American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2010 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 12

John W. Kelly

(1857 — 1896)

One of the first, if not the first, monologists to appear in ‘street clothes’ instead of blackface or ethnic attire and make-up, Kelly ambled or staggered on stage and kept his audiences regaled with story-telling for a half hour or more. He was a witty man, and wrote his own material or, inspired by libation, improvised on the spot. If he had imbibed too much, he dragged a chair on stage and sat and asked the audience for monologue topics.

It was an era of intense anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. His parents had emigrated from Ireland and young Kelly followed his dad to the steel mills, where the youngster kept his co-workers amused. A songwriter as well as a monologist, Kelly wrote a ditty about his fellow steel worker, “Maloney the Rolling Mill Man,” and ever after he was known as J.W. “Rolling Mill” Kelly. After a stint in minstrel shows, J.R. Kelly found his own style and remained a variety and vaudeville favorite until his death in 1896 at age 38 of Bright’s Disease.