The Trix Sisters
The Trix Sisters (Helen and Josephine) were an American vaudevillian team who made it big in Europe after the First World War. Although they appeared in some successful shows, their unique inimitable style of playing the piano, dancing and singing found even greater favour in the burgeoning cabaret circuit in London and Paris and their recordings became hugely popular.
Helen Trix’s Early Career
Helen (13/4/1886-19/11/51) and Josephine (14/10/1898- 4/6/92) Yeiser were born and grew up in Newmanstown, Pennsylvania. Their father, John, the former proprietor of the Rising Sun Hotel, was an expert on the violin and appeared in minstrel shows when younger and his wife Catherine also had a sweet soprano voice which might explain why both girls showed marked ability along musical lines.
Helen attended Albright College where she studied music and elocution. From there she went to New York where she was for 6 years giving drawing room entertainments to the 400 hundred (the most prominent families in the city). She then appeared in vaudeville on the Keith circuit playing the piano and singing. In 1906 Helen made Victor discs and Edison cylinders and her recordings were enormously successful. Her debut hit The Bird on Nellie’s Hat was released in January 1907. She was spotted by Oswald Stoll who engaged her for 10 weeks in London. She went to Europe with her elder sister Alma as escort in 1908, and, was so successful that she was given a 3-year engagement. She played in most of the large houses in England, Scotland and Ireland and entertained nobility including Prince Francis of Teck (brother of Queen Mary) before his death.
During this period Helen made a trip to South Africa for an 8-week engagement in Johannesburg and visited the famous diamond mines at Kimberley. Returning via the East coast of Africa she stopped at Zanzibar, Aden and Mombaza and then passed through the Suez canal to Port Said, Cairo, Messina, Genoa and onto Nice, Monte Carlo, Cannes, Marseilles, Paris and Berlin.
Helen and Alma arrived back in America in February 1912 and spent sometime at home before returning to New York. For the next few years Helen continued playing vaudeville with a tour through the Western States on the Orpheum circuit and later an appearance at the prestigious Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in December 1914. At some point Helen married lyricist Frank Fogerty but the marriage ended in divorce. George Jessel, who was a member of her vaudeville troupe, was smitten with her but nothing happened since at the time she was dating former lightweight boxer champion of the world, Jimmy Britt, although they remained friends.
Helen got a big break in September 1916 when she entered Edward F. Temple’s revue called the Bull Ring at the Castles in the Air roof garden-cabaret. The roof garden, above the 44th Street Theatre, had been re-decorated with a Spanish theme to represent a small corner of the arena of Plaza del Toro, Granada. The show was ambitious with over 12 numbers divided into 3 parts and a chorus of 24 and was received well.
The Trix Sisters were born
In the meantime, Josephine the youngest had arrived in New York sometime in 1916 where she had planned to study dramatic art. She appeared in a charity entertainment with her sister Helen and were both offered tempting terms perform as a double act. Under the tutelage of her older sister Josephine learned the rudiments of stage art. She also took singing and dancing instruction from Madam Kutschewra the Belgian dancer appearing in the Metropolitan Opera house at that time and dancing instruction from Enrico Zanfretta, an Italian Master. Their act comprised singing, dancing, chatter and piano playing and they toured for several seasons through the Keith circuit in the USA and Canada. In late 1920 they received an offer from C.B. Cochran, one of England’s leading theatre producers to appear in his new revue at the New Oxford Theatre. They left for England.
League of Notions was launched on 17 January 1921 as a vehicle for the American dancers the Dolly Sisters and also featured the comedian Bert Coote. Cochran had brought producer John Murray Anderson from New York to stage the show and had taken the items he had liked best from two of Anderson’s previous New York productions. Josephine and Helen were given featured parts and showed an exciting kind of close harmony singing at the piano. Theatre World observed ‘their delicate harmony in syncopated songs won them instant popularity.’ But, although the show ran for a year, they left the cast and returned home in August 1921.
They returned to London to appear in Andre Charlot’s revue From A-Z launched at the Prince of Wales Theatre 11 October 1921. The show comprised 26 items running from A-Z and Charlot starred Jack Buchanan and Gertrude Lawrence along with the Trix Sisters. Dion Titheradge and Ronald Jeans had written the book and Ivor Novello, Helen Trix and the American songwriter Les Copeland wrote the music.
According to Michael Marshall, the biographer of Jack Buchanan, the Trix sisters had established a reputation as a temperamental pair who were constantly at each other’s throats but their good looks and snappy style fitted Jack’s comedy routine perfectly. Off stage the Trix Sisters were considered as daring in the extreme when they wore beige stockings (considered suggestive of flesh) when lunching at the Ritz. According to Beverley Nichols a number of elderly ladies felt that the country had taken a step towards the pit.
In the early summer of 1922 the sisters had a rest in France before opening at the Victoria Palace in a variety act in July. But, in the autumn of 1922 they were starred twice nightly in a brand new cabaret show that really established them as stars. The Cabaret Follies was a striking show produced by Jack Hylton, who was emerging as one of most original jazz band-leaders of his day and Jack Buchanan at the Queens Hall Roof. The Queens Hall in Langham Place at the top of Regent Street (now the site of BBC Broadcasting House) was the premier music venue in London with seating for 2,400. At the top of the building was a smaller cigar shaped hall with windows in the ceiling where the cabaret was staged. It was considered by some to be London’s equivalent of Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden in New York.
There was a beauty chorus of 16 gorgeous girls who appeared in 8 numbers, including one where they were decked out as a confection of foliage supporting Flora Lea, a one time Ziegfeld girl, when she sang Evergreen Eve. The Trix sisters, wearing Molyneux gowns, which gave the effect of old red lacquer, were sensational with their amusing antics and fabulous songs. Henry de Bray and May Vivian were equally wonderful principals and the elaborate costumes by Guy de Gerald of Oriental splendour for the finale ‘Song of India’ were magnificent.
In the early part of 1923 they secured new cabaret engagements in Paris at the Clover Club and the Jardin De Ma Souer both on the Rue Caumartin before opening in early February in their own show called The Trix Sisters Blues Room on the first floor of the legendary establishment of the Abbaye de Theleme in the Place Pigalle with added alternating performances Flora Lea, Simonne Mirat and Josephine Earle. When they were called home in April 1923 to see their mother who was ill the cabaret continued without them for a while and in May a new programme opened with Rene Fagan, Fay Harcourt, the Goode Sisters, Harry Cahill, Barry Barnard and the singer Dora Stroeva. On their return to Paris in June they re-appeared at the Abbaye and performed at selected summer nightspots including the Hermitage de Longchamps.
They must have been distraught when their mother died in August and it is not clear if they were able to return to the USA for her funeral. Back in London they once again starred in Jack Hylton’s new edition of the Cabaret Follies at the Queen’s Hall roof that opened to much fanfare on 14 September 1923 with costumes designed by Dolly Tree. The show also featured Sosino and Wayo, Ennis Parkes, Bobby Blythe and Tim O’Conner with some sensational acrobatic dancing by Claire Divina and Lawrence Charles. The Trix Sisters wore adorable frocks by Deouillet, and according to the Sunday Referee ‘rattled through song after song with the confident air of artists who know their work and know that their public like it. From piano and song they turned to the singing of negro spirituals with a banjo accompaniment’
The Cabaret Follies ran into 1924, but next the Trix Sisters headlined for a short while in June 1924 at the newest cabaret – Dolly’s Revels – staged at the Piccadilly Hotel with Rebla, Edna Maude, Stanelli and Douglas and Dora Duby. Produced by Edward Dolly, the brother of the Dolly Sisters and with costumes by Dolly Tree, the cabaret changed its name to the Piccadilly Revels and became one of the hottest spots in town eclipsing some of the other earlier cabarets at the Queen’s Hall Roof and the Hotel Metropole.
Throughout this period they made a large number of recordings for HMV and Columbia, which sold well all over Europe.
The Trix Sisters were clearly keen to produce their own revue and finally in March 1925 they presented Tricks in Nottingham which toured the regions until the autumn. The show produced by Dion Titheradge, with costumes designed by Gordon Conway and dances by Max Rivers was finally launched in the West End in late December 1925 at the Apollo Theatre. The music was by Helen Trix with additional numbers by Les Copeland and featured Bert Coote is the leading comedian and Les Copeland.
Theatre World thought that the sisters’ turn at the piano was one of the very best of its kind. ‘Their singing of fascinating little songs, grave and gay is irresistible. Besides their piano act they are also in a number of sketches and sing most of the songs in the revue.’
Separation (For a While)
However, at first the show met with severe criticism and various changes were made that made it more palatable, but it did not survive long, And, then in February 1926, Josephine married Eddie Fields, a popular show business actor whose real name was Edward Greenfield and gave birth to a son in November. Allegedly Helen was furious and the Trix sisters broke up.
Helen re-surfaced in New York and in the summer of 1926 was slated to appear with Bert Coote in a George Jessel production entitled International Revue, a dramatisation of David Freedman’s novel, but this does not appear to have come to fruition.
In the summer of 1927 Josephine became the leading lady in Archibold de Bear’s musical revue entertainment entitled Blue Skies at the Vaudeville theatre with Elsa Macfarlane, Norman Griffin, Whispering Jack Smith and comedians Max and Harry Nesbitt from South Africa. Theatre World was effusive about Josephine saying she had ‘some neat little songs’ and had developed into a very subtle comedienne. The show broke all records at the Vaudeville.
A new Trix Sisters’ act was formed by Helen with Pollie Ward to be called Bino Trix, accompanied by Les Copeland on piano. They opened in November in Birmingham and then toured for a while. But, by early 1928 the sisters were reconciled, the act re-united and they opened in their own show in Birmingham and once again toured. In London they played the variety houses and doubled in Verrey’s restaurant.
Thereafter, Josephine appears to have made a trip to Australia and was on the bill at the Theatre Royal – Tivoli in celebrity vaudeville night (July 1931) and then became principal boy in JC Williamson’s production of The House That Jack Built at Her Majesty’s theatre.
Both remained in England until 1944 when they moved back to New York. Helen died in 1951. Josephine’s husband Edward died in 1962 and she remained in New York City, until 1973, when she moved to New Orleans to be with her only child, son Edward W. Greenfield. She died in 1992.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Reading Eagle, Variety, New York Times, Pittsburgh Press, The Montreal Gazette, The Era, The Sketch, the Bystander, The Times, Chicago Tribune, The Encore, Theatre World, The Stage, Dancing Times, The Sunday Referee, The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald and The Sydney Mail
Top Hats & Tails : The Story of Jack Buchanan by Michael Marshall
Beverley Nichols – The Sweet and the Twenties,
http://www.tinfoil.com/cm-0401.htm (Cylinder of the month – The Bird on Nellie’s Hat)
http://www.ellisisland.org (Ellis Island Website)