‘America’s greatest yodeler’ hails from Hannibal, Mo.
September 5, 2015
Matt Keefe was profiled in the San Francisco Call newspaper in August 1913.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
John Keefe was a 30-year-old Irish-born American citizen when he settled at Hannibal with his young family, sometime in the early 1870s. A shoemaker by trade, he went to work for Southard & Waller, a wholesale boot and shoe business operated by Lott Southard and Frederick Waller, at 109 N. Main in downtown Hannibal.
Mr. Keefe’s existence in Hannibal might have fallen into obscurity, had it not been for a blessing of extraordinary talent bestowed upon his youngest son, Mathew.
Matt Keefe, born circa 1874, was raised in the 200 block of Hill Street in Hannibal, Mo., just steps from the house where Sam Clemens spent his boyhood some two decades prior.
Matt’s best friends from childhood, “Bullett” and Dave Mirtzwa, were sons of a Russian immigrant, Andrew Mirtzwa, and they followed their father in his trade; by 1900 they were all working as barbers in Hannibal.
Matt J. Keefe, on the contrary, would become an entertainer in his adulthood, traveling with top names in both minstrel shows and in vaudeville.
He ultimately earned the moniker: “America’s Greatest Yodeler.”
While his life wasn’t destined to be long, it was fruitful.
A Hannibal boy
When Matt Keefe died in January 1920 at the age of 48, “Bullett” Mirtzwa told the Quincy Daily Herald that he and Matt Keefe began singing together on the street corners in Hannibal while still boys.
But singing wasn’t Keefe’s only love. He often took a steamboat to Quincy during his youth, working as a jockey and running in races at Baldwin park.
On Feb. 14, 1913, the Quincy Daily Herald reported, “Keefe earned quite a reputation as a jockey and rode on nearly all of the big tracks of this country. He also rode in New Mexico, South America and in Europe, returning to New York in time to join a minstrel show for the winter seasons.”
Matt Keefe returned to his hometown of Hannibal and nearby Quincy in February 1913, for the first time in 30 years. He was called upon to perform at Quincy, serving as a substitute for Shelton Brooks (1886-1975) who lost his wardrobe and stage properties in a fire at the Burlington, Iowa, vaudeville theater earlier in the week.
In honor of his visit, the Quincy Daily Herald published a summary of Keefe’s youth and career.
The Daily Herald reported that Keefe “earned quite a reputation as a jockey and rode on nearly all of the big tracks of this country. He also rode in New Mexico, South America and in Europe, returning to New York in time to join a minstrel show for the winter seasons.”
Keefe performed popular songs and yodeling with Al G. Fields minstrels, working with the Fields company for four seasons.
Walter Anthony of The San Francisco Call newspaper conducted an interview with Matt Keefe in August 1913, when the performer was in town staring in the Empress show.
The article was published on Aug. 10, 1913, and included a sketch of Keefe by an artist by the name of Rogers.
Anthony described Keefe’s talent: “His cuckoo singing has been the delight for 20 years of those who love yodeling.”
At the height of his popularity with audiences, Keefe reflected that he had worked his way to the top. “I played at all the dumps, believe me. I didn’t miss anything,” said Matt, while adjusting a large scarf pin that shone in the late afternoon sun.
Anthony wrote: “Although he is still a young man – 39, he told me - Matt’s memory goes back far enough as a showman to anchor itself and its owner’s career in the epoch of minstrelsy when some of the greatest of the present day entertainers were doing parades and giving darktown imitations in the ‘oprey houses’ of a now minstrel-deserted and otherwise darkened country.”
“I came to this town about 25 years ago, with Leavitt’s show, ‘The High Rollers,’” Matt Keefe said. “We were broke before we landed, and afterwards we didn’t get any better. In 1889 I came out here with a drum corps organized in Denver by George W. Cook. That was the finest drum crops that ever tapped a quickstep,” he reflected. “But my first high class appearance in this city was when Ned Holman and Harry Conners organized a juvenile company and produced ‘Cinderella’ at the California Theater. I was young enough – about 15, I suppose – to qualify with the juveniles, and was good enough, or youthfully rash enough to go out with the organization on a tour of the coast.”
His pleasantest tour on record was “The Friars’ show.”
The newspaper reporter explained: “Every year the Friars, which is an organization of actors, performers and newspaper men, gives a great show in New York and makes a brief tour during the summer, the purpose being, so Matt, who is a member, says, is to abstract sufficient change from the people to build a clubhouse of amazing proportions and beauty in New York. Now, this organization is sufficiently strong in talent to command a cast of extravagant entertaining merit. No producer, merely trying to support his playhouse, could afford to offer such an aggregation as annually travels for the Friars, unless he demanded a price per seat that would make the price of a box reservation at a championship fight seem like a nickel at a church fair.
“George M. Cohan is an endman,” the reporter continued. “Willie Collier is another. De Wolf Hopper is one of the comedians. Weber and Fields play again at their team work. Nearly every player known to fame assumes a role of serious or comic import, and they all go along to raise money to build an expensive clubhouse on very expensive land. That they will succeed in their efforts is not to be doubted, since, according to Matt Keefe, they made $100,000 in 11 performances in the last tour, which lasted just 11 days.”
Keefe reflected on that trip. “That was the finest trip I ever took,” he said.
“When we played in Providence,” said Matt, “they had to rope the streets to keep the crowds from mixing up the parade.”
Providence, the reporter explained, is Cohan’s home town, that he makes fun of consistently.
Keefe said that he feared the days of minstrelsy were irrevocably over. “The form of minstrel entertainment is dead that once amused our fathers and that began when the negro was as interesting in comedy as he was in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” Keefe said.
“There will be,” he said, “some forms of the minstrelsy that will live, however, and they will be found in vaudeville. The sons of the minstrels will be heard and his comedy will be offered, but it isn’t likely that San Francisco will ever support again a minstrel organization such as that of Reed or Emerson, or even Dockstadter.”
The singer’s death
At the time of his death in January 1920, Keefe was playing in a Philadelphia vaudeville house. He was taken to a Pennsylvania hospital, where he died. He was 48 years old and was survived by a wife and child.
This undated photo from the Steve Chou collection shows the north side of the 200 block of Hill Street. Sam Clemens once lived in the house at the far right. To the left, up the hill in one of the houses pictured, lived Matt Keefe with his family in the mid to late 1870s. Keefe, circa 1913, was known as "America's greatest yodeler."