The following brief overview of Jess Dandy’s life and career leaves out many known aspects of both. Please contact me for more information and details. When I figure out how to share the hundreds of details I’ve learned, I’ll update this page.
Jesse Danzig was likely born in Rochester, NY, in 1871 and was the oldest of Abraham and Jennie Stern Danzig’s six children. Abraham emigrated from Prussia (now Germany) in 1851. He married the daughter of German immigrants in Hartford, CT, before moving to Rochester to open a store and start a family. The family moved to New York City by 1880 and to Tremont in the Bronx by 1890.
Several newspaper articles indicate that Jesse initially pursued a medical career and was a political campaigner, but he decided that he enjoyed making people laugh and took to the road as a comedian. While the details of Jesse's early years are not well documented, he likely began his vaudeville career in 1898 on either the steamship the Grand Republic or at the American Theatre Roof Garden. He adopted the stage name “Jess Dandy” (as in “just dandy”) and, by 1900, was an established vaudeville headliner.
Not only was Jess successful as a “Hebrew Impersonator”, he actually created a new style that was described in the NY Dramatic Mirror of July 7, 1900, as follows: Mr. Dandy ….made up his mind when he entered the ranks of the vaudevillians that he would present something entirely new. He decided to portray the eccentricities of the well-to-do Hebrew, the type that owns a fine wholesale business with the big store on Broadway. Illustrations of so many…East Side Jews had been seen on the vaudeville stage that Dandy’s portrayal of the [wealthy] Jew was instantly hailed…”
In March 1901, Jess took part in a “sick out” as vaudeville performers protested the power of vaudeville managers. The group organized under the name White Rats (rats=stars spelled backwards), and Jess was one of the members named in a news article that cited salaries – his being $200 a week.
The Boston Journal called him a Boston favorite on April 22, 1901, and said his act earned several encores. The Syracuse Post Standard of February 20, 1903, headlined their review, "Dandy Made a Hit at the Bastable." The review describes his act as consisting entirely of parodies, including "Rosey Where Is Our Mosey" and "Rip Van Winkle Was a Businessman." They note that his make-up and demeanor are novel and refreshing.
In July 1903, The Baltimore Herald reviewed Jess's vaudeville act and provided some insight into his act and his groundbreaking characterization.
"Jess Dandy, a Hebrew parodist [appearing in] Baltimore made the hit of the show at the Electric Park last night. Dandy differs from Hebrew comedians of the common or garden variety in two important particulars. In the first place he does nothing but sing and has no monologue of venerable jokes. And, in the second place, he portrays, not the type of Russian or ghetto Jew with whom all patrons of vaudeville are familiar, but the prosperous, well-dressed Hebrew of the commercial sort, with a loud waistcoat and diamonds. The picture is, of course, overdrawn and the whole thing is a burlesque, but Dandy's dialect and mannerisms are very clever copies and his success is deserved. His parodies, in the main, are funny, though one of those he sang last night was unnecessarily vulgar."
Jess remains notable for his Hebrew impersonations and is recognized for developing the new characterization in several histories of vaudeville.
As early as 1898, Jess wrote many songs that became popular. Sheet music from 1899 showcases his picture as the singer of a popular song written by others. He also took a break from vaudeville in 1900 to perform in a show at Koster and Bial’s in New York City entitled Around New York in Eighty Minutes.
The year 1903 was to be a turning point in Jess's career. A popular comic opera, The Prince of Pilsen, was touring the United States. It was in Chicago when the actor who had originated the part of Hans Wagner took a vacation. According to the Chicago Tribune, Jess filled in for him beginning on August 17, 1903. They describe Jess this way, "…vaudeville top liner who is considered one of the best German dialect comedians in vaudeville." Jess garnered excellent reviews and stayed in the role of Hans Wagner, off and on, for 15 years.
It was as Hans Wagner, the German-American brewer of Pilsner beer from Cincinnati who is mistaken for the Prince of Pilsen while in Nice, France, that Jess made famous the question the character asks repeatedly throughout the show, "Vas you effer in Zinzinnati?" Articles were written about him (and some by him) focusing on how he developed just the right way to roll the question off his tongue; how he worked out the scene where a drunk Hans played in a real fountain on stage; and how he obtained the old suits needed for the part. A series of cartoons of Jess as Hans were drawn and widely published. In short, he was now famous.
Jess performed many times on Broadway and took several plays from there on the "road." He originated characters in two musicals, Marcelle (1908) and The Neverhomes (1911). When Jess was signed to play Herman Dinglebender in The Neverhomes, the New York Review said, "Jess Dandy is one of the best known comedians on the American stage." Meanwhile, for a total of 15 years, he played Hans Wagner in The Prince of Pilsen 4,040 times and appeared in every city with a population of 15,000 or more. He then originated characters in three plays, Object Matrimony (1916), Success (1918), and Just Married (1921). In 1914, he was engaged to play in Auction Pinochle in Los Angeles. He also appeared in Friendly Enemies and The Grass Widow.
While he was in Los Angeles, Jess fell in with the Keystone studio crowd and appeared in 12 documented Keystone comedies with Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle. Of Jess’s films, one particularly showcases him and, for that reason, is of special interest. It is The Property Man. In it, Jess plays an egotistical vaudeville “strong man” and he is rather hard on the poor property man – Charlie Chaplin. In fact, he kicks Charlie’s behind. He also performs on stage as the strong man which shows him to be at home “on the boards”. The other film best showing Jess’s stage experience is The Masquerader, in which he again portrays a performer.
By 1915, Jess was back on the road in The Prince of Pilsen. In January 1916, he made his 4,000th appearance in the operetta while in Muskogee, OK. On February 26, 1916, Jess left the cast of The Prince of Pilsen for the last time. He was quoted as saying he would pursue business interests. However, he returned to the stage in a hit play, Object Matrimony, in September of the same year. In 1917, he reportedly bought the film rights to The Prince of Pilsen and planned to produce and star in it himself. However, he continued on the stage until his death during the run of Just Married in Boston on April 15, 1923.