by Phil Posner
Mickey Lewis and Jimmy Winthrop
My father's brief career in show business was a time in his life that he treasured. You could tell when he talked about it, that for those few years he was a remarkable person. To us, his family, he always was. I was aware from an early age that Mickey, as everyone called him, was special to his brothers and sisters and others in the family. At family functions early in my youth, he was always asked to dance a bit during the festivities. He was always graceful, would start out with a time step or a waltz clog, and always ended up knocking himself out by trying one of the more difficult and dangerous steps, and inevitably doing that rubber-legged comic collapse when he needed to stop. Then I'd hear someone say to someone else or to me, "He was in show business". I didn't quite understand what that meant, but got inklings when he talked about people who would occasionally pop up on early TV shows as if he knew them. Also, for some reason, some of our neighbors in the early 50's were actors, most notably Paul Newman and TV personalities like Lenka Peterson and June Graham. It seemed these people gravitated to my Dad, although he would have been quite a bit older than they were.
Later, when I was more knowledgeable about show business myself, having developed into an avid TV watcher and movie goer, I would ask him about his experiences and he would relate a story or two or sort of a general overview of what it was like. It seemed to me the most romantic life one could have, travelling continually, seeing new places, performing for thousands of people, making what was in those days very good money. He did say they had to do 4 or 5 shows a day most times, and had to work for weeks rehearsing a routine. He said that he had to wear long underwear on stage so as not to ruin his fancy stage clothes: he'd be drenched in perspiration after every show, which lasted generally 4 to 5 minutes. These difficulties barely registered, and I dreamed of a similar life.
Michael Posnansky was born in London, England, immigrating with his Polish mother and three older brothers as a baby. They were following his father to New York after he had established himself there as a tailor. He started dancing in around 1919, at age 15 in New York City at the Yorkville YMHA. Yorkville, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan, also spawned other performers such as James Cagney and the Marx Brothers. There he met and befriended future manager, producer and writer, Ernie Glucksman and Danny Lewis who later became Jerry Lewis's manager and father, respectively.
Early Publicity Photo - Mickey Lewis
He met his dancing partner, Jimmy Winthrop (whose real name was Morris Weintraub) in 1925 in Miami, Florida. Dad drove down there with his older brother Murray, who was looking for work as an electrician. Winthrop was born around 1896. As a soldier in World War I , he was wounded and gassed. In his early show business career he had appeared in minstrel shows and did a single dance act. Dad met Jimmy Winthrop at the Coral Gables Country Club. Winthrop, doing his single act, spotted Dad at the back of the club dancing along. He came up to Dad after his act and they introduced themselves, and he asked Mickey if he wanted to dance professionally. They got an act together in two to three weeks, with Winthrop teaching Dad the act, and got booked at other Miami hotels: The Venetian Pool (appearing with Bandleader Jan Garber), the Roney Plaza Hotel, the Nautilus, and the Flamingo. They did a challenge dance act lasting four to five minutes, two to three shows a day.
The Venetian Pool, Miami Beach
After the "season", Dad went back to Edgemere, N.Y., where his parents lived, and helped out in his father's store. Winthrop showed up some weeks later filthy, unshaven, in tatters and hungry. He stayed at Dad's house while they got an act together and went to booking agent Folly Marcus (possibly sent by Glucksman) who ran a small east coast circuit. He booked them in 2 or 3 theatres before suggesting they get a girl in the act. They found Dorothy Barnett and formed an act called, "On Tour". The partners owned the routine, backdrop, and props. With Barnett they did comedy as well as dance and song. Marcus booked them on his New England circuit.
Dorothy Barnett and Mickey Lewis
Soon they moved up to the Loew's circuit as a duo, appearing on the Loew's Bathing Beauties Shows, a competitor of the George White Scandals.
They then signed with New York agent M.S. Bentham. It was a five year contract starting in 1926. They performed in clubs and restaurants such as the Cotton Club, and at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. By this time they were getting $275 a week for the duo, which was pretty good money in the 20s. Bentham then put them on the RKO (East)/Orpheum (West) circuit. This was a huge nationwide circuit that included all of the RKO and Orpheum theatres. While playing in Atlantic City, he met George Jessel and had dinner at his mother's house. Dad also met Ray Bolger on the boardwalk there and Bolger drove them back to Broadway They played the pinnacle for all vaudevillians, The Palace in Manhattan and Brooklyn, impressive for relative newcomers. They toured all the RKO theatres, and at the RKO Boston appeared with Paul Whiteman and the Rhythm Boys, including a young Bing Crosby. Dad said he tried to talk to Crosby, but he was standoffish, aloof.
They did the "Orpheum time" out west during 1928 and 1929, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg. The duo then returned to New York where Bentham put them on the "interstate time" in 1930. This included the whole east coast, as far south as Miami. Towards the end of 1930, Bentham told them to get a girl in the act for touring to England on the British Beaumont circuit. They found Beth White at a dancing school, and the act became Lewis, Winthrop and White. Before leaving, the trio played the Hippodrome in New York City with Cab Calloway. They toured around England, including the Hippodrome in Birmingham during the week of Nov 24, 1930. The program for that week is reproduced below. As can be seen, they were the only act to appear twice in the show. Others on the bill with them were English music hall legend Wee Georgie Wood and Gene Sheldon, who later would play Bernardo in the Disney TV series, ZORRO. They then travelled to France, leaving England on December 5, 1930, where they toured until Christmas.
Lewis, Winthrop and White
Lewis and Winthrop returned to New York to no work, as vaudeville had died, being supplanted in public popularity by talking films and more importantly, radio. They had received an offer from a film studio, probably during 1930, but they were still signed with Bentham who refused to let them out of their contract. After that, Dad tried to stay in the business, working at various resorts such as Grossman's in Lakewood, N.J. and at Sharon Springs, N.Y and the Edgemere Hotel in N.Y. as a bellhop/entertainer/social director.
But by that time there was little work to be had, so Dad was forced, as so many vaudevillians were, to leave the business. He joined his father in business at that point and later did factory work, before being drafted into the army at age 39. After his release he married my mother and they opened their own Stationery/Confectionary store in New Jersey, where we were living when I was born. He later went into partnership with his brother in a similar business in Queens, N.Y. where he worked until his retirement to Florida in 1972. Dad passed away in 1996 at age 92. He always had fond recollections of his time in show business and could still dance gracefully, albeit briefly, into his 90s.
So there you have the story of an erstwhile vaudevillian who was always a star to us.
Advertisement for Lewis and Winthrop in the 1928 edition of the
National Vaudeville Artist's Yearbook . Cover is below.
Review of Lewis and Winthrop's appearance at The Palace, N.Y.C.
Hippodrome Program for the week of November 24, 1930.
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