By Chet Williamson
Though mainly known as vaudevillian performer, Danny Duggan’s activity as a theatrical booking agent in Worcester, accords him recognition in the local jazz world.
His career reaches back to the nineteen teens and early twenties, when he was booked as “winner of over 100 dance contests.”
He was a member of the internationally renowned Benjamin Franklin Keith Vaudeville stable. Duggan barnstormed the country as a soloist, as well as working with partners, and as a cast member.
According to Sheila Weller, author of Dancing at Ciro's: A Family's Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip, Vaudeville’s reigning impresario was Keith, who owned three theaters in Brooklyn, NY alone. “The most popular acts appeared at B.F. Keith’s stages: the Avon Comedy Four, Julian Eltinge, Blackstone the Magician, and such soon-to-be stars as child actress Helen Hayes and the teenaged Jimmy Durante, who Duggan would later book into Worcester.
Here’s a typical item of the day: Reading Eagle, Reading, Pennsylvania. October 18, 1924. “Danny Duggan, dancer deluxe and his company, feature entertainer on the Keith bill at Rajah Theatre, will appear again today and tonight, at four shows, 2:30, 6:30, 8 and 9:30. With him are Ann Aker, dancer and Freddie Sanborn, six-hammer xylophone king.”
Evidently, Duggan was also quite the talent scout. Sanborn, would later become a star attraction on the vaudeville circuit himself. In addition to being an accomplished musician, he was a comedic actor. His most notable association was as a member of Ted Healy’s Southern Gentlemen, a cast of characters that included Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges fame. They appeared together in the 1930 film, Soup to Nuts.
With Duggan, Sanborn was a fresh-faced kid, when not working with Bert Loew’s Boston Orchestra, accompanied the hoofer went through his paces on such popular dances of the day – the slow step, the horse trot, the turkey trot, the chicken scratch, the duck waddle and kangaroo hop, among many others.
Keith booked Duggan in his Vaudeville theaters from New York City to Galveston, Texas, from Wilmington Delaware to Chicago, Illinois. Here’s another publicity notice. This one is from the Sunday Morning Star, Wilmington, Delaware. September 28, 1924. “Excellence alike in vaudeville and motion picture argues well for the popularity of the bill that comes to the Aldine Theatre the first three days of the week. Danny Duggan, an exhibition dancer, who grace and skill have won him over one hundred tournaments of dancing, is headliner for the vaudeville. Duggan is young, graceful and artful. His company is of an expert young woman dancer and a xylophonist.”
|Anna Pierce and Danny Duggan|
Some of Danny, the dancer’s many partners included Ann Aker, Doris Mary Kelly, and Anna Pierce. The later, was a former bank clerk, whom Duggan discovered. In an article that ran in the January 30, 1926 edition of Worcester Evening Gazette, it was stated that Pierce was a graduate of South High School and was employed by the Worcester Five Cent Savings Bank.
The article read: “From bank clerk to vaudeville star is the picturesque career of Miss Anna Pierce, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. B. H. Pierce of 32 Montague Street, who is appearing at Poli’s Theater, the latter half of this week, and the dancing partner of Danny Duggan, well-known vaudeville star, in whose honor the Worcester Lodge of Elks, of which he is a prominent member, are holding a reception in the Elks’ home following tonight’s performances.
“With Danny, Miss Pierce and Freddie Sanborn, a xylophonist, formerly of Bert Loew’s Orchestra of Boston, have been headlining Keith Vaudeville bill throughout the country, have been scoring decided hits on every bill. Danny is one of the best known members of the Worcester Lodge of Elks, and his brother members will honor him by attending tonight’s performances in a body. A section has been reserved at the theater for the Elks and their lady friends. The reception at the Elks’ home will follow, where the Arcadian Orchestra will furnish music for dancing. Danny and his partners, Miss Pierce and Mr. Sandborn, together with folk of the present Poli bill will be guests of honor.”
Duggan was not only a contest winner, he was also a judge. In a March 25, 1926 Reading Eagle article, it was mentioned that Duggan presided over such a competition: “Rajah will stage exhibition Charleston dancers for local steppers, with the championship of Reading at stake, on the stage tonight and Friday night, between regular shows. Valuable prizes, loving cups, medals and theatre tickets, will be award the winners. Any youth or girl wishing to enter can register at the Rajah box office. Danny Duggan, professional, will conduct the contests for local dancers. A large number of contestants is in sight.”
After more than two decades of travel, Duggan settled in Worcester and managed his own theatrical booking agency. He also operated his own dance hall at White City Amusement Park, which was not only a popular venue for dancers, but for musicians as well.
In his book, Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz, Robert Dupuis mentions a 1937 Metronome article that announced that Bunny Berigan and his band would be returning to Danny Duggan’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, because “it had made such a marvelous impression at the second-floor dance hall during an earlier appearance.”
According to local writer Michael Perna, the dance hall at the White City Amusement Park was advertised as being able to accommodate 1,000 people on the dance floor. “In reality, that was probably exaggerated, although it was still an impressive facility,” Perna wrote. “The dance hall was very popular throughout the many years the White City Amusement Park was in operation.
It did change names, being known at one point as Danny Duggan’s Deck and at another time as the Spanish Villa. It was well known as a home to dance marathons, when those were the rage. Many area couples met and danced the night away at the White City Amusement Park dance hall.”
A partial list of national name acts to play for local dancers include Glenn Miller, Tommy Reynolds, Jimmy Dorsey, Mal Hallett, Chick Webb with Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.
Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s, and into the ‘50s, Duggan continued to produce shows at other venues as well, the Worcester Memorial Auditorium, at Lake Quinsigamond, and his own ballroom at Main and Chatham Streets.
As a working dancer for the bulk of his career, Duggan appeared locally at such venues as the Colonial Room in the Hotel Bancroft at 50 Franklin Street. He also taught dance in city his own ballroom at Main and Chatham Streets. The late ‘50s into the early ‘60s, found presenting shows and dance contests at local nightclubs such as the Moors.
At one point in his career, he booked acts out of his home at 27 William Street. One of his advertisements read: “It costs no more to do business thru Danny Duggan when in the market for a good orchestra; specializing in floor shows at local lodges, banquets, conventions, and kiddie parties. Organists, pianists, accordionists, readers, etc. Let us help plan your party.”
Throughout his career, Duggan also staged countless benefits for charities. He was born on March 11, 1894. He died on October 2, 1963.
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