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Mae West started in Vaudeville and on the stage in New York, and later moved to Hollywood to star in films known for their blunt sexuality and steamy settings.
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In 1907, 14-year-old Mae began performing professionally in Vaudeville in the Hal Claredon Stock Company. Her mother made all her costumes, drilled her on rehearsals, and managed her bookings and contracts. Tillie was finally in show business as her daughter's manager. Mae's act was a subtle spoof on Victorian innocence and sentimentality. She portrayed a young girl dressed in a pink and green satin dress, a large white hat and pink satin ribbons. But she impersonated adult Vaudeville and burlesque performers, and danced and sang popular songs inflecting sexual overtones.
Mae West spent the next few years on the vaudeville circuit with William Hogan, a small time performer and family friend. West played Hogan's young girlfriend in a takeoff of a Tom Sawyer theme. But it's likely that the strong-willed West had a hand in revising her soft spoken Becky Thatcher character into a more assertive and spunky foil for Hogan. When work was slow, which it often was for many performers in Vaudeville, she would go on the burlesque circuit playing before a predominantly male working-class audience. Social conventions did not allow such a young girl to be even present in such surroundings, let alone performing, but West thrived and honed her performance skills.
Sometime between 1909 and 1910, Mae West met Frank Wallace, an up-and-coming vaudeville song-and-dance man. The story goes that Wallace was introduced to West by her mother, Tillie, who saw an opportunity to have her team up with a performer who was going places. After a few weeks of intense rehearsal, they formed an act and went out on the burlesque circuit. The tour went deep into the Midwest, far from the protective supervision of West's mother. According to her biographers, Wallace proposed marriage to her several times, but she refused, instead having affairs with several other male cast members. She was counseled by an older cast member, Etta Wood, about her "wicked ways" and stressed that marriage would offer her protection against being alone and pregnant. From this, West seemed to have a change of heart and on April 11, 1911, she and Frank Wallace were married by a justice of the peace in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Only 17, she lied about her age on her marriage certificate (18 was the legal age for marriage in Wisconsin at the time) and both newlyweds promised to keep the marriage secret from the public and her parents. The union remained a secret until 1935, when West was well into her movie career and a publicity staff person found the marriage certificate in some old papers. For many years, she claimed she and Wallace had never lived as husband and wife. She broke up the act soon after they arrived back in New York in the summer of 1911.
Later that year, Mae West auditioned for, and got a part, in her first Broadway show, A La Broadway, a comedy review. The show folded after only eight performances, but West was a hit. In the audience on opening night were two successful Broadway impresarios, Lee and J.J. Shubert, and they cast her in the production of Vera Violetta, also featuring Al Jolson.
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