Mike Anderson, Bisbee historian, sent us this piece recently.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was Bisbee’s first resident comedian.
For years now Bisbee has been the home of well-known stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope, but, as it turns out, Stanhope wasn’t the first famous and successful comedian to make his home in the Mule Mountains.
For seven months in 1909, Rosco Conklin “Fatty” Arbuckle was a regular and wildly popular performer at the Orpheum, a vaudeville theater located at the entrance to Bisbee’s infamous Brewery Gulch. Arbuckle, at that time a member of the act “Reed & Arbuckle,” resided in Bisbee with his first wife Minta Durfee from May 23, 1909, until the final days of December. Appearing on stage with his partner Walter C. Reed, Arbuckle entertained local audiences in an ever-changing number of musical comedies, which consisted of thin plots involving slapstick and ethnic humor punctuated by musical numbers. The duo had performed on vaudeville stages in Los Angeles before being booked at the Orpheum in Bisbee.
When he wasn’t treading the boards at the Orpheum, Arbuckle became an active member of the local Elks club, was a vocal fan of the Bisbee baseball team at Warren ballpark and even umpired a few games. He also officiated at wrestling matches. On the serious side, he registered to vote in Bisbee in November.
As it turns out, 1909 would be a breakout year for the 22-year-old, 300-pound Arbuckle, who briefly interrupted his performances on stage at Bisbee’s Orpheum, to start his film career in July of that year, by appearing in the one-reel silent comedy feature titled “Ben’s Kid.”
Reed & Arbucklfrom Bisbee Daily Review, Sat. Oct. 23, 1909. Just look at those ticket prices. Roscoe Conklin Arbuckle was an up-and-coming vaudeville entertainer when he appeared on the stage at the Orpheum Theater in Bisbee in 1909. Ten years later he would be one of America’s best known and best-paid silent film comedians.
After leaving Bisbee, Arbuckle returned to Los Angeles, where he continued to perform in vaudeville theaters and appear in one-reel comedies. Blessed with a strong musical voice, Arbuckle was urged by famed tenor Enrico Caruso to quit vaudeville and perform serious music, by which he could, as Caruso joked, become the second-best singer in the world.
His film career took off in 1913, when he became a regular performer in Mack Sennett’s wildly successful “Keystone Cops” comedies. By 1914, he was signed by Paramount Pictures, earning the then-fantastic amount of $1,000 per day. During his time in Hollywood, Arbuckle mentored future film star Charlie Chaplin and discovered comedians “Buster” Keaton and Bob Hope.
The Arbuckle Christmas ShowArbuckle’s career as a silent movie comedian came to a ruinous end in the early ‘20s, when he was charged with manslaughter and rape after actress Virginia Rappe’s death following a wild party hosted by Arbuckle. Although eventually acquitted of the charges, Arbuckle never again appeared in pictures, although he did some directing and scriptwriting under an alias. He died in 1933.
The Orpheum Theater was turned into a garage after the advent of talking films sealed the doom of vaudeville. Recently, the building was torn down and the site turned into a small park. There is no interpretive sign to tell the Orpheum’s fascinating story.