Uniontown man toured U.S. with Vaudevile's 'Lady Gaga'

| Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 6:24 p.m.

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a six-part series on old-fashioned theaters in Fayette County. Eva Tanguay was “The I Don't Care Girl.” Uniontown's George “Zeke” Williams toured with the Vaudeville star.

George “Zeke” Williams enthralled his grand kids with stories about the years he spent as a stagehand on the vaudeville circuit.

He often spoke of a singer named Eva Tanguay, with whom he toured until he returned home to Uniontown in 1915.

However, he left out a minor detail: Eva Tanguay is remembered as the original Lady Gaga / Madonna.

From about 1905 to 1920, Eva's wild stage antics made her a queen of Vaudeville.

The French-Canadian born singer and dancer earned several thousand dollars a week at the peak of her success. However, thanks to her lavish lifestyle and outrageous costumes, she often spent twice as much as she made.

She was tagged with many nicknames — “The Cyclonic Comedienne,” “The Madcap Wonder,” and “The Wild Girl,” to name a few — but the name that stuck was “The I Don't Care Girl.”

“I Don't Care” was Eva's swan song but she sang a symphony of scandalous tunes. Among them were “I Want Someone to Go Wild With Me,” “Go As Far As You Like” and “That's Why They Call Me Tabasco.”

Audiences anticipated her provocative stage antics. She was saucily sexy but not lewd enough to be thrown out of vaudeville, which touted itself as family-friendly, unlike its bawdy burlesque counterpart.

Several sources quote Eva Tanguay as saying she couldn't really sing, dance or act. But based on her popularity, she must have had something special; one could compare Eva to 1920s silent film actress Clara Bow, who was nicknamed the “It Girl.”

Mae mimicked Eva

Eva's persona was so flashy that Mae West — who began in Vaudeville and went on to 1930s film fame with her raunchy act — is said to have emulated the “I Don't Care Girl” in developing her own image.

Eva Tanguay's first stage appearance was at age 8 in Massachusetts. She starred in several Broadway shows but by 1905 she was a Vaudeville headliner. In 1909, she performed with the famous Ziegfeld Follies.

Eva's offstage life was as scandalous as her shows. She married and divorced twice — and in 1908 staged a fake wedding to popular actor Julian Eltinge, a cross-dresser. For the “nuptials,” Eva donned a tuxedo and Julian wore the white wedding gown.

Outside of marriage, Eva's supposed affair with married African American comedian George Walker caused a public uproar.

Eva was notoriously difficult to work for. She was fined $50 in Louisville, Kentucky, for throwing a stagehand down a flight of stairs.

Was that stagehand Zeke Williams of Uniontown?

“I wouldn't doubt it,” said his grandson, Pete Williams of Uniontown, laughing. Pete never knew his grandfather but grew up listening to stories about Zeke's show biz experiences. The Williams family still has the steamer trunk that he hauled with him from coast-to-coast.

The 1929 Wall Street Crash ended Eva Tanguay's fame. She retired and was working on her autobiography when she died in 1947 at age 68.

Eva was laid to rest in Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery). In 1953, Eva's life was immortalized when Mitzi Gaynor portrayed her in a fictionalized film, “The I Don't Care Girl.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

Friday: Connellsville film director Edwin S. Porter's historic 12-minute “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 featured 40 actors and had at least 10 different scene locations — unheard of at the time.

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