Ginger Rogers, Bessie McCoy, and the Yama Yama Man

February 17, 2018

I was in my early teens when I began delving into classic films, and Ginger Rogers was one of the very first stars who caught my attention. My journey into the Astaire-Rogers musicals actually began unintentionally backwards, as the first film of theirs I watched was The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), the final installment of their original nine RKO productions. Therefore, the first real dance routine I ever witnessed performed by Ginger was "The Yama Yama Man." Needless to say, I was enchanted.

Ginger Rogers recreates The
Yama Yama Man in 1939.

When singing "The Yama Yama Man," Ginger, as Irene Foote, begins by leaping out from behind a curtain, dressed in an amusing Pierrot costume, complete with elongated, droopy fingers. She executes her song and dance with a great deal of enthusiasm and energy for spectator Fred Astaire, as Vernon Castle, who watches the performance indifferently.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is based off of the lives of the famous real life dancers of the same name. Broadway comedian Vernon Castle met wife Irene (Foote) Castle in New York in the early 1900's. Foote, an aspiring dancer and amateur actress, would often audition for minor theatrical productions with her rendition of Broadway star Bessie McCoy's comedic "Yama Yama Man" routine.

Illustration of Bessie McCoy as
The Yama Yama Man
Vaudeville veteran Bessie McCoy first popularized "The Yama Yama Man" in the 1908 Broadway musical comedy The Three Twins. It became an instant hit, and McCoy's fame skyrocketed, becoming affectionately known thereafter as "The Yama Yama Girl."

The title of the song itself is derived from a last minute improvisation by Gus Sohlke, the director of The Three Twins. The piece was originally deemed "The Pajama Man," until composer Karl Hoschna was told he could not use this title, as the play booked at the Whitney Opera House in Chicago following theirs already featured a pajama number. The following day, Sohlke happened to glance through the window of a toy shop while walking by, and noticed a doll made of triangles. This inspired him to replace their original pajama idea with a "triangular man" routine. He then presented this thought to lyricist Collin Davis, who constructed verses to fit the new song, which Sohlke christened "The Yama Yama Man."

The lyrics are quite chilling, even for a comedic routine. It advises young children to beware of a monster with "terrible eyes and a face of tan" that comes out at night to get you. However, despite its eerie nature, the catchy tune of "The Yama Yama Man" has proved timeless. It has since been covered by many musicians including George Segal, who incorporated it into his first LP.
Bessie McCoy in The Three Twins, 1908

"So apparently the song had just kinda filtered down through the years," Segal recalled in 1983. "It was also the title song on my first album in [1967], the first of my two enormously successful albums."

"The Yama Yama Man" has been around for over a century now, and there's no doubt it will continue to inspire artists for many more decades to come.

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