My husband and I have talked a lot about how his mother and aunt supported their own mother when they were girls. By the time Helen’s father died in 1925, Helen was forced by circumstances to become a professional dancer. She would have followed that path anyway, but had to make the decision sooner than any of them expected. The fatherless little family desperately needed the income and the mother didn’t work outside the home.
The City of New York enforced what were called the “Gerry Laws,” age restrictions for children in show business. The minimum age for child performers was set at 16, though Helen danced plenty before legally permissable. With the right application of make-up and her mother along at auditions, confirming the girl was of age, she landed two contracts still closer to 14 years-old than 16. Helen did a little modeling for romance magazines, too, costumed in lingerie more suitable for a 20 year old.
It felt easy to judge her mother for exploiting Helen’s talent for her own financial benefit. But after more research for the book, River of January, I found the practice of pushing children on to the stage was more common and egregious than anything concocted by Helen’s mother.
Many small children acts crossed the vaudeville stage. These precocious kids forfeited an ordinary childhood to support their ambitious parents. Some of the more famous child acts included Sammy Davis Jr, “Baby” June Havoc from Gypsy fame, Bobby Short, and “Baby” Rose Marie. These children were no more than preschoolers and unable to say no, or make any of their own decisions. And the laws were on the books in most cities to protect children from these exploitative adults.
For the parents of these children violations meant jail time, if they were caught. And mothers or fathers spent as much effort dodging law enforcement as they did in promoting their little ones’ careers.
I started out this piece to honor those champions of child welfare. I believed these reformers battled for vulnerable children, who had no one looking out for their best interests. Then it hit me that other small children at the exact same time were more brutalized in other sectors of the economy. These same “Gerry Laws” did nothing to spare those little kids from the hazardous mines and mills of America.
I’ve decided that these “do-gooders” chose to target theaters because the stage was so visible. While these so-called reformers made names for themselves crusading in the theater district, other children faced greater threats laboring as virtual slaves. Young children suffered perilous dangers, becoming victims of accidents, crushed below ground in coal mines, or mangled in the machinery of filthy factories. Those abuses were committed out of the public eye.
The city fathers looked quite virtuous to the public, as did the police in ferreting out vaudeville’s exploitation of young children. Bad, self-serving parents either paid big fines, or served time, satisfying the community’s outrage.
It may appear at first glance that Helen was misused by her widowed mother by going to work so young. But in comparison to say, 4-year-old Baby Rose Marie, or the multitudes of tiny children facing 60-hour weeks in textile mills, Helen’s experience was more a joy than a sacrifice for her family.