|Will Ahern died Monday at age 86 in St. Joseph's Hospital. This interview, part of a vaudeville
series, took place shortly before.
On Dec. 6, 1918, Will Ahern, Seaman First Class, U.S. Navy, performed his mind-reading act on board the
George Washington for President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. delegation to the Versailles Peace
Conference. On Aug. 3, 1945, Will and Gladys Ahern; USO Overseas Unit No. 166, were playing to a GI
audience on Saipan. They were on Tinian three days later when the atom bomb was loaded for the flight
to Hiroshima. They were on Guam when the war ended. On May 6, 1980, Will Ahern, age 83, opened at the
Los Angeles Music Center in "Guys and Dolls" with Milton Berle. Ahern's second-act solo was a show
When Ahern died he was on the National Board of the American Guild of Variety Artists, and honorary
president and past headliner of the Hollywood Comedy Club. Gladys heads the Musettes, devoted to
the welfare of veteran performers. They performed as a team at innumerable benefits until his hospitalization
just before his death.
The Aherns made their name in vaudeville. Will said they started as "a good No. 2 act," fast and funny, a
beautiful girl and a clever man, with songs and dancing, jokes and trick roping, the perfect act to get the
bill off to a lively start after the audience had settled in during the opening acrobats.
July 10, 1928, the New York Herald headlined, "Aherns and Ted Lewis Top Bill at Palace.
Perfect Vaudeville Program in Two Numbers."
The Aherns' act made no literal sense!
Will appeared in a comedy cowboy outfit, did rope tricks and told jokes. Gladys spoke with a Mexican accent,
did a toe dance inside a spinning rope to the tune of "Alice Blue Gown." They sang Western ballads and
danced the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Will used a derby hat with a swivel to spin a rope on his head,
and his big finish was a spectacular acrobatic Russian dance. It was simply 12 minutes of pure entertainment,
compiled from what they could do best and what pleased an audience most. Their genius was in making
these diverse numbers come together into a cohesive act.
Will was born in Waterbury, Conn., Oct. 9, 1896. In 1909, the Buffalo Bill Show, with Annie Oakley, played
Waterbury. Will, age 13, was down at the freight yard at 4 a.m., brought water for the horses and helped
the canvas men rig the tent. Will told the boss canvas man that he was 16, and when he was offered $18
a month, he left town with the show. The third night he discovered that a couple of the roustabouts had
their eye on him, then their hands. He found a place to hide behind some bales of hay on a flat car.
"The next morning I was passing Annie Oakley's tent. 'Hey, kid, come here,' she said. Here's $2. Get
the hell out of here and don't ever come back.'"
The war took Will into the Navy in 1917, and he was assigned to Pelham Bay Training Station near New
Rochelle. He managed to avoid most of the KP duty by volunteering as an entertainer.
"Toward the end of 1918, we were hauling cannon around Pelham Bay in some kind of a drill. I got an
infected heel and spent two weeks in the hospital. When I got out, my company had been shipped to
Murmansk in Siberia. Then came the call for entertainment aboard the George Washington, and we
were off on the George Washington, to Paris to work in a show with Elsie Janis and appear at the Palace
of Versailles!" Out of the Navy, after 40 weeks with the Bluebirds Burlesque Company, Will was seen by
a booker for the Keith-Albee circuit and started working as a single in vaudeville. Playing four shows a day
at the, Rialto in Chicago, he grabbed a chance to make some extra money doing a midnight show at Ike
Bloom's on 22nd Street. In the chorus line of Ike Bloom's "Midnight Frolics" was a very pretty girl named
Gladys Reese. You can get a good Idea of the place and the
people from Phil Dunning's 1926 hit play "Broadway." Dunning told the Aherns that they were the models
for his leading characters, the cocky hoofer and the innocent show girl. Will and Gladys weren't exactly
those peopleWill not quite so brash, and Gladys not quite so naiveand no gangster was
ever shot backstage at Ike Bloom's; maybe at Colisimo's, the joint around the comer, but not at Ike Bloom's.
In 1927 they were cast in the Broadway show, "Sidewalks of New York," said to have been backed by
Tammany Hall as part of the campaign to put Al Smith in the White House.
Will was in two more musicals, touring with "Good News" in 1928, and on Broadway in the Ziegfeld
production of "Simple Simon," starring Ed Wynn. Gladys kept the act alive on the Orpheum circuit with
Will's brother, Dennis. In 1931 the Aherns were booked for six months in Europe and discovered that the
act went just as well, maybe even better, with European audiences. The roping, dancing, the pretty girl and
the comedy cowboy character all leaped over the language barrier, and Will picked up enough German and
French to make some topical jokes between rope tricks.
In spite of the Depression, in spite of the new competition from the talkies, theAherns kept working.
They made moviesthere had been the 1929 feature "Hold Everything" with Joe E. Brown and some
early Vitaphone shorts. Now there were several features at Warner Brothers and a bunch of two-reelers,
including "Cinema Circus" with Tom Mix and Mickey Rooney. Cecil B. DeMille wanted Gladys to sign a three
year contract ("he said I was a young Gloria Swanson"), but he offered her $1,000 a week less than she was
making in vaudeville, and they were booked on a 50-week Orpheum tour. She turned DeMille down and
seems not to have regretted it.
In 1938 they returned to Europe. They were a big hit. Paris was just as much fun as before, but other things
had changed. and their departure this time was sudden and quite different.
On Sept. 10, 1939, they managed to scramble aboard a train from Deauville to Bordeaux. They were
sidetracked in Le Mans because of troop movements, scurried to find shelter in a railway tunnel during a
German air raid. In Bordeaux they contrived to get aboard the liner Manhattan with the last batch of
Americans leaving Europe. The swimming pool had been drained and filled with cots to squeeze an extra
thousand passengers aboard. Gladys shared a cabin with "a New York society lady and her French modiste,"
and Will was in a cabin with five other men including Arturo Toscanini.
After Pearl Harbor, as soon as it was possible for USO units to go overseas, the Aherns were on the move.
They went to Alaska, to Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, did a show for 25 men at a Coast Artillery base in the
Aleutians, and for the sailors, men and women, on board a Russian ship. They traveled into the South
Pacific in a troupe with Gene Autry, to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Tarawa, Eniwetok and Kwajalein.
When the war was over, they kept going, back to Europe, twice, for the occupation troops. a second
time to Alaska to some of the remote radar stations, and, later to Korea.
They settled, finally, in Hollywood, where Will established the Rainbow Studio on the corner of Vine and
Yucca, a place for young talentand old talent, tooto rehearse. They were still a team, finishing
each other's sentences, watching and waiting for the chance to deliver the topper. They were always a team,
perfectly complementary, never competitors doing two separate acts, never two people playing the same
role, but that magical blend of personalities, always individuals, working together with grace and harmony
to produce entertainment.