“Child stars are an American tradition,” says professor and author John Hanners, “but no period surpasses the mid-1800s for the sheer number of children appearing in live theatrical events or the degree of seriousness with which they were taken.” Names from the past like Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Mickey Rooney and Marie Dressler remain familiar even today. Yet nearly a generation before, it was a child comedian, singer and dancer from Kalamazoo who won the hearts of audiences and performers alike. From the final decades of the nineteenth century into the midst of the “roaring twenties,” Grace Tyson was to become one of the most popular and respected worldwide stage and vaudeville stars of her time.
Herbert and Elizabeth Tyson
The Tyson family was deeply rooted in Kalamazoo County long before Grace Tyson was born. Herbert Tyson (born about 1812) and Elizabeth D. Tyson (born about 1813) maintained a farm in Climax (Pavilion Township, Kalamazoo County) where they raised their three children. By 1869, Herbert had become a butcher in Kalamazoo and was boarding at the City Hotel. The rest of the family later joined him, they found a home, and established a successful business.
By the mid 1880s, Herbert’s son, George W. Tyson (born February 1853), and his wife Helen (“Ella”) (born about 1857) had moved their family from the village of Scotts to Kalamazoo, where George carried on his father’s butchery trade. George and Ella raised six children; George, Jr. (born about 1877), Grace May (born February 1881), Lena B. (born November 1883), Pearl P. (born July 1886), Bijou E. (born March 1891) and Gretta B. (born October 1893).
Gracie May Tyson
Born in Scotts, Michigan, on 6 February 1881, Grace Tyson was the second child and the eldest daughter of George W. and Helen Tyson, and a cousin of Charles and Burton Fischer, leaders of Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra. Grace began performing at the age of five, and her talent was evident whenever she took part in the many local programs, concerts and recitals. She attended Lovell Street School, No. 3, in Kalamazoo, and by the age of nine had already become a seasoned entertainer. In April 1890, Grace and more than a hundred of her fellow classmates “pleased an immense gathering of people” as part of Mrs. Foster’s Kermiss, a Belgian festival held at the Academy of Music. With musical assistance from Chet Bronson and Deal Richards, “the tots both big and little were in their element” and the show was called “an immense success” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 April 1890).
“Mrs. Geo. Tyson and daughter, Grace, went to Three Rivers yesterday. Miss Grace appeared with Getter’s minstrels.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 May 1892
Grace was quickly becoming known for her singing abilities, her “very accomplished” piano skills, and for her commanding stage presence. By 1892, Grace was performing throughout West Michigan with Getter’s Mastodon Minstrels, a troupe made up of several noted local performers, including Frank Wilson, Ollie Stafford, Pierre Dodge, Frank Ryan, and Eddie Mayo. But it was eleven-year-old Gracie Tyson, “who captured the house with her sweet, graceful and winning stage manner, as well as with her solo ‘Sweet Apple Blossoms.’ She was loudly recalled” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 April 1892).
“That Charming Little Soubrette”
During the 1890s, Grace took part in many of the local benefit minstrel shows that were being staged by C. Z. Bronson, Sam Folz, the Elks organization, and others. Her “clever” performances of such songs as Won’t You Come Out and Play and Sweet Dreams of Love became featured concert attractions. Even at this early age, Grace excelled at making people laugh with her comedic wit and creative impersonations. During an Elks’ benefit minstrel show in February 1894, “that charming little soubrette, Miss Grace Tyson, rendered Georgia in a way that made the audience roar” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 6 February 1894).
Frank Tucker and his Big Stock Company
By the age of twelve, Grace had begun performing professionally with Frank Tucker’s repertory company, and was soon the star attraction. Tucker was a Kalamazoo native who managed a circuit of theaters throughout the Midwest and Canada. According to Ethel Tucker, who booked the talent for the company, they “practically ‘owned’ Michigan, Indiana, Ontario and Wisconsin” at the time, which prominently placed young Grace in front of large influential audiences.
By 1895, Grace was starring in a production of Mugg’s Landing, called the “Greatest Laughing Success of the Age.” She later played a role in George H. Emerick’s McNulty’s Visit, and toured with the Columbian Stock Company on the Mittenthal Brothers’ circuit.
Arthur J. McWatters
While on the road with the Columbian Stock Company, Tyson was paired with a young actor named Arthur J. McWatters, a native of Saginaw. Tyson and McWatters were a powerful act together on stage, and in the process, they developed a lifelong relationship off stage, as well.
From about 1896, McWatters, a former church organist, composed the music and lyrics for several songs, many of which were featured by McWatters and Tyson in their stage routines. Given the nature of their titles and lyrical content, one might imagine that a certain Miss Tyson could have been an inspiration for some of those songs.
Songs composed by Arthur J. McWatters
- The Girl Whom We All Admire (1896)
- Bess, My Bess (1896)
- The Society Belle (1897)
- Now You Think You’re Awful Smart (ca. 1897)
- Oh, Child of Mine (ca. 1897)
- You’re the Girl I Love (ca. 1898)
- We’ll Meet Again (ca. 1898)
- My Alabama Lady (Coon Song) (1898)
- Hearts or Diamonds (1899)
- Without Thee, Dear Heart (1900)
- Call Me Darling (1901)
- My Lily Queen (1901)
- Delilah Waltz (n.d.)
McWatters & Tyson
Soon, Tyson began playing soubrette roles with actor Oliver Doud Byron, “one of the leading actors of the closing quarter of the [19th] century” (New York Times, 23 October 1920). She played the lead juvenile in The Turn of the Tide, and also appeared in O’Hooligan’s Wedding and Finnegan’s Courtship. During the summer of 1897, Tyson and McWatters booked a successful four week run at fashionable Wenona Beach, a lakefront resort in Bay City, Michigan.
After appearing in a vaudeville sketch at Proctor’s 23rd Street Theatre in New York City in 1898, Tyson and McWatters formed a business partnership, the McWatters-Tyson Company, and began performing together as a singing and dancing act. The couple shared the stage with Kate Byron and Oliver Doud Byron in The Plunger, and during the summer of 1898, were one of the first acts booked by the Mittenthal Brothers at the new Lake View Park Casino in Kalamazoo. Appearing with the Columbian Stock Company, Tyson drew some of the largest crowds of the season with her “excellent coon song and cake walk.”
The Tyson Sisters
“The Tyson sisters did a cake-walk that was really quite clever.”
—Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 February 1900
But Grace wasn’t the only one in the Tyson family to develop a strong stage presence at an early age. Her sisters Lena and Pearl both commanded attention from local audiences with their clever singing and dancing routines. At the age of 15, Lena played a prominent role in the Maccabees’ Minstrel Show at Kalamazoo’s Grand Opera House in January 1899 with her “singing specialty.” Later in December, twelve-year-old Pearl Tyson put on an exhibition cakewalk in front of a crowd of more than five hundred during Herman Mittenthal’s celebrated cakewalk contest in Kalamazoo.
By 1901, Lena, Pearl and Grace were performing together professionally in Chicago with a popular production of Herrmann the Great. Nearly two decades later, Lena Tyson would return to Kalamazoo as an internationally famous stage personality for a series of shows at the Majestic Theater.
“A Children’s Cake Walk”
While spending time with her family during the early months of 1899, Grace was enlisted to direct “A Children’s Cake Walk” in Kalamazoo at the Turn Verein Hall. Relying on her “world of experience in arranging entertainments of this nature,” Grace “introduced her celebrated cake walk of different nations, which won for her an enviable reputation in the larger cities throughout the country.” The evening was to include “special entertainment and dance” with music “furnished by one of the leading orchestras of the city” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 2 February 1899).
McIntyre & Heath’s Comedians
Later in the spring, McWatters and Tyson joined Robert Fitzsimmons’ famous vaudeville company and began working with McIntyre & Heath’s Refined Vaudeville Company, regarded as one of the top blackface minstrel acts of all time. Their production of Scenes in a Dressing Room began to draw rave reviews, and it soon became McWatters and Tyson’s signature piece. The couple would perform the play countless times for years to come.
“Hearts or Diamonds”
Scenes in a Dressing Room became a tremendous hit in 1899, and McWatters and Tyson were well on their way to stardom. During the year, Arthur McWatters penned a song called Hearts or Diamonds for one of their stage productions. The lyrics tell of a card game, a simple metaphor for love’s triumph over material wealth. “Never were there diamonds brighter than those eyes of thine, my dear. Your heart has won my diamonds and my love I can’t deny.” Earlier in the year, it was reported that the eighteen-year-old Tyson had given Arthur McWatters a diamond as a gift.
“The Epitome of Vaudeville”
“Grace Tyson, the charming and dainty little comedienne of the McWatters-Tyson Company, is not only popular with the general public, but is especially well-liked by her fellow performers.”
—National Police Gazette, New York City, 3 October 1903
In January 1900, McWatters & Tyson were back on the road with McIntyre & Heath’s Comedians, billed as “the epitome of vaudeville.” The entourage appeared in Kalamazoo at the Academy of Music on Tuesday evening, the 9th of January. Of McWatters, one reporter commented, “he’s a nice boy and has a lovely, rollicking mate in Gracie. They did a sketch, which they are pleased to call ‘Scenes in a Dressing Room.’ It was full of ginger, rag-time music and fun and was applauded to the echo. Miss Tyson was most pleasing in her coon songs and the cakewalk she and McWatters did at the finale of the act was a winner. Friends of Miss Tyson presented her with a beautiful bouquet at the close of her specialty” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 10 January 1900).
In March, McWatters and Tyson were appearing nightly at the Schley Music Hall in New York with (future Academy Award winner) Marie Dressler and Richard Harlow (a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound female impersonator). By May, McWatters and Tyson were performing two shows a day on the famous Proctor circuit.
During the fall, McWatters & Tyson were the featured act in Gus Hill’s McFadden’s Rows of Flats. “Miss Tyson has been blessed with a charming personality in her work and shows great earnestness of purpose,” said the New York Clipper, “her cleverness and the equally capable efforts of Mr. McWatters having kept their act ‘Scenes in a Dressing Room’ prominently to the fore during several seasons” (New York Clipper, 7 September 1901).
A Return Appearance in Kalamazoo
Although she spent most of her time on the road, Tyson claimed Kalamazoo as her home until about 1901. During the summer that year, Grace made a return visit to Kalamazoo to visit friends and family, and to give one final round of her “specialties and coon songs” for her hometown fans at the Lake View Casino.
Shortly thereafter, McWatters and Tyson would leave to begin a tour of North America with Leon Herrmann’s Herrmann the Great. But when it was announced in the local papers that “Miss Grace Tyson of Kalamazoo” was in fact “in her private life Mrs. McWatters, her husband [being] well known in the vaudeville theatres of the country,” Tyson’s mother was not the least bit amused. The elder Mrs. Tyson issued an immediate response, stating that the report was false, and that Grace and Mr. McWatters were simply “team mates” and that her sisters, Lena and Pearl, were with Grace and “meeting with gratifying successes.” But as truth would have it, the couple were in fact married, though the exact date and location of the ceremony remains a mystery. Tyson would retain her stage name, “Miss Grace Tyson,” throughout her professional career.
“Miss Tyson puts a regular May Irwin ginger into her work.”
—Grand Rapids Press, 2 July 1906
McWatters and Tyson continued to hone their acting skills and the improvements did not go unnoticed. Even after several seasons of production, critics continued to rave about their work in Scenes in a Dressing Room.
Both were experts at emulating the characters they portrayed. McWatters had perfected the art of vocal impersonation while Tyson was being recognized for her “clever imitations, particularly Maria Dressler’s ‘Drunk Song’ and Eddie Gerard’s monkey act” (Syracuse Journal, 29 July 1905). “She has the faculty of contorting her countenance so as to be unrecognizable even to her own mother, but, unlike many of the grimacers, she does not sacrifice her daintiness” (The Evening World’s Home Magazine, 25 June 1903).
Despite her skyrocketing success, 1903 would hold a few unpleasant surprises for Grace and her family. In August, the Tyson sisters were called back to Kalamazoo after the surprise death of their father, George Tyson. Grace and her sisters returned to work immediately following the funeral, only to be informed a few weeks later of the death of their grandmother, Elizabeth Tyson. Many of her fellow performers sent gifts as a display of their support and admiration for the young actress.
Pride of the Prairie
In 1907, Grace took a break from vaudeville and played a role in “The Girl Rangers” in Chicago with Will Rogers. Rogers’ novel rope tricks were “in many instances wonderful,” while “Grace Tyson, whose bright personality is temporarily withdrawn from vaudeville, added much life to the performance, and her topical song was one or the big hits” (New York Daily Mirror, 14 September 1907).
“The past summer brought out some clever popular songs, but none to take the public fancy more than ‘Pride of the Prairie.’ It was heard in vaudeville, in illustrated songs at the moving picture shows; the bands took it up in the parks and passed it on to the orchestras on excursion boats. It is just the type of song that starts the gallery whistling.”
—Edison Phonograph Monthly, August 1908
A major break for Tyson came in 1910 when she was cast for a role in the Ziegfeld Follies. The fourth in Florenz Ziegfeld’s famous series of elaborate stage productions, The Follies of 1910 gave nearly ninety performances over a six month period at the Jardin de Paris, on top of the New York Theater. Tyson appeared in a skit called In the Music Publisher’s Office with Fannie Brice where her rendition of That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune (Mendelssohn Rag) by Irving Berlin won frequent encores, and helped elevate Tyson’ status as a performer to that of a true star.
“Eyes, Eyes, Eyes”
In 1908, Tyson starred in a burlesque called Mimic World in Philadelphia where she sang a song called Eyes, Eyes, Eyes. In fact, her own eyes, it seems, had become a popular attraction for the young actress. After her appearance in the Follies of 1910, Tyson caused a stir by taking out a $15,000 insurance policy on her eyes (more than $360,000 in today’s currency), a highly unusual move for its day. Tyson made it known that she regarded her eyes as her primary professional asset and felt she was right to value them accordingly. The policy ran for a year with an annual premium of $30.
“Miss Tyson’s eyes are certainly her fortune. They are capable of expressing all the emotions of which frail mortality is capable, overwhelming woe and uncontrollable mirth alternating with slightly any effort.”
—The News of the World (London), September 1913
Following the success of the Follies, McWatters and Tyson were billed as “that versatile team of entertainers,” and continued to headline some of the most prestigious performance venues in the country. With a new production that kept the couple on stage for more than 40 minutes (unusual for a variety show), they appeared at the Grand Opera House in Brooklyn, the Alhambra on Broadway, and a host of others.
During the opening of the Green Room Club at New York’s Broadway Theatre in March 1912, McWatters and Tyson shared the bill with some of the biggest names in the business, including Weber & Fields, Lew Dockstader, George M. Cohen and Louise LeBaron.
“Grace Tyson, who took the part formerly played by May Irwin, is a person of amazing energy. She went at least 60 horse-power from the time the curtain rose and looked crosseyed at least three times during the evening. It was rather interesting to speculate as to the means of finally stopping her when the curtain fell.”
—New York Sun, 26 May 1912
“Kalamazoo Vaudeville Artiste”
During what was perhaps the peak of the couple’s popularity, Colonel Butterfield attempted to book McWatters and Tyson for an extended appearance at Kalamazoo’s Majestic Theater in 1912, but his efforts were of no avail. Butterfield offered $2,000 plus expenses for a four week engagement, said to be the largest offer he had ever made for vaudeville in Michigan. The couple, however, was already earning in excess of $1,000 nightly (nearly $22,000 today). For obvious reasons, the Kalamazoo engagement never materialized.
McWatters and Tyson World Tour
During 1913 and 1914, Tyson and McWatters embarked on a grand tour of England and South Africa. While enroute to Europe, their ship encountered a severe storm that lasted several days. Naturally, some of the passengers became uneasy after being so tossed about. In their own inimitable style, McWatters and Tyson responded with an impromptu performance to help calm the storm-weary travelers. The couple sang nearly every song about the high seas they could think of, including Sailing (a Burton Fischer tune), Rocking in the Cradle of the Deep “and everything else along that line, except ‘Down in the Deep Let Me Sleep When I Die’”(!) (Kalamazoo Gazette-Telegraph, 14 October 1916). Upon their safe arrival in Liverpool, the passengers presented Tyson with a handsome gift as a token of their appreciation.
The couple made “a decided hit” (New York Clipper, 20 September 1913) at the London Opera House with their review called Come Over Here, then continued with an extended run of London’s music halls with a burlesque skit called The Thief.
1916 Revue of Revues
Following the tour abroad, the couple returned to the United States for a series of shows dubbed the Revue of Revues, which included a week-long stopover at Keith’s Empress Theatre in Grand Rapids. In December 1916, Arthur McWatters made a recording of My Old Chum by Sam Louis for Victor Records. Whether or not the recording was released commercially is unknown.
By the time of the Great War, the advent of motion pictures and the dawn of the Jazz Age ushered in new audiences and a new generation of performers. Although their popularity had clearly peaked, McWatters & Tyson continued to perform throughout the nineteen teens and into the 1920s. The couple performed “a medley of dances, chatter and travesty” (Grand Rapids Press, 14 October 1916) called Revue of Revues during the 1916-1917 season, and toured with a “Revised, Reincarnated, Refreshed and Refined Revue of 1919” entitled The Eyes of Vaudeville to conclude the decade.
And even as the popularity of vaudeville began to fade, the couple continued to attract enthusiastic audiences well into the 1920s with a series of shows called There is Nothing New Beneath the Sun. Four decades after she began entertaining, Tyson was still hailed as “one of the best mimics on the stage, possessing magnetism to a marked degree” (Fayetteville Bulletin, 4 May 1925).
Grace Tyson in Cinema
At the age of 50, Grace landed a starring role along with Al “Fuzzy” St. John and Aileen Cook in the 1931 film, Mlle. Irene the Great, directed by Eddie Cline (Keystone Kops, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton). In the film, “Joe” (St. John) hopes to marry “Kitty” (Cook) when he meets “Ma” (Tyson) and the rest of her family—a crazed group of circus performers, including a sword swallower, a fire eater, a bearded lady, and a group of acrobats. Mayhem ensues. A collection of fifteen publicity stills from this film are contained in the American Vaudeville Museum’s McWatters-Tyson Vaudeville Collection at the University of Arizona.
Grace worked in Hollywood for a number of years during the 1930s but the extent of her film appearances is uncertain. In 1936, she made an appearance with Maxine Stone and Jack Conway in Slum Fun (Lloyd French, dir.), but other possible roles (if any) are not known at this time.
After their 1916 Revue of Revues, McWatters and Tyson settled in the village of Freeport, Long Island, where the couple would remain residents for some 25 years. While working in Hollywood in 1939, Tyson suffered a stroke, from which she never fully recovered. After spending her final years confined to a convalescent home, Grace Tyson passed away on 20 October 1942 at the age of 61. She was survived by her husband, Arthur McWatters, and three sisters.
Related reading from Kalamazoo Public Library’s Local History essays.