The life & humor of vaudeville comedian Marshall Pinckney Wilder

Funny man The life of vaudeville comedian Marshall Pinckney Wilder

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The famous Victorian-era comedian Marshall Pinckney Wilder (1859-1915) often joked about his short stature, but that was only a small part of his schtick.

While affected by both dwarfism and kyphosis (a hunchback), Wilder didn’t let that define him. In an era where many performers with physical differences and disabilities were confined to circus sideshows, he became a legitimate Vaudeville star based on his own talents as a humorist, stage actor and sketch artist.

The comedian and the comedian (1891)

The following true story may or not have been told in America. It is now going the round of the Savage Club in London.

Nat Goodwin everybody knows; Marshall P. Wilder, everybody knows also. They are both excellent comedians sad mimics. Mr. Wilder has what some people would call the disadvantage, but what others would call the great advantage, of being a dwarf.

He is an inimitable storyteller and is making a fortune for himself in London at the present moment. 

The many faces of humorist Marshall Pinckney Wilder

He, Nat Goodwin and Alan Forman went over together from America, and Nat Goodwin was primed full of new stories, as he always is.

He told them in the smoking room of the steamer [steamship] coming over and none appreciated them more than Mr Marshal Wilder.

Wilder, when they landed in Liverpool, went straight to London. Goodwin stopped off at different places, and did not reach the big city till a week later.

Both Goodwin and Wilder are honorary members of the Savage Club, and always welcome. Every Saturday night the Savage Club has what it calls the club dinner, and entertainment to follow.

Marshall Wilder got up after being called on and told all of Nat Goodwin’s stories, which were very well received.

The next Saturday night Mr. Goodwin was present, and was loudly called for.

He got up and said: “Mr. Chairman and gentlemen — your hearty reception reminds me of a story of a plan who was out in Texas who was tendered a reception –”

Here the chairman whispered huskily, “Marshall Wilder told that story last Saturday.”

Marshall Pinckney Wilder with a funny face (c1900)

Nat was a little nonplussed, but he speedily gathered himself together and continued: “Well, probably you heard that story, but here is another that I think is new to this side of the water. Out in California, there was a minor who had made his pile and –”

The chairman pulled his coat tails. “Marshall Wilder told that story last Saturday.” Goodwin gave a gasp and looked vindictively at Marshall P. Wilder, who was sitting in a corner hugely enjoying the discomfiture of the comedian.

“Gentlemen,” said Goodwin, “your chairman informs me that you have already heard that story, but here is another that I remember at the moment. The last time I was in Detroit I was up in the office of –”

The chairman whispered again: “Marshall Wilder told the Detroit story last Saturday.”

The audience by this time was taking in the situation, and a number of quiet chuckles were going around. Goodwin stood for a moment before them speechless.

Comedian Marshall Pinckney Wilder

Then he put up his right hand and drew his hair down over his brow. His face seemed to lengthen and his mouth widen.

He appeared to shrink as he stood before them and a hump seemed to come on his back, as his head sank between his shoulders, and to the astonishment of everybody present there stood Marshall P Wilder before them as he had done the Saturday night previous.

“Gentlemen,” said Goodwin in exact representation of Wilder’s tones, “I will give you an imitation of that gifted humorist, Marshall P. Wilder, telling my stories in the Savage Club.”

At this, there was a wild roar of laughter and applause, and Goodwin nodded to Wilder as he sat down and said, “There, Marshall, I’ve got even with you for once.”


Funny man: Want a good story? Here are several (1899)

By Marshall P Wilder – The San Francisco Call (California) April 9, 1899

To be called a funny man is a hard thing. A merry or jovial man if you like, but not funny. Placed on the programme as a funny man, you come out, and the faces of all look as if to say, “Now, let us see you make us laugh.”

For fifteen years, I have followed the life of an entertainer and schooled myself thereto. Now this, of course, is a very difficult profession. You are called upon to entertain different kinds of audiences, and I have in my repertoire 300 sketches of ten minutes each and 1000 or more stories.

You are called upon to entertain all kinds of audiences, sometimes a Sunday school, then a dinner party, then an old ladies’ home, then a newsboys’ lodging-house, then you appear at some theater, instantly you have to know what to do. They say, “Wilder, be funny,” and you have to pull a face and your joke does the rest.

Now, as for a joke. There is a vast difference between the English and American humor. Take, for example, the English humor, although they have a keen appreciation of the English style, yet an American would have to get acquainted with their English style.

Marshall P Wilder riding a bicycle (c1900)

For example, a story I told there about an Irishman in America who said, “Last night I dreamed I was dead, but the heat woke me up.”

Afterward, an English gentleman said to me, “Mr Wilder, you must have very hot weather over there.”

MORE: Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy: The most famous ventriloquist & puppet of the 20th century

Another example: During the late jubilee, I said to an Englishman, “Are you going to the naval parade next Saturday down to Expectorate Point?”

He said, “I never heard of the place.”

I said, “Down to Spithead.”

He said, “Oh, are they going to call it that?”

So you see I am accustomed when I go to England to hear them say, “Mr Wilder, those stories you told last year were so funny.” It takes them a year to see the joke.

Marshall P Wilder outside a Vaudeville performance hall (c1899)

When I first appear on the platform, it is amusing to me to see the faces of my audience, for when you read a great deal of a man you get a long idea of him, and I am supposed to be the short end of that idea. Some time ago I gave an entertainment down in New Jersey. Two members of the committee came to welcome me.

I heard one member say to the other, “Well, I guess he ain’t here, no one got off the train but that little boy. Guess he ain’t here.”

I went up and said, “Is this Mr Jones?” He said, “Yes.”

I said, “I am Wilder.”

“Well, where ls your father?” he asked.

On another occasion, I read a notice of mine in one of the Western papers which said: “Marshall P Wilder is in town. We have always understood that Wilder was a self-made man, but we think he did not take time to finish the job.”

There is one thing about being a short man — you are obliged to marry a tall woman; it would never do for a man to marry a woman beneath him.

Marshall P Wilder and his wife (c1903)

There are a great many reasons why I am short. I tell so many old stories that people keep calling me down, and it seems hard to keep up with the strain.

This, as a rule, puts me on good footing with my audiences, and by the time they become acquainted with my short figure, I start in with a little sketch of my trip on the steamer or railroad or whatever I may have had the pleasure of using.

I won’t say when I speak of pleasure that one gets much pleasure in riding on the Southern Pacific. I have always understood that no prisoner or convict is ever sent on that road, as the State of California does not think it just to punish a man twice for the same offense.

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Now, for a joke. Many who have read this joke will recognize another form of the same story, but I have dressed it up a little.

For example: Four animals went to the circus; $1 was required to let them in. The lamb gave up four quarters, the duck gave up a bill, but the poor dog was not allowed in, as he had only a scent.

Feeling badly, he went around in front of the Bohemian Club, where he met a sardine, who said: “What’s the matter?”

“They won’t let me into the show. I only have a scent.”

“Oh, don’t mind,” said the sardine. “Come in with me; I have a box.”

Antique portrait card of comedian Marshall Pinckney Wilder in Boston

It is not always what I say on the stare that pleases so much as my manner, because I claim that there is nothing new in the way of a story; but I do not think there is any such thing as a chestnut.

A story well told is always acceptable, otherwise we would get tired of the sunshine, and surely California never gets tired of the sunshine, yet in one sense it becomes a chestnut.

You know an old story such as this one. “Did Jones die suddenly?” “Yes, for him.”

It is the way a person hides the end that makes it effective. Many times a story will be told to you, and the man who tells it will string it out so long that by the time he gets to the end of it, off goes your hat, and some remark about the weather leads him to suppose that you do not appreciate his wit.

Mr Marshall Pinckney Wilder and some of his characters (c1900)

ALSO SEE: Vintage circus posters from the 1890s-1930s: Come one, come all to the greatest shows on earth!


Marshall P Wilder, humorist, dead at 55 (1915)

Adapted from the Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) January 11, 1915

Marshall P. Wilder, author and humorist, died at a St. Paul, Minn.. hotel early yesterday of heart disease complicated by a slight attack of pneumonia.

Mr Wilder had been in poor health for the last two weeks, and on Friday was forced to cancel his engagement at a vaudeville theater. The body was sent to relatives in New York.

Since the death of his wife more than a year ago, Mr Wilder had been visibly depressed, and this had affected his health. Two weeks ago, he caught a cold which developed into pneumonia. He was much improved Saturday night, but early yesterday collapsed.

Marshall Pinckney Wilder autographed photograph (1901)

Mr Wilder grew up in Hartford, and became a public entertainer at an early age, and in this capacity, appeared at one time before English royalty.

Marshall P. Wilder was well known in this city, where he lived as a boy, attending the Brown School. He had appeared here a number of times as an entertainer since leaving Hartford as a hometown and was always sure of a hearty welcome.

Mr. Wilder was unique in his methods and one of his schemes to get the best effects was to tell a number of short stories and, when one of them got a particularly hearty laugh, he would leave the stage, thus concluding his number at what might be called the psychological moment, and getting all the applause that he could.

If it was a trick of the trade, it was a good one, and one that was perfectly legitimate.

The humorist was a great admirer of the national game of baseball and was for years a regular attendant at the National League games in New York, when he was in the big city.

It is recalled that, when in this section on one of his entertainment trips, almost his first question, on arrival in a city, was, “How did the Giants come out today?”

Mr. Wilder was born in Geneva, New York, on September 19, 1859, a son of Dr Louis de Valois and Mary A (Hoffman) Wilder. On June 24, 1903, he married Sophia Cornell Hanks of Brooklyn.

Marshall Pinckney Wilder on the right (c1903)

Early in life, he was a peddler, and later was connected with Bradstreet’s Commercial Agency as a file boy. Soon afterward, he realized his abilities as an entertainer and began to entertain at 50 cents a night.

A few years later, he started traveling, first going to London in 1883, where he appeared before the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

From 1883 to 1899, he made an annual practice of entertaining at London, and always had a royal welcome and reception. Since 1899, he has been in vaudeville, touring the world in 1904 and 1905.

He is best known as the author of The People I’ve Smiled With, The Sunny Side of the Street, The Wit and Humor of America, Smiling Around the World, The Ten Books of the Merrymakers, and others.

When he attended the Brown School, he was a precocious child with a ready wit and a facility for taking life as it came.

He also attended the old Pearl Street Sunday school. Here he is remembered by Leverett Belknap as a jovial, jolly boy, full of witticisms and always a great help to him in his work as secretary of that school. Despite his humorous tendencies, Wilder is spoken of as a boy who behaved himself in Sunday school.

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