In 1907, when Florenz Ziegfeld launched his first Follies, he pondered who should play Pocahontas alongside Captain John Smith, a couple who would be the interlocutors for the revue. He needed someone with the physique to make a deerskin dress alluring with a voice that had a tinge of exoticism about it and a capacity to make gestures that were convincingly not Anglo-American. He selected Grace LeRue.
Born Grace Parsons, LaRue had been a music hall performer in the provincial circuits since 1895 as a member of the Burke Brothers' Rambler Burlesquers. She sang coon songs in blackface in the Rambler skit "Twenty Minutes on a Georgia Plantation." In 1903 she was the blackface prima donna in a minstrel pastiche of grand opera, "The Princess Losoros," by the Bohemians. In 1904 she donned trousers and joined with Charles Burke in "The Inkey Boys."
LaRue developed two skills to break free of the world of blackface entertainment: acrobatic dancing and impersonations. In 1906 these skills paid off, for the manager of the musical "The Tourists" hired her for a feature spot doing her impersonations. Critics found LaRue's contributions to this lame entertainment the thing most worthy of praise. She followed up with a stint in "The Blue Moon." It was performing in this musical that Ziegfeld encountered LaRue and formed the conviction that she would be an ideal co-host of the Follies.
LaRue's abilities as a popular singer insured that she would have a strong career in vaudeville and in musical comedy. She became an international star in 1913, causing a sensation in the London Palace Theatre and playing the lead in "The Girl Who Didn't." Her recordings from the second decade of the 20th century are among the very best examples of revue singing that survive. She appeared in numbers of stage shows, of which the Kern & Hammerstein "Sweet Adeline" was the most important. David S. Shields/ALS