Highlights of a Life
Most writers and entertainers have to find an agent or be discovered to have successful careers. But, Elsie Janis didn’t have to look outside of her own Columbus home for either an agent or to be discovered. Elsie Jane Bierbower was born to John E. and Janis E. Bierbower on March 16, 1889, and it was her mother who would both discover and represent her later-famous daughter.
Young Elsie was an only child and did not attend public schools in Columbus. She was instead educated by a governess and private tutors because her mother recognized early that Elsie had talent as a singer and actor. Mrs. Bierbower proudly proclaimed, “There are Elsie Janises born every day, but not mothers who are willing to give up their whole lives for them.”
Elsie’s first public performance took place at the age of two on the steps of the Congregational Church in downtown Columbus. She performed as part of a church social event. At the age of five, Elsie was acting on the Grand Theatre stage in Columbus with the Valentine Stock Company, the acting troop that had Mary Pickford as its resident child actor. When Elsie’s father objected to his daughter’s budding acting career, her mother quickly divorced him. It was then that Elsie’s career took off.
At the age of 10, Elsie was invited by President McKinley to perform at his White House Blue Room Gala in 1899. She sang Break the News to Mother, a song about a brave fireman killed in a building fire. It was around this time that Elsie began to do impersonations of famous singers and expanded her repertoire of popular songs to accommodate a range of tastes. She also began developing a comedy routine that included mimicry of famous performers. By age 11, Elsie was a headliner on the Vaudeville circuit.
In 1905 at age 16, Elsie made her New York stage debut in The Vanderbilt Cup, becoming the youngest star on Broadway. Her talents attracted such friends and working partners as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Victor Herbert and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. She published her first song just five years after her Broadway debut and became one of the few lyricists to compose with Berlin and Kern.
As a prolific songwriter, Elsie served as a charter member of American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), formed in 1914. ASCAP’s earliest members included songwriters such as Berlin, Kern, John Philip Sousa and James Weldon Johnson.
For the next two years, “Little Elsie,” who by now had legally changed her name to Elsie Janis, racked up critical acclaim for her Broadway successes. Of note were her roles in The Fair Co-ed, Miss 17, When We Were Forty-One, The Slim Princess, The Passing Show and The Century Girl. Then came America’s entry into World War I.
At the height of her popularity, Janis volunteered as an entertainer and was sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). With her mother at her side, Janis gave 610 performances in 15 months, sometimes giving nine 45-minute shows a day. She was one of the first American performers to entertain during a war fought on foreign soil, and she was the first woman entertainer permitted near a war’s front lines. Since then, only Bob Hope has been more loyal in consistently performing for American troops. Her dedication earned her the title “Sweetheart of the AEF.”
Though most of Janis’ success was as an actor, singer and songwriter, she also enjoyed a career as a Hollywood screenwriter and author. Upon returning from the war in 1919, Janis engaged herself in writing and producing works for the stage and screen. Her most notable post-war work was Elsie and Her Gang, a musical review that featured ex-servicemen. Janis wrote, produced, directed, starred in and toured the show. Janis also published six books: a volume of poetry, Poems, Now and Then; and five autobiographical works. Her war memoirs were published in The Big Show: My Six Months with the American Expeditionary Forces in 1919. In 1925’s, If I Know What I Mean, Janis takes a humorous look at the events of her life. Her final autobiographical work, So Far, So Good! was published in 1939.
Her writing for motion pictures was more extensive and creative than her autobiographical works. Janis’ first film writing credits came before the war. In 1915, she starred in her silent comedy The Caprices of Kitty. That same year, Janis also wrote and appeared in the comedies Betty in Search of a Thrill and Nearly a Lady, and the drama ’Twas Ever Thus. After the war, she wrote (with Edmund Goulding) and starred in The Imp, a Chinatown crime drama produced in 1919. It would be nine years before Janis would write another screenplay, mainly due to the successful touring of Elsie and Her Gang. In 1928, her silent adaptation of the popular play and Gershwin musical Oh Kay! took to the screen. This was followed by the musical-romance Close Harmony in 1929; Madam Satan, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in 1930; and Reaching for the Moon (with Irving Berlin and Edmund Goulding,) starring Douglas Fairbanks, in 1930.
It was also in 1930 that Janis’ mother, namesake and career-long manager Janis Bierbower died. A year later, Elsie Janis married Chicago broker Gilbert Wilson, and in 1936 the couple sold their Terrytown, New York, mansion, putting her “so-called important souvenirs and valuable knickknacks on the auction block,” to move to Beverly Hills. She said, “I will keep nothing except the talent, personality, pep or whatever it was that put me in the money as ‘Little Elsie’ and kept me there for thirty years.”
In the years that followed, Janis devoted her time to entertaining in veterans’ hospitals, making only two significant appearances on the stage and screen respectively: Her final Broadway performance was in the musical review Frank Fay’s Show in 1939; her last film appearance was in the war-time drama Women in War in 1940.
Elsie Janis died Feb. 27, 1956, in seclusion at her Beverly Hills home with childhood friend Mary Pickford at her side.