Animal Impersonators of Vaudeville and Pantomime: call them Paleofurries.

by Patch O'Furr

Check out this “fursuit” acting from 1924. That’s George Ali as Nana the Dog in the first silent-movie version of Peter Pan. (Here’s a longer clip).

In 1924, there were no archives for movies, so many were destroyed or disappeared when they stopped making money from screening. The first Peter Pan movie was believed lost, but two copies were found including one at Disney Studios (who must have studied the innovative special effects.) A restoration in 1994 was added to the US National Film Registry. It makes a rare recording of this kind of performing.

George Ali was an Animal Impersonator — much more than just a costumer, but a specialist artist. There must be tons of forgotten lore about this. It was featured in my furry history series about Panto-animals (with beautiful photos, but no videos I could find until now!)

What were animal impersonators?

Fred Conquest and Charles Lauri appear in those stories as British Pantomime theater players. Panto had roots as old as Shakespeare — a mash-up of clowning, burlesque, satire, and lower-class popular theater for the masses. It was for live stages, not permanent Youtube-ready media, so the actors may be barely remembered today. They were huge stars in their heyday 100 years ago. Most were known as human characters, but ones like Ali, Conquest, or Lauri won stardom in their own right as animals.

This quote from my first story says why they were more than costumers:

Charles Lauri’s imitations were exceptional for the accuracy with which they reproduced the movements of different animals. When rehearsing for a part, he spent hours watching the animal he would be impersonating… The performances were physically extremely demanding and Lauri had to be an acrobat as well as an actor.

George Ali, World’s Greatest Animal Impersonator explains how they won stardom:

Most reviews singled him out for praise, with many stating how the audience often wished the size of his role could be doubled, as it often saved the show. Everyone seemed to enjoy his enthusiastic and energetic performances, full of emotion and character. This recognition forced producers to prominently feature and highlight Ali in advertisements with second billing… Advertisements at the time noted he received the largest salary ever paid to animal impersonators.

Fursuiters take note about the Nana the Dog suit:

Seidel’s of New York created the costume from Ali’s design and specifications, with the face folded in the style of a taxidermist. Real shaggy dog fur covered Nana’s head, with caracel covering the body and buttoned up inside… From inside the costume, Ali operated the eyes, ears, tail, and mouth through a series of strings enabling him to cock an eye, wiggle his ears, wag his tail, and the like, enabling him to tug viewers’ heart strings as well. Jumping from wistful to joyous celebration to sorrow, Ali’s strong portrayal charmed audiences.

There’s more about the costuming in this review of a modern screening of the silent Peter Pan with live music.

Paleofurries from Britain to America

Paleofurry” means anything anthropomorphic in history, from fairy tales to Egyptian gods. Maybe there isn’t direct influence, but it’s culturally latent. You can see it skip across time from old theater, which influenced Disney and Golden Age cartoons, to subcultural 1970’s cartoonists, who helped found today’s fandom.

Like furries themselves sometimes, Animal Impersonators’ craft seems overlooked and left for specialty interest. That’s how a furry fan can see it with a thrill of recognition. Want some advanced costuming inspiration? Study it! I even considered doing a book, but my articles about Panto-Animals had most everything I could find by scouring the web. That didn’t promise much present-day activity to explore as a fan. That’s up to professional and academic researchers… and recently, one led me to more info that was overlooked in stories about British Panto.

American Vaudeville actors were the talent for early Hollywood. London stage actors who moved to Vaudeville and movie success included George Ali, and the first huge mass media star, Charlie Chaplin.

These are types of variety theater (also including Burlesque and minstrelry), and Vaudeville is called “America’s only purely indigenous theatrical form.” How is it different from Panto? That’s a question for an expert. Tomorrow’s story links an expert who profiled more American actors that haven’t appeared here.

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