Mae West is well known as being one of America’s earliest and biggest Hollywood starlets. But the struggles of her early years trying to make it big in the Big Apple are less well known. Many of those took place in Greenwich Village, to which she often later returned as a star — willingly or not.
Mae West was born August 17th, 1893 in Brooklyn to a German immigrant family. She started winning talent shows at the age of five, leading her to professional vaudeville debut at the age of 14. West would spend her life on the stage and in film, constantly courting controversy and pushing boundaries.
Village Vaudeville and the Greenwich Village Theatre
Vaudeville is a genre of comedic theater that originated in France but became widely popular in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century. A vaudeville show typically involves a mixture of comedic acts or skits, accompanied by song and dance. West spent the majority of her younger years taking part in vaudeville productions in New York and beyond.
Mae West did not find much success as a leading vaudeville star – it was Nora Bayes, who was considered the hottest ticket on the vaudeville scene, who held the spotlight. However, an opportunity to perform at the avant-garde Greenwich Village Theatre heightened West’s hopes. The 500-seat theater was located across from Sheridan Square on the west side of Seventh Avenue South, between Christopher & West 4th Streets. Built by architect Herman Lee Meader for the Greenwich Village Players, the theater opened in 1917. It was made popular by producing the “Greenwich Village Follies,” a musical revue starring early drag performer Bert Savoy.
Edward Perkins, a playwright at the Greenwich Village Theatre, approached Mae West with a play written exclusively for her. West would play the enchantress Circe, a Broadway-inspired vampire, and other clown-like characters. It was called The Ginger Box Revue, and West signed on enthusiastically, hoping for her launch into stardom. The company tested the Revue in Connecticut, but received awful reviews. The Greenwich Village Theatre did have Mae West’s name in electric lights, but they never got the chance to be turned on.
After a brief 13-year lifespan, the Greenwich Village Theatre was demolished in 1930. The Great Depression was to blame for its demise.
Mae West: Playwright
Sick of traditional vaudeville and inadequate producers, West decided to create her own new material. Her goal: an exposé of the hypocrisy of society, which wouldn’t shy away from open expressions of sexuality. This work made her an early gay rights advocate. The actors’ unions of that time barred gay people from having speaking roles in plays. West did not care for the rules of society and would hold open casting calls in gay bars within Greenwich Village. Her play, The Drag, exposed the high level of oppression faced by the gay community in the 1920s. The play opened in Connecticut, with strongly positive reactions from the audience. Unfortunately, her play was not allowed to open on Broadway due to the censorship of those times.
West’s open yet vulgar style of comedy was ahead of its time and often landed her trouble. In 1926, West did make it to Broadway, starring in her play Sex, which told the story of a Montreal prostitute. West wrote, produced, directed, and filled the house nightly – with a name like Sex, of course, it also captured the attention of local authorities. The police raided the show, charging West with lewdness and corrupting the youth.
Mae West on Trial
West’s arrest brought her back to Greenwich Village, and generated great publicity for her show. She stood trial at Jefferson Market Courthouse, and on April 19th, 1927, was sentenced to ten days in the adjoining prison, which was soon thereafter replaced with the Women’s House of Detention, which was later demolished and is now the site of the Jefferson Market Garden.
The court offered to drop the charges if she would close the show, but West flatly refused on principle. Her entrepreneurial instincts led her in the right direction. In show business, any publicity is good publicity. During her stay in prison, she ruled the tabloids with her eccentric antics: arriving at the prison in a limousine, reporting from jail that she’d dined with the prison warden, and telling the press that she wore silk panties under her prison uniform. This was all marketing gold and helped launched her career into new heights.
Irreverent, and Famous For It
Mae West’s decision to part ways with the socially-acceptable styles of performance and comedy allowed her to reach success as one of the most famous stars in history. Her early work in creating her own spaces to practice comedic “freedom of speech” not only brought her huge success, but also helped pave the way for the sexual revolution. To this day, people still quote her “bad lady” lines and utilize her many original innuendos.
It’s no coincidence that she got her start at Village theaters. The Village was the birthplace of off-Broadway theater, producing shows that were deemed too edgy for mainstream society. Gay-friendly, women’s-empowerment, & independent messages were fostered by the counterculture environment welcomed within Village theatres. Other notable theatrical establishments that deserve to be mentioned are Caffe Cino and Cherry Lane Theatre. Both played important roles in fostering creativity and social activism.
Both the Greenwich Village Theatre and the Women’s House of Detention are no longer with us. Village Preservation works hard to preserve their memories, and protect many of our most cherished historic establishments. Click here to see our current campaigns and join in the fight to preserve the Village.