In the early 1920s, two daughters of Mr. and Mrs. James Apollinaris Skelley twirled onto the stage. Ann and Monica, the youngest of the Skelley family, delighted in dancing and performing for the local community. The Skelley family was not unaccustomed to finding members of their kin in the limelight. James Apollinaris, the chief electrician at the Rock Island Arsenal for 25 years, supported his children’s ambitions and artistic talents. One of his sons, Hal, performed in a Broadway show “Burlesque” with Barbara Stanwyck and starred in the movie version of “The Dance of Life.” He also traveled to Europe to pursue opportunities for his career. Hugh, another brother, was a well-known vaudeville performer and performed in a song-and-dance team with this wife, Emma Heit.
One of their first performances mentioned in Davenport newspapers was a prologue to “The Little Clown” in August of 1921. The Skelley girls performed this act with two other local girls and were not yet known by their moniker of “The Skelley Sisters.” Monica had a leading role as “Mary Miles Minter.”
The first week of 1922 Ann and Monica appeared in a prologue to Molly O at the Capital Theater. Molly O, a 1921 silent film featuring Mabel Normand, about a daughter of a working-class family who falls in love with an eligible bachelor. During his visit home before the show, Hal, their brother helped prepare them for the act. The young sisters were noted to be talented performers with “‘pep'” and natural talent for the stage even though they were still novices. They had flair for popular songs and dance like Hal.
Their propensity for dancing was highlighted again a few years later when they introduced a novel dance style known to be “the wildest of all modern dance.” This dance was known as The Charleston. The Skelley Sisters showcased this dance at the Fort Armstrong Theater in August of 1925. The Charleston was a sensation which swept across the stage and ballroom.
Throughout this time, the Skelley Sisters performed in New York at a two-day vaudeville showcase at Keith’s Palace Theater and multiple times on local stages. Their fame continued to be reported in Davenport newspapers.
The sisters continued to perform over the years adding to their repertoire. Dodie Lau Nieman joined her aunts’ song-and-dance team. Continuing in the family career, Monica Ann Smith and her sister, Mary Jean Woodward, performed as a reincarnation of their aunts as “The Skelly Sisters.” They performed throughout the Midwest.
The history of the Skelley Sisters lives on in the dance halls and theaters of the Quad Cities.
“Dancing Act to Feature at the Fort Armstrong.” Davenport Democrat and Leader, August 26, 1925.
“Skelly: Family carries on his show biz legacy.” Quad-City Times, September 5, 2000.
(posted by Kathryn)