Today is the birthday (1880) of William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W. C. Fields, a U.S. comedian, actor, juggler and writer. Fields’ comic persona was a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist, who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs and children. His career in show business began in vaudeville, where he attained international success as a silent juggler. He gradually incorporated comedy into his act, and was a featured comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. He became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), in which he played a colorful small-time con man. His subsequent stage and film roles were often similar scoundrels.
Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield (1840–1913), was from an English family that emigrated to America from Sheffield, England in 1854. James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. Fields’s mother, Kate Spangler Felton (1854–1925), was a Protestant of British ancestry. The 1876 Philadelphia City Directory lists James Dukenfield as a clerk. After marrying, he worked as an independent produce merchant and a part-time hotel-keeper.
Claude Dukenfield (as he was known) had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. At age twelve he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away once again. In 1893 he worked briefly at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store, and in an oyster house.
Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life seems to have been reasonably happy. He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.
Inspired by the success of the “Original Tramp Juggler,” James Edward Harrigan, Fields adopted a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a genteel “tramp juggler” in 1898, using the name W. C. Fields. His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. To conceal a stammer, Fields did not speak onstage. In 1900, seeking to distinguish himself from the many “tramp” acts in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as “The Eccentric Juggler.” He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in what appears to have been a fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films, notably in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).
By the early 1900s, while touring, he was regularly billed as “the world’s greatest juggler.” He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. When Fields played for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines.
In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. He later said, “I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler.” In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Bernhardt (who regarded Fields as “an artiste [who] could not fail to please the best class of audience”) first at the New York Palace, and then in England in a royal performance for the king and queen. He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915.
Beginning in 1915 he appeared on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies revue. He delighted audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped c