He was one of the greatest humorists of the footlights and the sawdust ring, blazing his name on the theater billboards of two hemispheres. George L. Bickel was born in Saginaw February 17, 1863 and became one of America’s finest “Dutch” comedians. His dialect was real: he grew up hearing German spoken in the family home on Genesee between Jefferson and Baum.
His first job in show business was trudging through Saginaw’s downtown streets with a sign on his back advertising the latest theatrical production. He was always hanging around the theaters, eager to take any job. Backstage, he tried out the musicians’ instruments when they were not being used.
As he recalled those early days during a 1921 visit to Saginaw, “there was an old abandoned barn down on Franklin Street and I used to go there with an old cornet and practice. I couldn’t read a note of music, so I worked out a system of my own and marked all the different pieces on the white-washed walls until the whole inside of the barn was covered.”
His system must have worked because he became proficient on the trombone and violin and got work playing in the theater orchestra. Then he noticed that performers got larger paychecks so he started his career as a comedian at the Bordwell’s Opera House and the Sopes Gem Theatre.
Bickel then teamed up with two other Saginawians, Harry Watson and Fred Jenks, and originated the clown band, performing with several circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. The clown band idea was widely copied and later became a standard component of all circuses. Bickel, Watson and Jenks reached the peak of their circus careers when they stopped the show at Madison Square Garden.
After Jenks left, Bickel and Watson appeared in vaudeville as German-dialect comedians. These routines propelled them into the bigtime. In 1903, they had an engagement in Philadelphia where they were completely unknown. They were given a spot preceding the star act to fill in while the stage was being set up for the big act. The stage manager wanted them to finish as soon as possible but they took the packed audience by storm. The applause kept up even after they left the stage. “Take a bow,” ordered the stage manager. They bowed and bowed but still the applause was tumultuous. “Give them an encore.” said the stage manager. They responded with three encores before the audience was satisfied. “Where do you come from?” asked the stage manager. “I’ve never heard of you.” “Oh,” answered Bickel. “We’re a couple of hemlock stumps from Michigan.” Their act was seen in all the best theaters all over the country including the New York Winter Garden and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1910, the team split up and George Bickel went on to star in “Gypsy Love” in 1911, “From Broadway to Paris” in 1912, “Follow the Girls” in 1918, “George White’s Scandals” in 1919, 1920 and 1921. Later productions included “The Good Old Days” in 1923, “Paradise Alley” in 1924 and “Circus Princess” in 1927.
He had appeared in Germany and in London in 1913 where the London Daily Mail wrote, “…he easily succeeded in evoking roars of laughter with his comic orchestra and its genius for discords…Mr. Bickel can hold his own with the very best.”
George Bickel got into motion pictures in its earliest days. He joined the Edison Company in approximately 1915 and appeared in 45 films and shorts, ending in 1933.
Bickel was married to Beatrice Boston of England who was a dancer in the Dunbar Sisters vaudeville act. They had two children, George and Beatrice.
He died in his Los Angeles home on June 5, 1941 and is buried in Saginaw’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.
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