American Vaudeville Pioneers

The Kaufman Brothers
A Prehistory of Phil, Jack, and Irving

By Allan Sutton

Related Articles: Irving Kaufman: The Bain News Services Photographs
The Avon Comedy Four  |  Jack Kaufman's Personal Scrapbook 

The revision of this article has been made possible through Phil Kaufman's generous loan of his grandfather Jack's scrapbook. The scrapbook, begun in 1910, includes hundreds of reviews and other news clippings through 1914, as well as some later material, providing the most complete overview yet of Jack and Phil Kaufman's early years in vaudeville.

The earliest history of the Kaufman brothers—Phil, Jack, and Irving—has been largely overlooked by their biographers. Collectors tend to think of the brothers primarily as studio workhorses, but the original Kaufman Brothers act, consisting of Phil and Jack, was much more successful in vaudeville than in the recording studios. (Irving, the youngest of the three, was not a part of the act, as far as can be determined.)

Kaufman Brothers vaudeville bill with Irene Franklin

The Kaufman Brothers shared billing with headliner Irene Franklin in May 1909.
(Mainspring Press)

Little is known of Jack and Phil Kaufman’s pre-theater careers. An undated clipping in Jack Kaufman’s scrapbook, probably dating from 1912, states that “The Kaufman brothers were employed in New York offices, pounding typewriters, until they were discovered by Martin Beck.” Phil Kaufman was the elder brother, the star of the act, and possibly the more versatile of the two. He even tried his hand at composing, although without notable success. In 1909 he was commissioned to write “Up in My Flying Machine” especially for the Los Angeles Aviation Meet. Sales of the sheet music apparently were not great, however, and by 1910 the Broadway Department Store in Los Angeles was advertising that they still had "a large quantity of that clever song," to be given away with a minimum purchase. 1 In 1911 Phil collaborated with Mannie Lowenstein on "The Beaus and Belles of Louisville," a musical sketch that was presented for the first (and possibly only) time at an I.O.O.B benefit.

The earliest mention of the Kaufman Brothers act located to date is a notice that they were appearing at Keith's Fifth Avenue Theatre, a popular New York vaudeville house, during the week of May 16, 1909. 2 They had probably toured for some time prior to this on the Pantages vaudeville circuit. In one interview, Jack Kaufman recalled the brothers’ early experiences in show business:

Several years ago my brother and I were playing over on the Pantages circuit. We were getting a very slender salary in those days, and were none too careful about saving, so when we finished the time in Los Angeles we had just $4 between us.... The $4 was dwindling, and we were about to look for a job digging ditches, when we had an offer from Long Beach to play a week’s engagement there. We took it and in an hour or two were at Long Beach, just in time to watch the theater burning down. The manager hurried around and finally found a skating rink which he rigged up for a theater. We played there for a week, and the total receipts were $179. He started to take out all the theater expenses and announced that the actors had $2.50 each coming for the week. On the bill was a chap named ‘Montana Jack,’ who did a knife-throwing specialty with butchers knives two feet long. He balanced one of the knives on his finger, looked at the manager, and said he guessed we take our salaries first. We did. We got $28....” 3

Jack Kaufman’s personal scrapbook begins in 1910, corresponding with the act’s move to the more prestigious Orpheum circuit. The first document is a brief announcement that he had married Rosina Clarke Kaufman (a.k.a. Olive York), an English showgirl. They met at the Mayfair in London, and were married in Chicago. A son, Jules Aaron Kaufman, was born in New York on March 3, 1910, while Jack was appearing at Shea’s Theatre in Toronto.

Jack (left) and Phil (right) Kaufman, probably shortly after leaving the
Pantages vaudeville circuit for the more prestigious Orpheum circuit
(Courtesy of Phil Kaufman)

The earliest clippings in Kaufman’s scrapbook reveal how widely traveled the act was in its early days. Within the first few pages are reviews from Denver; Salt Lake City; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; St. Louis; New Orleans; Norfolk, Virginia; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Buffalo, New York. There is also a report of a concert given at the federal prison in St. Louis by the brothers and other vaudevillians playing the Forsyth Theater. At some point in 1911 or 1912, the brothers toured in England. An undated and untitled clipping in Kaufman’s scrapbook refers to their return to the U.S., after which they reportedly “spent most of their spare time fishing.” In another undated clipping, Carl Reiter, manager of the Orpheum Theater (New York), claimed that the brothers learned their Southern accents in Palestine, Texas.

The Kaufman Brothers appear to have worked almost exclusively in black-face makeup, and more than one reviewer mistakenly labeled them “negro” or “colored.” 4 Despite the brothers’ growing fame, their name was often misspelled “Kauffman” in the press. Jack Kaufman's voluminous collection of reviews gives a good idea of what the act comprised. According to the Portland, Oregon Evening Telegram, “They just meander on, do a little singing, then have a gab-fest with a laugh line, and provide a finish to the act that almost causes a stampede.” 5 Among the undated clippings are many other accounts of the act:

“The Kaufman Brothers... [began] their act by impersonating the Russian dancers and the Parisian vocalist who had just preceded them.” ... “Especially worthy of attention are their parodies of Italian songs. Both men... play ‘swell coons’ attractively.” ... “Their entrance is made in bangy, bangy coon-shouter style... These brothers have excellent voices, but are too full of monkeyshines to take time to sing properly.” ... “Ragtime and Italian songs are their long suit.” ... “They sing exceptionally well, but otherwise just indulge in effervescent nonsense and wear red vests and checkerboard suits.” ... “Their Yiddiher Opera brought a storm of applause.”

Although the team received standing ovations, and their work was consistently well-reviewed, the Kaufman Brothers were never top headliners. They were among vaudeville’s second-stringers, those popular but not-quite-stellar acts used to fill out programs starring headliners like Irene Franklin and Will Rogers (on whose bills they appeared in 1909 and 1911, respectively). They played many of the major theaters in New York and other major cities, but were not above working in small-time houses like the Bushwick and the Greenpoint in Brooklyn. 6 During the summer months they headed to the seashore, playing the music halls in Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and other seaside resorts.7 Their promotional pieces frequently stated that the team was “always working” or “fully booked,” presaging Jack’s later workaholic tendencies in the recording studios.

Both Jack and Phil were amateur baseball players, and Phil attracted some attention with his antics in the outfield. An undated Variety clipping in Kaufman’s scrapbook reported that in one game pitting vaudeville stars against stage hands,

One of the sensational plays was made by Phil Kaufman. There were a lot of hits being made into the band shell. So he climbed up on to the platform and held his hand out. The first ball came his way, although he did not see it, and stuck in his mit. He had to look at it before he could believe he made a put-out.

Mentions of the Kaufman Brothers nearly vanish from the New York theatrical listings beginning in 1912. The brothers had taken to the road again, this time traveling coast-to-coast on the B.F. Keith vaudeville circuit, and reaching California during the summer of that year. In August they played the Orpheum in Los Angeles in blackface, with a Los Angeles Times reporter opining,

Kaufman brothers are dark brown but the taste they leave is quite the contrary. They come in with a gale of fun, perpetrate the latest in comedy songs and patter, and leave with deep regret to their audiences. The boys are decidedly out of the ordinary.8

Mention of an obscure fourth Kaufman brother appears in a short clipping in Jack’s scrapbook, probably dating to 1912. Issy Kaufman — listed as “local actor and singer and a brother of the Kauffman [sic] Brothers”— was performing in Glasgow, Scotland, as a member of the Ruby Raymond Company when he reportedly “became entangled in the domestic affairs of a countess and her lord.”

No further mention of Issy Kaufman is found in Jack’s scrapbook, but several pages later, younger brother Irving makes his first appearance. Since Irving initially failed to attain the professional stature of his older brothers, we have to rely largely on his own recollections as related to Jim Walsh and other enthusiasts many decades after the fact, some of which are questionable or demonstrably incorrect.

For a time, according to Irving Kaufman’s recollections, he sang with Merrick’s Band in the Forepaugh & Sells Circus. No documents have been found that might connect him to the band or the circus, nor does it seem likely that any will surface. Forepaugh & Sells was something of a black sheep in the circus industry at the time Kaufman would have been performing with them, having gained notoriety for some book-keeping irregularities along with a string of deaths and injuries involving rogue elephants, collapsing tents, and boxcar fires. Aside from working with the circus, Merrick's Band played many outdoor concerts throughout New York state, and none of their their programs examined to date list vocalists.

Irving recalled coming to New York in 1911 to work as a song demonstrator for the Leo Feist Music Company, a story that cannot be confirmed or refuted. More importantly, he also claimed to have made a test recording for Edison in 1911, although several searches of the Edison files have failed to unearth any evidence of the session. The story of this elusive date becomes even more suspect with Kaufman’s claim that Thomas Edison himself was so impressed that he urged that Irving be signed right away. In reality, Kaufman would not make any documented recordings for Edison until March 30, 1914. He was paid $25 for this first session, which probably produced “I Love the Ladies” (Blue Amberol cylinder 2328, released July 1914).9

Irving Kaufman's earliest documented recording was made not for Edison, but for Victor. On December 19, 1913, he recorded "Ragtime Dream" as a test at Victor's New York studio, with piano accompaniment. The record was not released, but Kaufman was called back to the Victor studio on April 17, 1914, when he cut his first issued Victor sides.

The early Edison recordings credited to the Kaufman Brothers are almost certainly the work of Jack and Phil, not Jack and Irving. However, the Edison cash books offer no insight, noting only that the “Kaufman Brothers” were paid, without listing first names.

Nothing in Jack Kaufman’s scrapbook suggests that Irving joined Phil and Jack in their act after his arrival in New York. The first item in the scrapbook to refer to Irving is a short clipping stating that Irving had sailed on the “Mauretania” for Liverpool, England, with the Avon Comedy Four, and was to spend several months touring the British Isles, France, Germany, South Africa, and Australia. The clipping is undated; however, two adjacent clippings from English newspapers concerning the Avon Comedy Four’s visit are dated July 14, 1914. Although several sources have stated that Irving Kaufman did not join the Avon Comedy Four until 1916, these clippings firmly establish his presence in the group as early as the summer of 1914. 10

Irving Kaufman with Avon Comedy Four

Irving Kaufman (far right in both photos) was not a member of the original Kaufman Brothers
act, working instead with the better-known Avon Comedy Four.
(Author's collection)

From 1914 onward, the Kaufman brothers’ histories are more easily traced through news reports, theater playbills, record catalogs, and trade papers like The Talking Machine World. Future articles will focus on their later stage and recording careers.

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Note: Many of the clippings in Jack Kaufman’s scrapbook (JKS) lack dates or sources. Based on those that are dated, the clippings appear to have been added in chronological order, making it possible to infer a year for most clippings.

1 Broadway Department Store advertisement. Los Angeles Times (1/14/1910), p. I-5.

2  "Vaudeville." New York Times (5/16/1909), p. X8.

3  “Amusements — At the Orpheum.” Undated clipping (c. 1911), source unknown (JKS).

4 “Orpheum Goers Are Delighted”; “Shea’s Theater,” etc. Undated clippings (c. 1912), source unknown (JKS).

5 “Kaufmans Just Grab New Show at Orpheum.” Portland, Oregon Evening Telegram (7/2/1912) (JKS).

6 See, for example, “Plays that Hold.” New York Times (10/1/1911), p. X1.

7 See, for example, “Week’s Bills at the Theaters.” New York Times (9/6/1910), p. 9.

8 “The Week.” Los Angeles Times (8/4/1912), p. III-1.

9 Edison studio cash book (week of March 30, 1914). Edison National Historic Site, Orange, NJ. The cash books do not list the titles recorded at each session, but they are among the only surviving primary-source documentation of Edison recording activity for this period.

10 “Finsbury Park Empire — All-American Programme.” The Daily Telegraph (7/14/1914). “An All-American Evening.” The Evening News (7/14/1914).

Document history: First posting April 1, 2007; Revision 1 posted April 24, 2007; Revision 2 posted Febrary 27, 2008; Revision 3 posted April 30, 2008; Revision 4 (current) posted December 19, 2008.

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