Portion of a book cover from 1899 with the word 'poetry' and a decorative flourish.
"An exceptional entertainment will be provided by the Olympic this week. The Van Arsdale family of juvenile artists, from Europe, brought over by Captain Harry M. Smyth. They will appear in extravaganza, and are said to be clever."
- The Chicago Inter Ocean, Dec. 8, 1889.

Estelle and her children had to find a way to support themselves in 1889-1890. Running a boarding house wasn't really true to Estelle's spirit. Luckily, she and the children found a way to use their theatrical gifts.

Listen to the episode or access the transcript below.

Next: Not So Wild About Harry, Part 1

Transcript for Vaudeville

[00:00:04] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad. I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] Narrator: Estelle was a performer. Whether she was dealing with reporters, consulting with clients, or delivering a lecture on the transmission of thought, she had communication skills that allowed her to connect with you and bring energy and drama to the situation.

[00:00:40] Narrator: There were several family dramas in Estelle's life, but one case was actual theatrical drama. Here's what I've found so far. The first clue is an item of theater news from the December 8, 1889 Chicago Inter Ocean:

[00:00:55] Newspaper: An exceptional entertainment will be provided by the Olympic this week: The Van Arsdale family of juvenile artists, from Europe, brought over by Captain Harry M. Smyth, will appear in extravaganza, and are said to be clever.

[00:01:07] Narrator: This Captain Harry M. Smyth who supposedly brought the children to Chicago's Olympic Theater from Europe was actually a resident in the boarding house Estelle operated that year at 1334 Wabash Avenue.

[00:01:21] Narrator: We know right off the bat that Harry was a storyteller - the children were imported to Chicago from Kentucky, not Europe. Harry claimed to be a playwright, a journalist, a detective for the Pinkerton, and Mooney & Boland agencies, a bookkeeper for the Pullman Palace Car company, a hotel steward, a theatrical manager, and a Captain in Her Majesty Queen Victoria's service in the Abyssinian war.

[00:01:45] Narrator: I have no idea how much, if any, of that is true. I'll have more about Harry, who is definitely a character in his own right, in a future episode. Harry does seem to mark the beginning of the Van Arsdale children's time on stage.

[00:01:59] Narrator: So, for now, I'd like to focus on the clever Van Arsdale family of juvenile artists. At least two of Estelle's children, her oldest daughter, Pearl, and her youngest daughter, Ella, seem to have inherited their mother's talent as a performer. In their case, it was song, dance, and drama on the Vaudeville stage.

[00:02:17] Narrator: In 1889, the Olympic Theater was at 51 Clark Street in Chicago, between Randolph and Lake. It was a variety theater that seated about 1100.

[00:02:28] Narrator: The Olympic was billed as "The only Family Variety Theater in America," which sounds like a good place for the Van Arsdale family act to start. Prices were advertised at no higher than 10, 20, and 30 cents.

[00:02:41] Narrator: Their gig was to begin on December 9, 1889. I haven't found any reviews of their performance or any clues as to how many of the Van Arsdale kids performed, but I do find Pearl and Ella on stage after that.

[00:02:55] Narrator: Just a few months later, in February 1890, Pearl Van Arsdale married Charles L. Young. Pearl was 19. Charles was 26. Charles was born in Iowa, but he felt the call of theatrical life and worked as an advance man, manager, and producer for theater and musical acts. I have a whole lifetime of stories about Charles, but he'll have to wait in line behind his mother-in-law, Estelle. I suspect he had to do that quite a bit in the 1890s, too.

[00:03:24] Narrator: Pearl started to perform as Pearl Young, but it looks like she and Ella continued to be an important part of the Van Arsdale or "Trunelle children" act.

[00:03:32] Narrator: In July 1890, the Hamilton, Missouri Farmer's Advocate announced:

[00:03:37] Newspaper: The famous Trunnell children are with the "Nip and Tuck Company." They will appear each night in their pleasing specialties. Don't fail to see them.

[00:03:44] Narrator: Unfortunately, in August, the troupe disbanded in Chillicothe when, as the paper said, Nip "tuck" more than his share of the money and skipped town.

[00:03:55] Narrator: In September 1890, the Trunell children were in St. Joseph, Missouri at the Eden Musee. Here's what we know about that program.

[00:04:02] Newspaper: Max LeRoy will no doubt prove a drawing card in the Curio Parlor. He is known as the human hammer and is also an expansionist. He is a small man, weighing but 140 pounds. His chest measures normal, but 34 inches, but he can expand it until it measures 44 inches. His best work is as the human hammer, when he drives a common iron spike with one blow of his hand, through a 2 inch plank.

[00:04:28] Narrator: He'd be perfect on Tik Tok, wouldn't he? The Trunell children performed on the Bijou stage:

[00:04:35] Newspaper: Bijou stage is represented by Miss Lizzie Masters, a pleasing serio comic; the Trunell children, in songs and dances, and a troupe of educated Russian poodles.

[00:04:48] Narrator: The other stages were described this way:

[00:04:51] Newspaper: Theatorium stage introduces Bobby Fields, Dutch dialect comedian; Morris Bushnell, juggler, equilibrist, knife thrower and wire walker; Frank Burt, light and heavy balancing; and Annie Sylvester, lady trick bicyclist.

[00:05:07] Narrator: The whole thing concluded with "a roaring farce comedy entitled, 'The Coming Man,'' introducing George Edwards, Harry Payton, Frank Emerson and Grace Milburn."

[00:05:17] Narrator: The St. Joseph Herald reported that with Miss Lizzie Masters, the Trunelle children "gave a nice thirty minutes' show."

[00:05:25] Narrator: Two weeks later, The whole group was at the Eden Musee in Lincoln, Nebraska, including Bushnell, the Aerial Artist Supreme and his School of Russian Poodles, Frank Burt, The Modern Hercules, Frank Emerson, Bone Soloist, Lizzie Masters, Queen of Lyrics, Bobby Fields, Dutch Comedian, Grace Milburn, Song Bird, Max Leroy the Human Sledgehammer, a collection of wax figures, and the Trudell Children, billed as "Cute, Clever, Cunning Comedians." The house noted, "No improper characters admitted.

[00:06:01] Narrator: I have so many questions about that lineup. Russian poodles performing with an aerial artist? The human sledgehammer in the same theater as a collection of wax figures? A bone soloist? At least no improper characters were allowed.

[00:06:17] Narrator: Part of the group was back in St. Joseph in December 1890, when Ella, billed as Ella Trunelle, had a role in the play The Village Blacksmith at the Eden Musee. That week, the theater also featured Donaldson's great bird show, which included American Condors, Australian talking birds, a young giant gorilla from Africa, a living armadillo, and a "prehistoric monster."

[00:06:41] Narrator: Human performers included Billy Hill, "a most excellent dancer," Evans, the "champion of all club swingers," and Gus Richards, the double-voiced vocalist in "the most novel act ever witnessed at the Musee." According to the St. Joseph Herald, Richards' costume itself was a novelty, "being half ladies' dress and half gentleman's suit."

[00:07:02] Narrator: In 1891, soubrette Miss Pearl Young and Ella as little Beatrice Dru Nellie, the cleverest dancer on the American stage, were with the Paiges Players company, which toured Indiana.

[00:07:15] Narrator: In January 1892 at the Apollo Theatre in Evansville, Indiana, Charles L. Young's Musical Comedy and Specialty Company put on a variety show with Professor Redan, Magician; Frank Robertson, descriptive songs and character change artist; John Utz the Banjo King, and song and dance numbers by Miss Pearl Young, Singing and Dancing Soubrette and little Beatrice Trunelle, the Child Wonder, age 12, performing Artistic Dances. (That's Ella, age 15.) The performance concluded with a one-act comedy titled McGinty's Night Out.

[00:07:50] Narrator: McGinty's Night Out continues to play in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and other spots through April 1892. I know there are other performances I haven't found, yet, including Ella's part in something called the "Two Old Cronies" company.

[00:08:04] Narrator: By June 1893, the little family is back in Chicago. This time, they're at the Standard Theater, alongside Rose Mayo, George Klink, and a supporting company in a drama based on the life of outlaw Jesse James. Also part of the performance were specialties by the Mayo children and Beatrice Trunelle, who's now listed as a danseuse.

[00:08:25] Narrator: According to a program for the production, Doctor Trunelle was proprietor and manager of the troupe, and Charles L. Young (Pearl's husband) was Acting Manager.

[00:08:39] Narrator: Jesse James was scheduled to open on June 4. Unfortunately, that very night, John T. West, the manager of the Standard Theater, skipped town when he was unable to pay his performers, staff, and creditors.

[00:08:49] Narrator: In later years, Estelle would tell reporters that she made every career and business decision to support her five vulnerable children. It looks like the children also supported themselves.

[00:09:00] Narrator: Ella's talent continued to serve her well. As an adult in the early 1900s, she operated a dancing school in Owensboro, Kentucky.

[00:09:08] Narrator: So, what have we learned from Estelle and family this time? If you're trying to make ends meet in Chicago, put the kids on the stage.

[00:09:16] Narrator: There's more drama around the True-Nell family's theatrical endeavors, and it involves Captain Harry Smyth. I'll tell you about that next time, on How to Be Estelle.

Next: Not So Wild About Harry, Part 1