James and John Russell first began their careers as vaudeville comedians in 1876. Vaudeville was just then becoming the nation’s most popular form of light and comedic entertainment, especially for working-class audiences. A kind of variety show, it featured everything from jugglers, musicians, and acrobats, to singers, ribald comedians, and scantily clad women. Many of the great Irish American performers from the early 20th century, such as George M. Cohan, James Cagney, and Fred Allen, got their start in vaudeville.
One of the staples of vaudeville was ethnic humor which found its way into nearly every routine. Audiences of Irish, Germans, Jews and other ethnicities flocked to the performances, despite the fact that their ethnic group would invariably come in for ridicule and parody based on widely held stereotypes. For the Irish, it was the “stage Irishman” (a drunk, lazy, happy-go-lucky fool) and the hopeless Irish maid who invariably brought disaster to her employer’s home.
James and John Russell, descendants of Irish immigrants, tried all sorts of routines before finally settling on the one that made them famous: “The Irish Servant Girls.” Outfitted in proper servant girls’ dresses and made up to look the part, the Russell Brothers romp through one disaster after another (think Amelia Bedelia with whiskey). Their imbecilic characters whack each other with brooms, drink their employer’s booze, start fires, break fine china, mangle the English language, and inevitably end up in a tumble with dresses high overhead. John Russell, who played the more restrained of the two sisters, punctuated each disaster with “Oh, Maggie!” which soon became a popular expression.
Audiences loved it, including the working-class Irish Americans it parodied. Like a lot of ethnic humor, it appealed to those being parodied because the characters, despite their grotesque exaggerations, were so very recognizable. Irish American women dominated the field of domestic service in the nineteenth century and thus found enjoyable the humor based on it. A modern-day parallel is found in the 1980s stand-up routines of comedian Eddie Murphy which focused on themes of ghetto life, housing projects, deadbeat fathers, and welfare mothers.
But by the turn of the century the Russell Brothers discovered to their dismay that, in the words of historian Geraldine Maschio, “cultural and theatrical forces [had] conspired against them.” These “cultural forces” were those of a changing Irish American reality. By 1900 Irish Americans had, on average, higher incomes and levels of education than non-Irish Americans. While many were still undeniably working-class, a growing number were rapidly entering the middle class as white collar workers and professionals. These “lace curtain” Irish (as their working-class brethren derisively called them) sought not only the comforts of middle-class life, but also the respectability that went with it.
This quest led to a movement by Irish Americans to rid the stage of negative depictions of the Irish. At the forefront of the effort were two organizations, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (who were simultaneously engaged in an effort to discourage Irish Americans from boxing) and the United Irish Societies. Their efforts initially took the form of formal declarations of protest against specific offensive productions and encouraging Irish Americans to write letters to newspapers.
The Russell Brothers were in New York in January 1907 waiting to launch a tour for a new production The Hired Girl’s Millions. Eager to make some extra money before hitting the road, they agreed to appear as The Irish Servant Girls at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater. For a week it seemed like old times with packed houses roaring at the old routine. But all the while the United Irish Societies was planning an ethnic pride offensive. First, they threatened Hammerstein and other theaters with a boycott if they continued to feature the Russell Brothers routine. When that proved futile, they chose direct action.
On January 21 some 300 Irish men stormed Hammerstein’s theater in the middle of the Russell Brothers’ performance. They pummeled the actors with potatoes and rotten eggs while shouting, “Down with the Russell Brothers. They ridicule the honest, hardworking Irish Servant Girl.” The show was quickly cancelled.
The Russell Brothers soon moved on to different theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but each time met with protesters and missiles. On one occasion they spoke to the crowd, touting their Irish ancestry and reverence for their Irish heritage, but to no avail. They soon left town and when “The Hired Girl’s Millions” flopped, they left show business for good. The times had passed them by. The humor that made them famous was no longer funny – at least to upwardly mobile Irish Americans.