similarity in the photos and Schlemann’s book, further supporting evidence of Joe Wilbur being a “Wilber” at some point came just recently from Alan Black.  He revealed that Joe Wilbur married a girl named Gwen Whelan in July, 1914, who happened to be one of the Six Gilberts/Ragtime Six girls (see above Sidebar).  The connection to Vardon & Perry seems obvious.

Final proof appeared in an article in The Stage, discovered in the final box of clippings unearthed and shared with us by Perry’s granddaughter Christy.  A review of Gee Whiz! on February 26, 1914 includes this smoking gun: “Messrs. Frank Vardon and Harry Perry (who are associated with Mr. Edward Marris in the production of Gee Whiz!) are naturally much in evidence in the show, as is their new partner, Mr. Joe Wilbur.”

This confirms that a Joe Wilbur joined the group and we also know when.  And yet something is still amiss...the Wilber in the entire run of Gee Whiz! ads isn’t the Savoy Quartet Joe – he’s Wilber #4, who we know isn’t a “new partner,” he’s been in the Ragtime Six and VP&W trio since late 1912.  The only thing I can think of is that Wilber #4 began the show’s run (or was expected to), and the ads were never changed to include the replacement.

The Savoy Quartet, c.1917
Claude Ivy, Joe Wilbur, Emile Grimshaw, Alec (Alex) Williams

All of the many Wilbers were obviously required to sing and expected to play the team’s Knutsen harp guitar.  Joe Wilbur is listed as one of the lead singers and tenor banjoists of the Savoy Quartet.  However, in the two existing images of the group, we see from the headstock that Joe actually played either a zither banjo or a guitar banjo.  Thus, transitioning to the Knutsen would have posed no problem (for readers unfamiliar with harp guitars, any guitar player can play a harp guitar – the standard neck part at least.  They can then add the sub-basses as their interest and talent allows).

But the sheer coincidence of the “Joe Wilbur” name was driving me nuts!  Was this his real name or a stage name? 

Funny you should ask.  Alan Black just went and looked up Joe and Gwen’s July 12, 1914 London marriage certificate for us and it gives: “John Ernest Mack (otherwise Joe Wilber) bachelor, 24 yrs.  Ah, so it does sound like a stage name.  One he would then use from then on, even through the Savoy Quartet days.  Where did it come from?  If we assume that Schlemann’s published scenario above is in error and that the timeline is similar to what I propose, then Mack (actually, a discovered passport shows Joe Mack, the "John" turned out to be another pseudonym!) may have joined Vardon and Perry in February 1914 (and even then may have been a part-time member).  And thus, that is what undoubtedly prompted “Wilbur” (note the different spelling) as his permanent new "Music Hall Artiste" name.

According to Hawaiian Music expert Les Cook, in 1919 after his stint in the Savoy Quartet "Joe Wilbur recorded 3 sides for HMV Records, then appeared in a Hawaiian duo act with Joe Puni ("Wilbur & Puni").  Wilbur went on to record several Hawaiian sides in May and June of 1923 with 12 being issued on the UK Imperial label.  Issued mostly as 'by Joe Wilbur’s Hawaiian Duo' they feature rather good steel guitar and a rhythm guitar.  One side 'Hawaiian Blues' is credited on the label as a Joe Wilbur vocal, another side “O Sole Mio” has vocals credited to G. Berni.  Whether Berni played guitar too can only be speculated on, and we can only assume that Wilbur himself is the steel player."

In the late 1920's Joe Wilbur returned to the States, for according to Brian Rust in his Jazz Records 1897-1942, he "made a few records for Pathe and Okeh in New York, with Eddie Lang audible on the Okeh.  Rust also lists Joe as vocalizing with the bands of Joe Candullo and Willard Robison in 1926/27."

Was Joe the last Wilber?  Perhaps his joining the Savoy Quartet in 1915 was what led Vardon & Perry to next become a duo?  We may never know.


Everyone knows about the unavoidable romances and flings in the entertainment business, especially in close quarters like months on tour, weeks on ocean cruises, etc.  It may be that two of the Wilbers married Ragtime Six girls they had worked with.  We now know that Joe Wilbur (Wilber #5) married Gwen Whelan, who was a Six Gilberts/Ragtime Six Girl in July, 1914.  Wilber #2 married while playing South Africa in July, 1912; his bride was almost certainly an R6 girl.

What of Vardon and Perry?  They also married established stage entertainers, and Vardon himself seems to have chosen his own Ragtime Six girl from the lineup!

We know that Frank Vardon married child star Vera Crackles, at right (b. 7/5/1893 England d. 2/20/1988 Glendale, CA).  But as shown above, we also believe that Vera was one of the three original Ragtime 6 girls.  It’s likely this is where the two met, and they must have married fairly soon – the Feb 26, 1914 Stage review refers to her as “Vera Vardon.”

“Vera Vardon” was also mentioned in the Johannesburg (South Africa) Stage and Cinema magazine.  Interestingly, that article refers to a possible third trip to South Africa for Vardon & Perry (and Wilber?).  The magazine reported that “Vera Vardon and Dolly King have remained in SA and joined a touring revue called ‘The Ginger Girls’."  The same magazine in March, 1918 reported that “Vera Vardon has now gone solo and is appearing at The Prince Theatre in Houston Texas.”  No, the Vardons didn’t separate; they remained happily married until the end, as did the Perrys.

Harry Perry was married on Sept 1916 at age 34 in St. Giles, Middlesex, England to Violet Sylvia Manning, at left (b. 11/7/1894 Liverpool, England d. 12/29/1969 Evanston, IL).  They met each other while both performing in “Watch Your Step” in Leicester Square, London, coming up next in our timeline.

Vera & Violet, the fashionably original V&P wives


Vardon & Perry: the Duo

Vardon and Perry in 1915

As successful as the act known as “Vardon, Perry & Wilber (“Those Three Boys”) had been now for some eleven years, Vardon and Perry – for reasons unknown – reverted now back to their original duo arrangement – and remained just as popular.  

The only activity we have between the last confirmed inclusion of a Wilber (in South Africa in May, 1915) and the beginning of the new duo is an unusual trip to Japan (!) in early December, 1915, as noted on their “Globetrotting” postcard.   Man, these guys got around!  I can’t imagine how they got booked, nor the ocean voyages involved, nor how they got back to England so quickly.

The new duo debuted in December, 1915 in "Watch Your Step."  

A striking young fellow vaudevillian in the show named Violet Sylvia Manning caught Harry Perry’s eye and they married within a year.

This show probably ran until the following August when they would finally return to the States (Variety, 1916: “V&P will reach New York August 13 on the ‘St. Louis’"... though this clashes with the September 1916 date for the Perry’s wedding in Middlesex, England).

This signed 1916 photograph shows the pair with their Gibson instruments in original condition except for a broken headstock on Perry’s mandolin.  We’ve already heard about their “songs in Scottish accents” – this costumed part of the show apparently remained in their act for some time.

Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be any specific engagements or news of the duo for several months (the next is a July, 1917 New York review).  The only evidence of activity is the report in the 1917 Johannesburg magazine above, which referred to an earlier event, possibly in 1916.  It is possible that the two of them (with Vardon’s wife and another “girl” in tow) made a third trip to South Africa around this time (there is no record of them including a Wilber).

They may have also spent some of that time in the British Isles and Allied Countries according to two later cryptic reports.

They also could have taken an actual hiatus.  We do know that during this time they were without their instruments for some period to have new fretboards installed.  Most likely, they had the Gibson Company in Kalamazoo do the work.  When we next see them – on the 1917 sheet music for “Storybook Ball” – they now have fancy engraved pearl fretboards.   Curiously, the “broken” headstock of Perry’s mandolin wasn’t repaired at this same time...it’s as if he had filed the scroll away himself and liked it like that (!?).  One can just make out that he also kept that giant tailpiece cover/handrest.

Speaking of which…

I’m surprised that V&P didn’t have more of a relationship with the Gibson Company – but after all, they were probably just one of many mid-tier Vaudeville acts that used Gibson instruments.  They finally appeared (at right) in the 1919 Catalog K, eleven years after acquiring their Gibsons.  They also supplied this testimonial, which includes a few additional locations that they had traveled to in their careers.

The boys next played the Orpheum Circuit in the States for the 1917-1918 season – specifically, July, 1917 through at least April, 1918. There were some nice reviews and details of their act, including “Chaplin impressions” and their encore where they “sent a chicken (actually “a heavily-feathered Bantam rooster”) with Chaplin comedy shoes across the stage.”  This was during the Little Tramp’s increasing popularity in Mutual, then First National shorts such as “A Dog’s Life.”


World War 1

WWI began on July 28, 1914.  But other than appearing on the Irving Berlin sheet music and presumably singing that song in their previous Ragtime Six act, Vardon and Perry performed in England and then the States as normal, though they may have started doing shows for British and Allied Countries servicemen also.

This postcard was mailed by the boys to their old friend “Dad” who ran a hotel waystation for travelling performers in Philadelphia.  It was postmarked from Minneapolis on February 15th, 1918.  

The last U.S. performance notice I’ve found so far was April 30th; then our heroes probably left for their WWI tour sometime in July, 1918.
Meanwhile, America had declared their entrance in the war on April 6th, 1917 and General Pershing sent the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in June.  Our Doughboys finally saw action in October, 1917 and soon George M. Cohan’s entertainment organization started sending acts over there.  

Vardon & Perry arrived by August, 1918, some three months before the end of the war.  The August 29, 1919 Variety includes a blurb from the boys themselves that they then held the record for most AEF performances “for 10 months, playing 397 shows in 208 days.”  The book “Entertaining the American Army: the American Stage and Lyceum in the World Warby James Evans (1921) which contains a short mention of the boys war efforts, states performances “for 175 nearly-straight days during 1918-1919.”  

Evans describes them making the rounds in their army uniforms with their Gibsons – the “two instruments slung over their backs, a little guitar and a big bull guitar.”

V&P entertaining the troops with one of their many “dialect” skits

The duo made most of their appearances after the end of the war (Nov 11, 1918).  They subsequently toured Germany with their “Live Wires” act through May, 1919, finally returning home in June.


Final Gigs, Final Days

There is virtually nothing whatsoever about the team in 1920, other than this cryptic advertisement (above) in April’s Variety –obviously directed toward the manager of the Orpheum circuit, which they had played just before the war.  After their long dedication to the soldiers, did they have to sit this season out?  Finally, the September 8, 1920 New York Clipper announced that V&P “have received a thirty-five week route on the Loew time, through Fitzpatrick and O’Donnell.” 

In 1921, they wrote and published their first and only original song, "At the Chicken Chaser's Ball" – a simple and silly (though still clever), little play-on-words ditty (“Chickens” being what we now occasionally still call “chicks” [young women]).

The November 1, 1921 New York Evening Telegram mentioned the duo – “recognized by many ex-service men as ‘The Live Wire Unit’ of the A.E.F.” – under “New Faces Appear in Shubert Vaudeville.”  

The team played here and there throughout 1921 and 1922, and headlined the Pantages circuit in 1923.

Vardon Perry taking time out from his Pantages tour to perform at the Veteran’s Hospital No. 77 in 1923.

Finally, while playing Chicago in October, 1924, the team inexplicably split (no reason or details were given), with Vardon leaving for England for reasons unknown.  Vardon was 47, Perry 42.

Perry took on a new partner (Billy Wagner) and continued a duo act for three more years.  In 1927, after Harry and Vy Perry had their third child, they stopped touring and performing across the U.S. and settled down in Denver, CO, later moving to Evanston, IL.

Frank Vardon became a Florida real estate agent in 1926.  He fully retired in 1937 and moved to Los Angeles where he and Vera managed a trailer park.  He died in 1950 leaving no descendants.

Harry Perry died in 1961 but left many descendants.  His three children were Harry Cyril “Cy” (b. 1917-Liverpool) Violet Sylvia (b. 1919-Liverpool) and Alfred Alexander (b. 1927-Chicago).  The latter was “Uncle Al” to his grandniece Kirsten Spanjer who first shared his stories – and the Perry estate material – with me.  Al’s daughter Christy supplied additional critical ephemera as I was completing this article in late 2015.  Uncle Al passed away this year, the last of Harry’s children.

The whereabouts of the famous Gibsons today are unknown.  Kirsten heard from Uncle Al that the family had donated the instruments and memorabilia to the Smithsonian a few decades ago and the family remembers their sheet music being part of a display on American music history in the 1970’s.  However, my contact at the Smithsonian (Stacey Kluck) kindly scoured the records and found nothing on Vardon and Perry.  Perhaps the instruments lie buried and uncatalogued in one of the famous museum’s endless bunkers of treasures?

SIDEBAR: But wait!  We have one final “Where’s Wilber?” puzzle...

You saw above how music hall artist John Mack appeared to have legally adopted the stage name of Joe Wilbur upon his participation in “Vardon, Perry & Wilber.”

Is this what each and every performer was required to do upon joining the group?  You’ll recall above that a possible one-time sub signed a fan’s picture “Chick” or “Chuck” Wilber.  Was that his new legal stage name?  Did every past team member spend the duration of their post-VP&W career as a Wilber/Wilbur?!

Perhaps this personal photo in the Perry estate archives provides a clue.

The handwritten note on the back of this photo states: “1946 – Harry and Violet Perry and Frank and Vera Vardon outside Hazel and Lucky Wilbur’s home.”  The family has no idea what this means or who this person might have been. 

I do.  C’mon – again, what are the odds?!  “Lucky” was one of the stage Wilbers...and I stumbled upon which one.

He’s Wilber No. 4.  

Two different Ragtime Six Variety ads (with silly weekly comments written by the boys) mentioned something “Lucky” had done (in reference to winning a poker game , they wrote "perhaps that's how he got his name.").  These references were in May and June,1913.  Since #4 was the main Wilber during this period, and we know this isn’t Joe Wilbur (who would join sometime in February, 1914), this unknown performer is undoubtedly our Lucky.

He even seems to have had some success in America post-VP&W; the 1924 song “Wait'll You See My Gal” was written by Jerry Sullivan and Lucky Wilber.  A year later, Herbie Mintz and Lucky Wilber penned “Where Can I Find You.”  Surely this is our guy, and you gotta admit, it’s a great stage and pen name!

From yet another obscure clue, I believe that Lucky was originally christened “Norman Wilber.”  This is the name reported in the notice from a fellow researcher that Alan Black dug up in his files (submitted by Bruce Vermazen).  Norman fits into the timeline as the first Wilber of the Ragtime Six, who I am virtually certain became Wilber #4 (Lucky).  Perhaps Norman was the performer’s real first name and they decided to change it to the catchier nickname “Lucky.”

Think of it – thirty-something years later, Norman is still living out his life with a stage name assigned to him by his former employers and partners.

How wonderful to see Vardon and Perry (and their wives) still getting together, reminiscing about the old act, and visiting one of the old fictional-turned-real life Wilbers.

I wonder if there was a Wilber pension plan...


And that, my friends, is the amazing-but-true story of Vardon and Perry – and their revolving stable of Wilburs/Wilbers.

A final re-cap, in rough order of appearance:

No. 1

The original Jess Wilbur (presumed given name)

No. 2

The first main replacement “stage Wilber,” Given name unknown.

No. 3

A one-time or occasional substitute Wilber?  Stage name “Chuck” or “Chick”

No. 4

England and overseas:
“Lucky Wilber” (originally “Norman Wilber”), the second main replacement “stage Wilber” of the Ragtime Six and “Gee Whiz” London show.  Given first name may have been Norman.

No. 5

England and possibly elsewhere:
Joe Wilbur, a third replacement stage Wilber or a semi-permanent temp?  Given name Joe Mack.

No. 6


A one-time substitute Wilber?


The End...?

Thanks to: Kirsten Spanjer, Christy Perry and the extended Harry Perry family, Alan Black, Mark Berresford, Robert Moulton, Les Cook, Søren Venema, Anita Camarella and Davide Facchini, Stephen Bennett, Stacey Kluck

Sources: Variety magazine, the ephemera collected herein, and others that should be self-explanatory within the text.

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