Tuesday, May 1, 2012

115th Anniversary of the Birth of Florence “Babe” Mary Egan, May 1, 1897

             Mary Florence Cecilia Egan, known as “Babe,” was born May 1, 1897 in Seattle, Washington, and died February, 1966, in San Gabriel, California. Her parents were John G. Egan (1857-1913), a newspaper reporter and editor, and his wife, Alice Cecelia Doran Egan (1857-1928).  Babe's family and professional connections, encouragement and support were crucial to her  success. Descendants of Irish-American pioneers and adventurers who settled the far western United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, Babe was infused with the “can do” American spirit. She moved to Hollywood in 1919 and worked on silent film sets, playing her violin to inspire the actors' performances.
            In 1924 she formed a band, Babe Egan and the Hollywood Redheads, which became one of the first all-female bands to hit the big time in the United States.  She was a charismatic, dynamic, determined, and talented musician and band leader, and had she been a man, she would be included in all history books about popular American music of the 1920s. But because of the discrimination faced by women  instrumentalists of her generation, Babe and her band are barely mentioned, even as a footnote in jazz history.  However, when one goes back to the periodicals of the 1920s and 30s, one discovers not only were they successful as a band on the vaudeville circuit, but they were among the most successful and financially rewarded musicians of their generation. Babe earned more than $50,000 a year in the late 1920s and was considered to be one of the highest paid women in vaudeville and her band inspired a generation of all-girl bands that followed, not to mention countless individual women to become instrumentalists. She earned and spent a fortune.

            These engaging "Queens of Syncopation" were adorned with rave reviews for their act, from the first engagement until the last: "This act has delightful smartness and dash;"  "A positive syncopated sensation!" "Nine sparkling live wires in a whirlwind of syncopated melody," "A whirlwind of rollicking mirth and rhythm," An Octette of Sunkist California beauties," "Red Hot Mama Stuff," "The Gaity Girls from the Golden West," "A riot of syncopation," "Not only red-headed, but red hot!" "A jazzy, snappy orchestra."

            Babe Egan and Her Hollywood Redheads was a novelty act that set off a craze for such all-girl groups. But it was more than a novelty act because of its high level of musicality and show business savvy. Their kind of performance was known as a "flash act" in vaudeville, because it included a couple of hot jazz numbers with women in glamorous clothes "to close the bill."  Babe's act featured music, with the 9 to 12 members of the band playing as many as 30 different instruments during a single show. The high-energy presentation included vocal numbers, solos, specialty dances, skits, all with a collegiate twist, sexy, yet proper enough for European royalty and for family entertainment in the heartland of America.

            I have written about Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads in my book, Peggy Gilbert and Her All-Girl Band (Scarecrow Press, 2008) and mention them in my documentary film (same title as the book) which will soon be released on DVD. Currently, I am writing Babe Egan’s biography, an amazing American story about a brilliant woman musician. Hard to believe that she was born 115 years ago—I live with her each and every day as I research and write her life story.  I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who has information on Babe and the band. I’m looking desperately for their Vitaphone discs and any other recordings.  [Photo caption: Babe Egan on the Million Dollar Pier, Atlantic City, New Jersey, June 1927.]


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