Saturday, January 13, 2018

John Burke's Cane

On stage he was known as Dublin Dan, the premier Irish comedian of American music halls in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Born as John M. Burke, he was a descendant of the great Guinness brewing family, he left his studies at Oxford to come to Boston to create a troupe of actors, singers, and dancers. This was the very dawn of the vaudeville age. Burke’s was not the only Irish musicale troupe of the time. Among others were MacEvoy’s Hibernicon, Harrigan’s Hibernian Company, and McGill & Strong’s Minstrel Company. Cities like Lowell had their “museums”, music halls, and opera houses. Some were quite legitimate, but most catered to the working class with earthy lyrics set to popular tunes. Burke’s career began in Boston in the 1870s making the Keith’s Theater circuit which evolved into engagements across the country such as New York City and Philadelphia. He married one of his troupe members who went by the stage name “Mrs. Annie Irish.” His advertisements which have survived give us an idea of what his show must have been like. For a mere 35 cents, 25 cents for children and 75 cents for orchestra seats, Dublin Dan would transform his audience from their lives of hard labor and meager living conditions to the lakes and fields of Erin. Through a series of hand painted tableaux spectators could see “a fresh and attractive array of novettes” along with the “Beauties of Ireland” and “the Lovely Lakes of Killarney.” A group of musicians and singers accompanied the scenes. Each took on a different character during the performance. “Erin’s Queen of Song, Miss Annie F Irish played the “Banshee Dearg.” There was also Patrick Fay as Shaun the Piper, James Shannon as the Coward Calanny, and B. Murray as the tourist. Of course the producer and director of Tableaux of Erin was John M. Burke as Dublin Dan the Guide. Burke’s advertisement claimed his show demonstrated the best of “minstrelity.” While Burke claimed to have made a world tour, he was known to have made several visits to Lowell, where he appeared at the Huntington Hall and the Music Hall. A reviewer of one of his performances in Lowell noted the admiration of the audience for Miss Annie Irish for her rendition of Moore’s Irish melodies. (Moore wrote The Minstrel Boy and The Last Rose of Summer.) It also noted the “active Irish boy” with his songs and closing with a “great acrobatic ending” which demanded an encore. The finale of the program was a jig performed by Dublin Dan and Miss Irish. Burke’s connection in Lowell does not end here. Many years ago in the attic of a house on Mt. Washington Street in the Acre was
found a gold topped cane. Inscribed on the cane is “Presented to John M. Burke, Irish Comedian, Feb 29th 73 by the Blumenthal Opera House, Prop. .... Wilkes-Barre USA.” The house at one time was owned by a family whose last name was Burke. Coincidence? Family member? No one knows for sure. Burke died at the age of 30 at the “Sisters’ Hospital” in Philadelphia. His wife quickly remarried another vaudeville performer. She and her children remained on stage for many years continuing Burke’s love of the theater. (Many thanks to Bill Mitchell for finding the cane and asking the right questions.)

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