Rumored Davenporter: Bert Leslie

There are several histories of Davenport in our collections, ranging from dry to folksy to not entirely reliable. Of these, Them were the Good old Days, written by William L. Purcell and published in 1922, is probably the most fun to read, though many of the author’s stories can’t be documented, and all the eyewitnesses are gone.

In a chapter titled ‘The Human Fly at the Burtis’, he explains how kids used to sneak in for a free show at the Burtis theater by climbing up the decorative brickwork to the balcony windows. “It got so Charlie Kindt hadta hire Jim Wafer . . . to mope around evenin’s to keep them boys from making the ascension.”

But nothing could keep those kids out, especially one ambitious boy named William Albert Johnston:

“But there was one small chap nobody could understand—little Billy Johnston. When hardly big enough to toddle, he was hobnobbin’ with actors . . . If a circus came to town, young Johnston was the first lad on the lot and the last to leave. He studied every street faker and marched with every band. Any kind of music sounded good to that youngster.

“One evenin’, when Murray and Mack played the Burtis, little Billy said to Charlie Murray, ‘Some day you’ll see my name on Broadway.’ Charlie laughed at the kid, and ast him what he could do to make Broadway. So little Billy did the song-and-dance, ‘Strollin’ Though the Park’—right back there on the old Burtis stage . . . little Billy told Murray again, when he was leavin’. ‘Some day you’ll see my name on Broadway.’”

According to Purcell, Little Billy started work with the Kickapoo medicine company in Tamaroa, Illinois, providing entertainment to get the audience to buy some patented snake oil tonic. He didn’t like the work and left for the theater world of Chicago. He changed his name to Bert Leslie and found fame playing a ‘tramp comedian’. His schtick was making up wise-cracking slang terms.

Is any of this true?

Well, in 1910, the New York Times interviewed a comedian named Bert Leslie, expressing surprise that someone who played the part of a disreputable, slang-slinging Bowry bum was so articulate. He was given credit for over 400 popular expressions like “Roll away and make a noise like a hoop” and “Sand the track, you’re slipping.” Mr. Leslie said that he had been a reporter at the Chicago Daily News, which at least places him in Chicago, although in a different profession that Purcell claimed—still, actors did have to eat.

Bert Leslie’s name was big on Broadway for many years. One of the production he supposedly starred in, ‘Town Topics,’ appears to give some credence to Purcell’s story: “The big scene in that show represented a rehearsal back on the old Burtis stage . . . with song and dance comedians in “Strollin’ Through the Park. It was a scream.” However, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (Bordman, 1978) says that Will Rogers provided the comedy for ‘Town Topics,’ which only lasted 9 weeks in 1915. It may be that Will Rogers trumped Bert Leslie for anyone but an old hometown pal.

Bert Leslie’s death was reported in the New York Times on October 16, 1933, but it was in no way a full obituary. His place of birth was not mentioned at all. 

So if anyone can tell us where Bert Leslie, famous comedic wordsmith of the early 20th century, was born—and under which name—please do.

We’d like to prove Mr. Purcell right.

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One Response to Rumored Davenporter: Bert Leslie

  1. Dan Herzog says:

    Bert Leslie was born William Albert Johnston in 1871 in Duboque, Iowa.

    This fact is revealed in a November 14th 1910 New York Times interview in which Bert tells the interviewer where he was born.

    In the 1880 census Bert is listed with his family in Drury, Rock Island, Illinois. This places Bert near Davenport and certainly leads credibility to this story.

    Bert is my Great Grandfather. He was my Father’s, Mother’s, Father.

    Please let me know if there is anything else I can do to help.

    Best regards,
    Dan Herzog

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