More Animal Impersonators From Theater History

by Patch O'Furr

Don’t miss the series of stories about animal impersonators.

George Ali as Nana in Peter Pan (1924)

Yesterday’s article revisited the history of animal impersonation for theater. It’s the study of how animals move and behave, for acting with emotion and character. Beautifully crafted costumes were used on live stages before cinema matured, from artists forgotten by time. It’s deep rooted “Paleofurry” inspiration.

Previous stories here looked at British Panto-animal actors, but overlooked other actors in American Vaudeville (which fed talent to Hollywood). An expert covered some of them to round out this history. (Thanks to Trav S.D. who is linked here; a theater director, producer, and author.)

George Ali: Critter for Hire, and Arthur Lupino

Trav’s short article adds a little about George Ali, who played the dog in the first filmed version of Peter Pan. But in 1904 the role was played by an actor who I haven’t found much about. There’s just a very short blurb from Encyclopedia Brittanica saying Arthur Lupino was an “incomparable animal impersonator” and chosen personally by Peter Pan playwright JM Barrie.

Fred Woodward: What an Animal

Mules and creatures from Oz. It’s another short mention of how “Animal impersonation was a whole sub-specialty in vaudeville… This was an era when fairy tales were frequently presented on stage for audiences of children and their families, so it’s not as odd as it may seem at first blush.”

Alfred Latell: Animal Impressionist

A substantial story with contribution from the actor’s granddaughter. Latell was “best known as Bonzo the Bull Pup,” and “publicized his long hours of studying the movements of the creatures so that he could get them just so”.

Despite fame for some, the arts aren’t known for enriching every talent who made many people happy: “According to his daughter, he was buried in a pauper’s (unmarked) grave in Park Ridge, Illinois in 1951. After he passed, his widow was so distraught, she threw out anything that reminded her of her husband, including his famous dog suit. Fortunately, the family managed to save some photos including ones in this post which they were nice enough to share. Special thanks to Kimberly Albright.” — That’s so sad, like losing a fursuit and a lot more!

Other sources describe his art and quote him:

“He went to great lengths – rigged up a hind leg, improving his dog movement, and had a special tube made for his mouth which allowed him to appear like he was lapping up milk.  With a string he could raise the fur on the back of the cat suit! He also impersonated birds, ‘The parrot was one of my first bird impersonations, and I found it one of the most difficult of all, because of its crouching posture and the consequent tendency to fall over while walking.  There are nine strings which have to be operated in working the head, bill and wings, and the work is laborious in every sense of the word.” (The Art of Animal Acting, The New York Dramatic Mirror, May 1, 1909.) — Pamela Butler, Pam’s Pictorama

Will Ferry: Another kind of Frog Man.

“Dressed as a frog in dashing evening clothes, he performed his act, which consisted of acrobalance and general amphibian impersonation, against a backdrop painted to resemble a swamp.” The hops and jumps of an acting career had hurdles of American segregation here. He was a person of color born shortly after the Civil War, who toured with minstrel players. I wonder how talent and costuming had to navigate racist limits. Could playing an animal ever conceal skin color? Did animal impersonation (also done by white people) have the same stereotyping faced by POC actors like Stepin Fetchit until barriers came down?

Those stories come from Trav S.D., author of No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. It’s where to learn about Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Mae West (and I hope it covers The Three Stooges.)

There must be more animal impersonators to learn about. Another blog covered one named Albert Felino.

(Update): Arthur Hill, “the original Cowardly Lion”, has an entry on Trav’s blog too. Search turns up an interesting history article:

What could a furry do with some of this lost lore, like the idea of string-operated eyes, ears and parts? Drop a comment or tip if you see inspiration from it.

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