Fortesque Pavillion

Fortesque Pavilion in ATLANTIC CITY

From Boy Juggler to Star Comedian
One Fun-Maker's Income, Beginning with Five Dollars a Week, Now Exceeds Five Thousand for the Same Period
By W. C. Fields
Theatre Magazine, October 1928

Reckoned in monetary terms, I was not a howling success at the beginning of my career. Obsessed with the idea of juggling every conceivable object as a lad, very early I became proficient at this art. In fact, I felt sure I was as good as any of the jugglers I saw in shows around Philadelphia, where I spent my childhood.
So, armed with a lot of nerve, equipped with a lot of juggling practice, I sauntered forth in the world at the age of eleven years to dazzle the amusement seeking public with feats of juggling. I got a engagement at a summer park, through a booking-agent. I'll never forget the name. It was Flynn & Grant's Park, at Norristown, and it was a twenty-five-cent trolley ride from Philadelphia. I was to receive five dollars a week.
I got five dollars, but I had to pay a dollar and a half commission to the booking-office, and it cost me over four dollars to ride back and forth to the park. I was rooming in a club over a blacksmith shop and foolishly came into Philadelphia every night to sleep in my old haunt. As a kid I could not reason out that I might have found some place to sleep in the Park. I just got used to sleeping in the shop, and naturally thought I must come back to my room.
I heard there was a demand for talent in Atlantic City, and I went down to that summer resort. I was engaged at the
Fortesque Pavilion. Frank Tinney was playing a cornet in the place. They had a stage - the old-timers will recall it. You could get a big glass of beer for a nickel, and sit and watch the show while you quaffed your beer. Of course, a few people ordered more expensive drinks, but there were times when it was difficult to keep the pavilion filled. The things we did there were quite laughable as I look back on them.
A favorite way to fill up the place was to work a fake rescue. One of the performers would go out into the surf, pretend to be caught in an undertow and shout for help. We would all be ready, rush in the water and drag the rescued person into the pavilion. Naturally the crowd followed, and if it was a woman we rescued the crowd was particularly large. Once inside the bought drinks and we were supposed to be entertaining enough to keep them there. It was a great racket and we got plenty of fun out of it. I received ten dollars and cakes. "Cakes" was an expression of the olden days for eats. We had the privilege of ordering what we wanted to eat several times a day. So that was a little better.
The first time I got away from juggling was in a burlesque show. It was a one-night-stand affair, owned by a man named Jim Fulton. All that bothered Jim was that every time he interested an "angel" in the show to pay the bills, the angel got stuck on his wife. He said it seemed odd that with twenty other girls in the show every backer that came along couldn't find somebody else but Mrs. Fulton to be smitten with. I juggled, played a dozen bits, and got a chance to develop a line of humor. Here was another step upward. I got twenty-five dollars a week, but it was rather precarious, and some weeks we did not get salaries.
[Fields' description of a series of jobs at ever increasing salaries omitted]

Of course, I could not escape the motion pictures, and here again was a multiplication of salary. I can not and do not expect the legitimate producers to compete in salary with the pictures. But I must say that when I started out in Flynn & Grant's park at five dollars a week that even my boyish imagination never conceived a salary of more than five thousand dollars a week, for any time in my life. Earl Carroll has seen fit to outbid several other producers to that figure for my newly "discovered" voice, so here I am among the Vanities beauties, my income multiplied exactly one thousand and forty times since I juggled Indian clubs and rubber balls in the open air for five berries a week, three shows a day, seven days to the week.
I like to look back over the good old days. They were all happy because they were full of promise. But you cannot blame me if I do not sigh for their return.


He was born William Claude Dukenfield on January 29, 1880 in Darby, a town just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. April 10, 1880 and February 9, 1879 have also been slated as his birthday, and although incorrect, Fields himself never bothered to set the record straight. Why should he? The extra "natal days" provided him with two more opportunities to receive celebratory gifts of assorted beverages. Multiple birthdays would be just a sample of the many myths and legends surrounding "The Great Man," W.C. Fields. But once you sweep the tall tales away, what remains is incredible: he succeeded in seven separate careers that demanded seven separate talents.
Ah yes, the tale tales! As W.C. Fields' grandson, author, producer, and film historian Ronald J. Fields, jokingly notes, "The most difficult part of researching W.C. Fields' life was to separate fact from fiction. Not only did many Hollywood writers build legends around him, but W.C. was the biggest legend producer of all of them." Or as W.C. Fields himself said, "Why tell the truth, when with a little embellishment you can bring fun and laughter to interviews." Film publicists found him to be a dream to work with, because unlike other stars, he didn't care what the Publicity Department wrote about him, just as long as it was in keeping with his mythic image. Fields himself engineered the publicity when he admitted to a reporter, "I wanted to be a definite personality."
The oldest of five children, he was born in a hotel room appropriately situated just above the bar that his father managed. His parents were James and Kate (Felton) Dukenfield. His father immigrated from England at the age of 13 and talked with a pronounced midlands accent (which was a source of amusement to James' wife, Kate, and their young son, both of whom imitated James' accent for laughs). After the birth of their son, Kate insisted that James quit managing the bar (and quit drinking as well) in order to provide a more appropriate atmosphere in which to raise children. James obeyed his wife and became a huckster selling fruits and vegetables from a cart he pulled through the streets of Philadelphia.
Known as Claude to his family and friends, he had inherited his father's blond hair and thus sported the nickname "Whitey," but he resembled his mother the most and he also shared his mother's marvelous sense of humor. She was known for her caustic quips and mumbling commentary, much of which Fields' adopted later in his life and preserved in his films. When the boy turned eight years old, his father insisted that he quit school in order to help him on his huckster route. The work meant rising before dawn so the boy spent most his afternoons trying to find a profession that would allow him to sleep late. Eventually, he began to sneak into Vaudeville houses and gained a fascination for jugglers, and an appreciation for their business hours. These two bits of fact helped to build the many legends as to how Fields learned to juggle. One story goes that Fields taught himself to juggle by tossing the fruit from his father's cart, and that early misses created swift discipline. Another story, as later handed down by Fields' son, W.C. Fields, Jr., claimed that when Claude was around fourteen years old, he used to break into the Keith Vaudeville theatre to watch the show. After he saw a performance of the juggling Burns Brothers, he was inspired to become a juggler. As the story goes, while walking home from the performance he saw some apples on the ground under an old apple tree. He picked up three of them started to juggle. He quickly found that he had, as Fields described it, "a fatal facility for juggling." From then on he juggled anything he could find. His father loved cigars and stored the empty boxes in the barn. With those in hand the young lad invented the three-cigar box trick (which jugglers still use today). He also developed an amazing routine, which included juggling twelve cigar boxes at once. Within three years from this modest beginning of juggling tennis balls, apples, stones and cigar boxes, Whitey put together a vaudeville juggling act that brought him considerable recognition in the Philadelphia area. He eventually added whiskbrooms, knives, horseshoes, and lit cigars to his routine. At the age of 17, he was working church bazaars and school circuses in his neighborhood. During the summer of 1897, he worked at Flynn & Grant's Park at Norristown, Pennsylvania. The job paid $5 per week, and stands as his first employment as an entertainer. In 1898, a scout from Atlantic City's boardwalk saw Fields perform and offered him a contract to play at a beer hall in Atlantic City
Fortesque's Pier Pavilion, which also had a stage. Thus, at eighteen years of age Fields signed his first professional contract, and began his first career.
"Legend!" records that at the age of eleven or so, the young boy had a violent row with his strict father and hit the streets never to see his family again. W.C. himself loved to propagate this tall tale. But in a 1970's interview by Ronald J. Fields with W.C.'s sister, Adele, the truth finally reached the light of day. Adele remembered clearly that when the Atlantic City deal came down she and her mother actually walked "Claude" to the train station. Adele added that her brother did have a rebellious nature and occasionally would spend a couple nights at a time away from home, usually at his grandmother's, but he always returned home, until he left for vaudeville to begin his professional career in June of 1898.
When William Claude Dukenfield arrived at
Fortesque's Pier Pavilion, he realized that his name would not fit on the marquee. So with the help of Fortesque's manager, "William Claude Dukenfield, Juggler Extraordinaire" became "W.C. Fields: Tramp Juggler." Fields donned the tramp motif, which included dark greasepaint, a fake beard, and tattered clothes, primarily because he couldn't afford a fancy costume. Furthermore, with part of his pay based on the size of his audience Fields became a "professional drowner." In a three-man cabal with the theatre manager and an Atlantic City beach lifeguard, W.C. would inconspicuously wade out into the ocean and after a time he would pretend to drown with the appropriate flailing and screaming. Invariably, a large crowd would gather as the lifeguard dove into action. After towing the supposedly unconscious Fields to land, the lifeguard would then carry the 5'8" 125 pound lad to the pavilion and through the turnstiles as a crowd of shocked and curious onlookers paid the waiting theatre manager an entrance fee just to see if the "victim" would recover. Undoubtedly, dealing with this seamy side of Atlantic City inspired the older W.C. to create his patented roguish characters of theatre and circus managers made famous in his film career. As the New York Times would later report: "In the closing days of the 19th century, William Claude Dukenfield of Philadelphia created in his own image and likeness a fictitious character named W.C. Fields to represent him on the stage."
Atlantic City turned out to be a short visit. Sometime near the end of the summer of '98 a scout from a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Irwin Burlesquers, caught Fields' act and signed him to a tour. On his first night with the Burlesquers, he met a chorus girl named Hattie Hughes. They fell in love, and he made her a part of his act. She wore a tuxedo and tight satin pants, and played what they called then a straight man, or in this case woman.


Fields invented many funny names, both for his characters and for his own screenwriting credits:
… A. Pismo Clam Oliotha Shugg Countess de Pouisse
Sir Mortimer Fortescue Olga Limbo Egbert Souse …
Although he did not receive any awards in his lifetime, he did present his friend, Mack Sennett, with an honorary Oscar.
The Pennsylvania State Historical and Museum Commission erected a commemorative marker to Fields.