May Irwin was one of the most well-loved comediennes of her time. A vivacious woman with a jocular disposition, Irwin made a name for herself acting in burlesques, musical revues and straight plays on Broadway, often appearing in the role of a widow. She was particularly known for her performances of "coon songs", one of the era's most popular musical genres, which she sometimes interpolated into her plays. She is perhaps best remembered today for her participation in the first on-screen film kiss, in 1895.
She was born Ada May Campbell in 1862 in Whitby, Ontario, to parents Robert Campbell and May Draper. When she was 13 her father died, making it necessary for her to support herself financially. Instead of taking up a traditional trade, May, along with her sister, Flora (Flo Irwin), began performing at the Adelphi Variety Theatre in Buffalo, New York. She was soon spotted by impresario Tony Pastor and spent the six years from 1877 to 1883 under his management in New York City, appearing first at the Metropolitan Theater and then at Pastor's own theatre. It was at the latter that she was seen in the two burlesques The Pie-rats of Penn Yann and All of It.
In 1883, Irwin joined the stock company of Augustin Daly, with which she spent several seasons at Toole's Theatre in London, England. She returned to New York City for the 1891-92 season, appearing in the farce-comedy Boys and Girls. In 1893, she performed as Ophelia in a burlesque of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan, joining several other actors playing roles imported from Hamlet. In the same year, in A Country Sport, she did a dance number with wire dummies.
Her first starring role came in 1895, in a show created for her by J. J. McNally, called The Widow Jones -- a farce in which a young woman, Beatrice Byke, played by Irwin, attempts to evade unwelcome suitors by posing as the widow of a man who turns out not to be dead. It was in this production that Irwin introduced one of her most popular songs: Charles E. Trevathan's "The Bully Song", a "coon song" typical of its genre. Her performance in The Widow Jones prompted one critic to write: "Elevation to stardom has not changed her in any respect. She is as round, as blond, as innocent looking … and as blue-eyed as ever".
In one scene of the play, Irwin and her co-star, John C. Rice, kissed each other. Re-enacting the scene for a camera, Irwin and Rice became the first couple to kiss on film. Many were scandalized by the kiss, including one clergy member who denounced the film as "a lyric of the stockyards", and critic Herbert Stone who complained "neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other's lips was hard to beat when only life size. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over is absolutely disgusting." (View the May Irwin Kiss on YouTube).
Irwin went on to star in many other plays, like Courted into Court (1896), being described as "the blond personification of good humor", and Belle of Bridgeport (1900), in which "when she wasn't singing or propelling the plot, Miss Irwin talked with audiences about trout-fishing and department store methods". She continued to perform on Broadway until her last appearance in the musical revue The 49ers (1922).
She was happily married to a man named Kurt Eisfeldt, and had two sons. She summered on an island that she owned in the St. Lawrence, and was known to vacation in southern Florida. She managed her money well and in later years, was a millionaire. She recorded several of her popular comedic songs for Berliner/Victor, including "Mat-ri-mony" [MP3 1,337 KB]. A discography can be found in Roll Back the Years.
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