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Local Legends | Peter F. Dailey

Peter F. Dailey (Library of Congress)Courtesy of The Library of Congress A 19th century poster of Peter F. Dailey.

On the East River at 12th Street, where today we find a promenade, there used to be piers where steamships would dock. It was there that a mischievous kid from the East Village hung out and took in the colorful banter of the minstrels and stevedores. From them, Peter F. Dailey learned all the twists that make this life funny.

They became part of his style, and by the 1890s Pete Dailey was a music hall sensation like none before. He practically invented improvisational comedy, using miscues and accidents to pull unscripted gags. For instance, one night the lights went out in the crowded theater. The audience spooked. But Mr. Dailey averted a panic by appearing onstage with a brakeman’s lantern as if it were a train wreck.

During another performance, in a kitchen scene, a heavy and gaudy necklace fell from the throat of his leading lady. He didn’t miss a beat, but calmly arose, took up the coal scoop and shoveled it into the icebox. It was, of course, the way he did it, complete with body language, that made him a star.
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