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Roamin' in the Gloamin'
CHAPTER XII - "GREAT ARTISTE CAPTIVATES AMERICA"


I set sail from Liverpool on the old Lucciania in the middle of October 1907. Nance did not feel any too good in health at that time and cried off the trip. Tom, my inseparable henchman and companion, was ill with rheumatic fever in London and could not accompany me. So I took my son John, then a boy of sixteen and due to go up to Cambridge in a month or two. He had been over the water to Canada with his mother a year before; he was by way of being an old sailor and knew the ropes.

Poor John! I can scarcely bear to think about that trip with him and the fine times we had together on board. He was very young but he was very wise and among his other accomplishments he could play the piano beautifully and sing a good sentimental song. What a favourite he was with the passengers! Little did he or I dream then of a world war which was to bring desolation and unending sorrow into our home and into millions of others. How glad I am now that I took him with me on that first American trip! It was the longest time we had ever been together; we only got to know each other properly during that two months' holiday. Remembering always my first trip across the Atlantic with my dear boy John I never miss a chance of telling parents who are blessed with boys and girls to spend all the time they can with them when the bairns are young because if they don't do so then, they will be missing one of the purest joys of life in what Burns describes as "this melancholy vale."

As the ship drew nearer and nearer to New York I became quite nervous. I was about to launch another Scots "invasion." I knew well enough that America was the happy hunting-ground of thousands of my countrymen who had gone there before me; I was perfectly well aware of the fact that it was a magnificent land blessed by nature with a bountiful array of natural resources and inhabited by teeming and prosperous peoples drawn from every corner of the globe. I was fairly well acquainted with its history. George Wash ington and Abraham Lincoln ranked second only in my estimation to Robert Burns and Walter Scott; one of the greatest and grandest books I had read In my life up till then was "From Log Cabin to White House." Would there be a spotlight somewhere in this wonderful country for little Harry Lauder? What chance had I of competing with the cleverest entertainers in the vaudeville firmament of the mighty U. S. A.? Could I deliver the goods? Honestly, I felt dubious. I mentioned my doubts and fears to John, sitting with me in our stateroom two nights out from Sandy Hook. In language, and with an outlook far beyond his years, he replied:

"Dad, you'll be a riot! Don't you worry! I know America and the Americans (he had been in Canada for six weeks the previous year!) and they'll eat you up, bones an' all! But if you don't go down very well there are always plenty of ships home. My opinion is that you were right to come over here because if you can get away with it (he had all the little professional touches, you see) there's a bit of money to be cleaned up in the States. We'll do our best, anyhow!"

This "considered opinion" of John's cheered me up greatly. But next day I happened on something which sent my spirits slap down to zero. This was an old New York paper which I casually lifted up in the saloon and in glancing through which I came across a criticism of myself and my work written by a man signing himself Alan Dale. It was not only unkind; it was vitriolic. It not only criticised my art but it villified my personal appearance. It vomited scorn on my songs, my singing of them, on my legs and the way I walked with them, my nose and how I breathed through it; it slashed, stabbed, and excoriated the British people for laughing at me and wound up by asserting that the free and discerning people of America would have none of "this Scots buffoon who had the insolence to call himself a comedian"—or words to that effect.

Grinding my teeth with rage I went in search of John. You will remember that earlier in my memoirs I made the statement that I have seldom or ever read a newspaper criti cism of my stage work. This is absolutely true. I have never been on the books of a Press Cutting Agency. Had I, like so many celebrities, been in the habit of reading everything said or written about me over a period of years, this snappy column by Mr. Dale might have amused me immensely. As it was it came to me like a blow on the jaw—and I saw red. Moreover I was in a highly nervous condition on the very eve of my inaugural performance in New York. I don't think I ever saw a boy laugh so much as John did when he read the Alan Dale criticism.

"Fa, this is splendid," said John. "It's the funniest thing I've read in my life!" And he started to laugh all over again.

"I'm glad you think it funny, son," I growled. "It doesn't sound at all funny to me. And if I meet this bloke Alan Dale I'll plaster him up against the wa like an Answers poster," I meant it, too.

I was still smarting under the sting and injustice of Mr. Dale's venom when we arrived at New York. As usual an army of newspaper men came aboard and they all wanted to interview me at once. Somehow or other I got it into my head that one of the bunch must be the Dale bird! So T refused to be interviewed until he stepped forward and confessed. "And I give him fair warning that I'll kill him on the spotI" I added. The press boys all laughed, assuring me that they had never heard of such an individual; in any case, he wasn't one of the regular gang and I need not worry my head about him. But I was in no humour to be chatty that afternoon on the Lucania and I am afraid I made a very bad impression on the first crowd of New York pressmen to come in contact with Harry Lauder. One of the boys, in fact, pointedly told me that I was "a sour little guy," that I should "ease up on this fightin' stuff an' come across with a story or two," otherwise I would be "handed the frozen mitt in lii' ole New York!"

Kiaw and Erlanger had sent down one or two representatives to the boat to meet me. But I think that in view of my stormy passages with the reporters they kept in the background. I heard afterwards that one of them went straight back to the office and gave a most disheartening account of my appearance and conduct. "Boss," he is reported to have said, "this guy Lauder has arrived all right. But he looks to me to be more a tragedy than a comedy. He's roarin' at the pier porters an' generally playin' hell with the noospaper men. Threatens to kill every critic in the States that don't stand for his act an' boost Scotland as the king nation of the universe! He's four foot nothin' in height, so shortsighted that he has to wear telescopes for eye-glasses, an' looks all of a cheap emigrant. Boss, you should see his old coat an' baggy trousers; I'll tell the world he ain't no snappy dresser. If this poor boob is a barnstormer, it throw in on an ace-full!" Naturally this news rather disconcerted the taff at Kiaw and Erlanger's and I have no doubt the princi pals were already regretting their bargain. All the same they gave me a most kindly reception when we actually met next day.

If I had proved anything but a gold-mine to the reporters on the ship they got plenty of copy about me and my arrival in other directions. A very old British friend in Peter Dewar—then resident in New York and doing bright business in the sale of a Scots product now, alas, absolutely unknown in the States!—had arranged for several pipers in full Highland dress to "blaw me ashore" and lead the way from the pier to a tartan-draped motor-car in which I drove to the Knickerbocker Hotel.

Hundreds of expatriated Scots had also turned up at the harbour; they gave tongue to vociferous cries, Hielan' hoochs and shouts of welcome. This was all a surprise to me indeed. I had not expected anything like it. My intention had been all along to land in America very quietly, do my best to make a hit and, if I failed, to get away home again at once and regard my trip as an experience. We arrived on the Friday. On the Sunday I was so homesick that if there had been a steamer leaving New York that day I honestly think I would have booked a passage. But when Monday came I was on my toes—I had the I'll-show'em feeling all right. John and I were at the New York Theatre, Times Square, an hour before I was due to go on at the matinee. The people rolled up all serene. When the programme opened the house was full. My number going up was the signal for a tremendous outburst of cheering, led, I have no doubt whatever, by my good Scottish friends and admirers.

Once again it was old "Tobermory" that did the trick. I had not been on the stage more than a minute before I realized that I was going to make good. At the end of my first song the applause was terrific. I forgot all about Old Man Dale, my doubts and forebodings of failure, and played as well as I have ever done in my professional career. "If this is New York I am going to love you," said I to myself. That was twenty years ago. I have never had the slightest reason to revise my decision.

At my first matinee I sang six songs in place of the three I had anticipated. But in the evening my reception was so warm that I had to sing ten numbers before I was allowed to leave the stage. Altogether I was "on" for just over two hours, a physical ordeal which had me completely groggy at the finish. But I was happy in the knowledge that I had won out and that the gloomy prophecies of my friend Mr. Dale had been falsified. Long before I woke the next morning John went out and secured copies of the leading New York dailies. He roused me up and insisted on reading the very flattering and flowery comments of the theatrical and vaudeville critics on my performance and my triumph. There seemed to me to be as many inches of headings as there was text to the laudatory criticisms and one streamer cross-line remains in my mind. It read—Harry Lauder, great artiste, captivates America. As he laid down the last of the papers John turned to me and said,

"Pa, dear, I knew you would paralyze them!"

I kissed John, turned over in my bed and went to sleep again.

These first five weeks in America seem like a dream to me now. Actually I was in dreamland most of the time. Everything was so new and strange and vast and breath less that senses were in a "dwam" most of the time. I must have met hundreds and hundreds of people whose names I forget now but they were all very kind to me. I had invitations to lunch, dinner, supper, and even break- fast. Prominent New Yorkers asked me to receptions, dances, and functions of all kinds. I was completely rushed off my feet. I began to think that life in New York was a bit too strenuous for me and to weary for the peace and quiet of working four halls a night in London! Whenever I did manage to get an hour or two to myself I spent the time wandering through the streets of New York, taking stock of the immense buildings, watching the people hurrying and scurrying hither and yon, taking trips on the subway and in the street cars and generally trying to grasp what New York stood for in the life of the new and wonderful world that had been opened up for me as if by magic. Here let me make a confession. After a week or two in the turmoil and frenzy I made up my mind that I liked the folks very much indeed but that I would sooner die than spend the rest of my days in New York! It "deaved" me to death. A sense of oppression came over me. I felt that of a certainty one or other of the big buildings would fall on me. The cumulative effect of all this was a sense of choking--I was always fighting for breath, as it were.

Two friendships I made on this visit which meant much to me then, and they have become stronger and stronger with the passage of time. Colonel Walter Scott swam into my ken the first week I opened at the New York Theatre. His breezy, straightforward, generous personality, added to the fact that he seemed to be more Scottish than I was myself, appealed to me at once. We fell for each other right away and have been "sworn brithers" for twenty years. An amazing man is Wattie Scott. A native-born American, and proud of it, he is yet the most perfervid lover of Scotland and all things Scottish that the world has ever seen. His affection for the land of his forebears is a religion with him. He is qualified to take a post as a professor of Scottish history and character in any university. The lore of Scotland from time immemorial is an open book to him; he sleeps with a copy of Burns beneath his pillow.

Walter is the perpetual president of a thousand St. An- chews' Societies and Burns' Clubs scattered throughout every state in the union; no Scottish Clan association is "worth a docken" if Wattie's name is not on its list of office bearers and financial supporters, All America knows what the colonel did in raising Scottish-American troops for the front in the time of the world war. Not content with his purely Scottish activities he is in the foreground of all good and charitable works in the United States; if there can be found anywhere in America half a dozen men or women willing to found a patriotic society to commemorate the Revolution, to perpetuate the name and fame of some illustrious poet, or writer or citizen or soldier or sailor or humanitarian or benefactory generally Wattie has only to be approached and all things are made smooth. If a bill has to be footed, he'll pay. If a speech is to be delivered he'll either do it himself or get the President to do it. If a thousand mile journey has to be undertaken in connection with any of his organizations he'll do it overnight and get back to his business in Broadway by the first available train. Where and how he finds time for one tenth part of the work he does has always been one of the monumental puzzles of America to me.

One of his latest ideas was to establish a great Scottish University on the Island of Iona in the Western Highlands. If it wasn't his he was at least all over it. Walter asked me if I would subscribe to this great and glorious notion. "Certainly not!" 1 told him, "I've seen Iona and a university there would have as much chance as an ice factory leaning up against the North Pole!" But that's the sort of man he is. Just a great big, open-hearted boy anxious and willing to take the whole wide world into his arms and organize it on Clan Association lines. He'll never know how much I love and respect him.

Another personal friendship I cemented during this first visit was between myself and William Morris. No need to tell you that Will Morris is today the greatest vaudeville agent on both sides of the Atlantic. In those days he was KIaw and Erlanger's chief booking man and I had a lot to do with him while at the Times Square Theatre. Between this black-haired, handsome Jew with the little nose and the "gripping" wee Scots comedian with the big nose a mutual affection sprang up. We took to each other from the very outset. I always say that Will Morris is the best Jew I have ever met and he says I am the best Scotsman he has ever met—so what more is there to be said? Nothing! Later he became my American manager. Under his wing I have made twenty trips to America and he has "put me across" in practically every town and city of any size in the States from New York to San Francisco and from Mexico to the Canadian border. And I have never had a written contract with Morris from the first day in Liverpool, in the year 1908, when we settled our original bargain with a shake of the hand. For all his success and world-wide popularity with all manner of theatrical people Will is a shy man and I should hate to make him blush by saying just what I think of him. Since meeting him and hooking up together I have got to know exactly what is meant by "the chosen people." All the same, mind you, I think Morris must have made a lot of money out of me. But, as I haven't done so badly myself as the result of our association, I am content to let it go at that! (Don't you think, Will, that I should have just a wee bit more out of my next annual farewell tour in view of the fine character I have given you in this book?)

When my engagement came to a close at the end of the five weeks Kiaw and Erlanger were most anxious that I should either stay on in America or sign another contract to appear under their management at the very earliest date on which I could get released from my British bookings. As I had had a devil of a job to get away from these bookings for two months I did not see how I could remain a day longer. As for a new contract, well, I wanted time to consider everything in its due proportion. I was evidently a big hit in America—a wow! That was a fact which admitted of no shadow of doubt. Before the end of my first week I had been stormed at with requests to appear in every large city in the States. Several of the big Scottish societies had even offered me as much for one night's appearance as I had been drawing in salary at the New York Theatre. In short, I could see that there was a rich and fallow field for me in the New World. But I determined to gang warily in the matter of putting my signature to legal documents. I had had bitter experience of hasty decisions in this respect at home.

"Harry, ma lad," said I to masel', "there's nae hurry. America's waitin' for ye an' wants ye. America is ready tae weigh in wi' the dollars good an' plenty. Ye've sown the good seed—awa' hame an' wait for it tae bear fruit abundantly."

Realizing that this was sound common-sense I refused all temptations to get me to stay on. But lest my resolution should fail me at the last moment I packed up the night before John and I should have sailed and went down to the Carmania and locked myself in the cabin. Two o'clock the next afternoon would have been time enough. Urgent mes sages, letters, and telegrams continued to arrive at the hotel many hours after the ship had sailed. And that, very briefly is the story of how I broke into America.

It was only a flying visit, undertaken with no great enthusiasm, and it never took me out of the confines of New York. But it was the precursor of many wonderful and delightful tours which have made me better acquainted with the people of the United States than perhaps any other traveller in the world. Indeed I must have seen, and been seen by, more citizens of the Republic than any other man who ever lived! This seems at first blush a pretty tall statement. But work it out for yourself and you will see that I am not far wrong. Tom and I once sat down during a long railroad journey from North to South and tried to calculate how many miles we had travelled in the States together. We lost count completely after we had got to our first hundred thousand.


 


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