My friend, Wes Adams, played the last vaudeville circuit in the United States. When he died at the age of 79 in 1987, I inherited several drawers-full of old reviews, playbills, and photographs. I used to talk about donating the whole lot of it to the New York Library for the Performing Arts, but I think, even then, I knew there had to be a way to honor him that didn’t involve putting his remains in a museum archive, preserved but lost to sight. By the time Wes died in an apartment fire, he’d lost most of his contemporaries to time and death, he had only two blood relatives that I knew of, both of them remote, no children, and in fact, almost no one. He left no legacy, except what I could make of the smoky souvenirs I uncovered in his apartment. He’d told all of us anecdotes from his show career, but not enough to put the whole thing together.
Wes grew up Swedish American on Minnesota’s Iron Ridge, blond and reticent, but determined to go into show business. Since he was handsome and well-spoken he found himself at the age of 20 in Coffee-Miller Players, a troupe that toured the middle U.S., performing mostly in theater space in high schools and colleges. He was very young, ambitious, and impatient. So it wasn’t surprising that he quit after a few seasons and, on September 13, 1929, arrived in New York City. At 18 Charles Street in the Village. Not that far from where he was to die 59 years later.
“Becoming worried about eating. Little money left,” he wrote in his diary. He may have worried about food, but almost every night he went to another play, movie or concert. He was in training for the theater, I guess. Less than a month later he found a job with Arthur Murray. This was before the man had a chain of studios and appeared on TV every week. Murray became a good friend, and one of the first of many names Wes dropped over the years. But there were many more he never did.
Even though it was 1929, the stock market crashed and not everyone could afford to learn to dance, the Arthur Murray gig turned out to be one of the most important in his life because he met Lisa there, and in time the two of them became a dancing duo. They eventually called themselves Wes Adams and Lisa and they began to get jobs in hotel ballrooms, at weddings…. those kinds of jobs. It was the beginning of their kind of ballroom dancing, one that was also theater. One of their most popular acts, especially among the jet set in Europe, was about the Duke of Windsor and his American wife, apparently among Europe’s most famous boors.
Unfortunately, in 1930 Lisa’s wealthy parents decided to send her off on a European tour-but misfortune soon turned to fortune when Wes found another partner and became part of Doc Rockwell’s vaudeville company. In this instance, he couldn’t drop names: by the time, I knew him, no one knew anything about “Doc Rockwell – Quack, Quack, Quack” whose most famous comedy routine was one where he portrayed a doctor with a stethoscope holding a five-foot banana stalk. He was at the height of his career in the early 1930s, appearing at Radio City Music Hall and the Ziegfeld Theater, pulling down $3,500 a week in the middle of the depression. (He was also the father of American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell, an embarrassment since he numbered Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice and Jack Benny among his friends.) It was Doc Rockwell and vaudeville that turned Wes Adams and Lisa into a thriving dance act.
The decade of the thirties may have been hell for much of the country, but it was wonderful for the two dancers. A gig on a cruise took them to Cuba where they became famous in Havana society, and where they eventually had to flee one of the island nation’s many revolutions.
They traveled and performed in Alexandria (Egypt), Bucharest, Budapest, Paris, London, the French Riviera and Spain, until they had to flee the Spanish Civil War. They were the opening act for people like Marlene Dietrich. In 1939, they danced at the wedding of the Egyptian Princess Fawzia, King Farouk’s sister, to the Crown Prince of Iran, at the Abdine Palace in Cairo. (There’s old footage of the event-though not the entertainment-on YouTube.) They became friends with members of the Royal Ballet and Margot Fonteyn in London. (I have several of her Christmas cards.)
World War II ended the most wonderful decade of Wes’s life. The dancers returned to the U.S.; Lisa fell in love with a Canadian and joined the Canadian version of the WACs; Wes tried out other partners, but the act never caught fire again, even when Lisa’s marriage ended a few years later. Lisa and Wes remained close friends. Wes moved on; he got involved in making TV and motion picture documentaries. He moved to Christopher Street in New York. He continued to travel whenever he could.
When I first met Wes, he was freelancing for the National Council of Churches and had just returned from Senegal where he’d been the translator for the novelist and movie maker, Ousmane Sembene. He’d been practicing his French (and his Spanish) in his diaries for years, one reason parts of his career will always be a mystery to me.
Wes Adams was a kind gentle man when I met him, one who loved beauty and life. He wasn’t quite an artist anymore, but someone who, for a brief magical decade, lived the artist’s version of the proverbial “life of Riley.”