After 58 years, Jenkins and Willerbury are still going strong.
If you think vaudeville is dead in today’s society, you’re a demented, deluded piece of trash who needs a lot of therapy. But that’s another story for another time. The living proof that vaudeville lives on rests with Jenkins and Willerbury, the comedy team that has been working the vaudeville circuit in Green Lake for the last 58 years.
58 years is a long time to live in Green Lake, much less work the vaudeville circuit there. But Jenkins, who has just recruited local vagrant Jerry Tillstein to be the famous act’s twenty-first Willerbury, disagrees.
“I disagree,” he says.
The act’s history is a colorful one for sure. Jenkins met the original Willerbury at a town house-smashing back in 1938, and the pair began wisecracking while smashing up floorboards. “They were a hoot, those two,” said an eyewitness to this legendary moment in vaudeville history. “They were so funny with their brothers Chico and Harpo that I couldn’t contain myself- wait, who are you talking about?”
Unfortunately, Willerbury, whose real name was Jackson O’Day, died the very morning of their first performance, thanks to a flying rafter from another of the all-too-frequent Green Lake house smashings. Jenkins was despondent, thinking his career was as crushed as his deceased partner’s ribcage and left lung. But his spirits and career were both rescued by “King” Doc Mcdonald, a local exotic dancer who introduced Jenkins to his friend, Reuel Frein. Frein took over the Willerbury moniker that very night at a tavern in Green Lakeâ€™s neighbor, Appleton, and Jenkins and Willerbury were reborn.
But the old chemistry was not to be found between the new partners. “We didn’t like each other very much,” says Jenkins. (Frein declined to be interviewed for this article.) Fortunately the team learned that they could simply stand onstage insulting each other and earn big laughs. One of their performances got so heated, in fact, that the two began throwing punches at each other and breaking chairs. The amused crowd, thinking that it was part of the show, began a full-scale riot. The roof of the club collapsed due to the damage, which gave birth to the modern phrase “bringing down the house.”
Frein left the act in 1950 to pursue his first love, mulch production, but Jenkins kept the act together, with a new Willerbury every year but with the same old laughs. Jerry Tillstein says of the current act: “Oh man, my headâ€¦ uh, what was the question?” Jenkins adds that “Jerry isn’t really very funny, but he’s an easy target, which is good because I’m getting on in years and I don’t take insults as well as I used to.”
In addition to their legendary live act, Hippo Video is reissuing the pair’s lone TV appearance on the Jack Benny Show, where Willerbury (played by John French) runs over Benny’s dog and the star comic puts a hit out on the duo. Jenkins says that Comedy Central is also interested in doing a retrospective on the team.
But, Jenkins says, it all still comes down to the live act. “Verbal abuse is still what people want to see, and we give it to ’em.”
Green Lake fans can catch Jenkins and Willerbury at Goofy Ernie’s next month!