Back in 2009 through a mutual friend I got to know Dianne Woods. As well as being a successful commercial photographer and wonderful artist in her own right, Dianne is also the curator of a unique and outstanding collection of photographs that, I am happy to say, akg-images has the great pleasure to license worldwide.
Dianne’s husband Brad had inherited a wooden chest filled with negatives taken by his father. Upon closer inspection, Dianne quickly realised that her late father-in-law was an extremely talented photographer who had captured on film his extraordinary life as a vaudeville headliner in the late 1920s through to the early 1940s. Born in 1905 in Santa Monica, California, George Mann was set apart from his classmates from an early age, as he was so tall: while still in high school he reached a towering 6’5” (195 cm)! It was to be his uncommon height, together with his natural humour and physical agility, which was to propel him to international fame.
The exact circumstances of how George met his vaudeville partner Dewey Barto remain somewhat mysterious. According to some reports they met whilst prune picking in the San Joaquin Valley; other sources claim that they met when George came to Dewey, an experienced vaudevillian, asking for advice on how to break into the entertainment industry. Either way, the two men began dancing together as a comedic, acrobatic dance team in 1926. They called themselves, quite simply: Barto and Mann. Together, they took the vaudeville scene by storm, touring the United States and Europe. They finally settled in Olsen and Johnson’s Broadway cabaret show “Hellzapoppin” and performed together until 1942.
Dewey brought his family along on their tours; George brought his camera. He shot backstage scenes with a Leica and a Kodak Signet range-finder, reportedly using a theatre dressing room as a darkroom. George also designed and manufactured “stereopticon” machines to view his photos with 3D effect, and distributed them in bars and restaurants.
It was during his time in New York, in March 1936, that George met his future wife Barbara Bradford, who worked as a Coca Cola model at the time. Mann took film noir inspired shots of his young model bride and documented their travels together. They were married in June of the following year, and in 1941 had a son, George Bradford Mann (later Bradford Mann Smith). Although they were divorced after six years of marriage, George Mann became an inspiration and “best friend” to his son in his teenage and adult years. Barbara remarried, and her second husband, Robert T. Smith, was also a man with an extraordinary life that was also documented in photographs.
George Mann died in Santa Monica in 1977, aged 71. His stunning archive of images, carefully stored in a wooden chest and handed down to his son, give us an insider’s access to the lost world of vaudeville as well as to George’s travels around the world and to the United States of the early Twentieth Century.