Look at these cute boys! How old do you think they were?
If they were under 7, someone was breaking the law. Although kiddie acts were a mainstay of old vaudeville, the dreaded “Gerry society” tried its best for decades to keep them off the stage.
Properly known as the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Gerry society got its nickname from its founder, Elbridge T. Gerry, who started it in 1875, nine years after the SPCA was organized to prevent cruelty to animals. Its purpose was to protect children from abuse and exploitation. Now that doesn’t sound bad, but in practice, Gerry was far more concerned about stage moms exploiting their children than he was about starving waifs sleeping in the gutters or sweatshop tots working 14-hour days. He thought theater was immoral (amusement parks too) and referred to child performers “child-slaves of the stage.” His influence led to the passing of strict laws in New York state that regulated what minors could do on stage. Children under 16 were prohibited from singing, dancing, juggling, or performing acrobatics; over 7 could have a small speaking part if they had a Gerry society permit but no one under 7 was allowed on stage at all.
This ruined the livelihood of many performers. The Keaton family, whose son Buster had been the star of their comedy vaudeville act since he was 3, dealt with the law by swearing that Buster was 7. Others tried to pass their children off as midgets. In his memoirs, Buster says that he and his father were arrested nearly every other week. Presumably they paid the fine at the police station or talked their way out of it. In other states, the laws varied and enforcement was uneven. Sometimes vaudevillians could get by without any hassles.
Gerry was president or legal advisor of the New York SPCC until his death in 1927. Interestingly, the group exists today. Theatrical producers must still get the Society’s permission for children to go on stage and the group still monitors child actors to make sure they have proper schooling.