The Yama Yama Man

Three Twins sheet music cover (1908).JPEG
"The Yama Yama Man" was a comical song for the Broadway show The Three Twins, published in 1908 by M. Witmark & Sons with music by Karl Hoschna and lyrics by Collin Davis. It became popular after Bessie McCoy's animated performance in a satin Pierrot clown costume with floppy gloves and a cone hat. At age 20, she became an overnight sensation on Broadway and was known thereafter as the "Yama Yama Girl"; it became her lifelong theme song, the show ran for 288 performances. The lyrics contain topical references of the era such as street cars and ladies' fashion while the refrain is about a comical bogeyman—the Yama Yama Man—who is "ready to spring out at you unaware". Bessie McCoy's song and dance routine was a standard into the 1930s with a prestigious lineage of imitators including Ada Jones, Marilyn Miller, Irene Castle and Ginger Rogers.

Bessie McCoy's signature performance was key in establishing the song's popularity. According to Marjorie Farnsworth, "thousands came to see Bessie sing and dance as the Yama Yama Girl and then came to see her again.... her knack of dancing the songs became so effective that she often did them in pantomime with the audience filling in the words." According to Joe Laurie Jr she was one of the most imitated routines in Vaudeville. Nell Brinkley, who saw McCoy perform, described her thus:

she swings on her heel and leaps away into a wild fantastic headlong dance—the dance of a crazy king's clown, half girl, half wild boy, heady with the wine of the Spring air at twilight … The black satin of her bloomers fills like sails, and they ripple and flatten against her body. Her hair flies in loose flax around her face, and her face is a vivid white candle flame in the yellow aureole of her hair … Her feet might be bounding white balls carrying her body with them in their tireless, leaping flight. She circles madly around the boards, touching lightly and rebounding from the jutting points of the painted mock scenery, like an imprisoned moth, or an elf hunting for some lost thing and fearful of being caught. She is wonderful.

The July 25, 1908, edition of Billboard magazine reported the following story how the Yama song originated. When The Three Twins was rehearsing in Chicago, prior to first opening, Karl Hoschna, the composer, was asked to furnish a "pajama man song". He wrote one called The Pajama Man only to learn that it could not be used owing to another pajama number booked at the Whitney Opera House the next day. Gus Sohlke, the stage director, happened to pass a toy store and saw in the window a doll built out of triangles. Realizing that this had never been used in stage work he decided to have a triangular man chorus in place of The Pajama Man. That afternoon as he, Collin Davis and Hoschna sat together wondering what they would call the song, Sohlke kept repeating Pajama jama yama yama. Suddenly he brightened up and cried "Did either of you fellows ever hear of a Yama Yama Man?" Of course neither one had and Sohlke confirmed "Neither have I! Lets call the new song Yama Yama Man". Quickly Davis set to work to write a lyric around the title and that night Sohlke and Hoschna locked themselves in a room with Bessie McCoy and rehearsed the Yama song and dance for five hours.

Ada Jones recorded "Yama Yama Man" in 1909 for Victor Light Opera Company. The lyrics for verse two and three were changed, verse two being more bawdy. It spent five weeks at #1 in 1909 and was the most popular song of her career. Stanley Kirkby recorded a version around 1912 accompanied by banjo. In 1909, the Cuban dance orchestra Orquesta De Enrique Pena recorded a version in a traditional Cuban style.

In 1909, the young dancer Irene Foote began imitating Bessie McCoy's "Yama Yama Man" in amateur theatricals. Irene's mother would take her around to Broadway producers auditioning her talent using the Yama routine, but with little success. Irene later had a successful career in modern dance with her husband Vernon Castle and in 1939 Ginger Rogers played Irene in the biographical film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, in which Rogers re-enacts Irene imitating Bessie McCoy's "Yama Yama Man" routine during an audition (see film clip).

This page was last edited on 22 January 2018, at 00:40.
Reference: under CC BY-SA license.

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