Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

DUNCAN SISTERS by Marilyn Slater




Marilyn Slater



press to hear the Duncan Sisters



          There is a photo which has recently been unearthed that was given to Mabel Normand while she was in London by Agnes (Vivian) and Jake (Rosetta) Duncan. “To Mabel with loving wishes from the heavenly twins, Agnes and Jake Duncan” in the left hand corner Mabel has written “memories of London, Oct 8, 1922.”

The Duncan Sister sailed home to 101 Kingsbridge Road in Mt. Vernon, New York on October 25, 1922.

          It was a year later that the Duncan Sisters became the toast of Broadway in Topsy & Eva’, a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with music and peppy ballet, chorus, dancers stepping the Charleston to the crack of Simon Legree's whip all very modern and with a happy ending;  the play was carried by the personalities of Rosetta and Vivian. Rosetta was the black face Topsy and Vivian played Eva. The words & music for the play were by the "Duncan Sisters" and published by none other then Irving Berlin, himself in 1923.

     It was such a hit that these two vaudeville stars ended up making a film version of Topsy & Eva which had its World Premiere at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre Hollywood June 16, 1927.

     There is no record of Mabel going to the Egyptian to see her friends;  who throughout the run of "Topsy and Eva" appeared twice daily with Mr. Grauman's prologue with “their inimitable musical numbers and incomparable wit”.   Mabel had been in the Santa Monica Hospital in February and March of 1927.

     In an article from August 1927:

            Mabel Normand is back home and well again after the long siege of illness she suffered. To celebrate her return -- both to health and home -- the rollicking Mabel and her equally fun loving husband, Lew Cody, "threw" a party in their Beverly Hills home recently that proved to be more than a mere party -- it was a glittering social event. Filmdom's entire Who's Who, it seemed was present at the affair -- and then some. Look at some of the guests! Anna Q. Nilsson, Fannie Ward, Ina Claire, Ruth Roland, Ben Bard, Fannie Brice, Nellie Revell, Edwin Carewe, Hunt Stromberg, Harry Rapf, Lottie Pickford, Eileen Percy, Allan Forest, Kathleen Clifford, Gertrude Olmstead, Robert Z. Leonard, Diana Miller, George Melford, Marcel de Sano, Helen Delaine, Belle Bennett, Monte Blue, Gertrude Astor, Clarence Brown, George Pallay, and many, many others. A continuous houseful until dawn, in fact. Somebody asked Lew if he had ever played in the stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Whereupon Mabel, overhearing the query, piped up, "Of course, he did -- he played one of the twelve Apostles."

     Sadly, she was readmitted to Santa Monica Hospital in August after the party; so it might have been possible for her to attend a performance in June or July. The comment about Uncle Tom’s Cabin most assuredly was in reference to the Duncan Sister’s program at the Egyptian It would be lovely if she was able to see them again.

     Rosetta and Vivian were the Duncan Sisters, no relation to Isadora but there was a third sister not part of the act who did appear in Peer Gynt (1915) named Evelyn Duncan b. January 21, 1893  and two brothers Alexander (b. 1892) and Harold (b.1899) but the sister act was Rosetta Florence Duncan, b. Nov. 23, 1894 and  Vivian Adelle Duncan, b. June 17, 1897; their mother was Lockey Wheeler, born in Missouri and their father was Samuel Duncan, who in 1900 was living with his family in Los Angeles and working as a brick mason; there is some indication that this was a second marriage for Lockey and that her first marriage was to a man named Sells. 


     Vivian was married to the very handsome Nils Asther, the Swedish silent film actor for a very short time (1930 to 32) and there union produced a little girl they named Evelyn in 1931.  Nils was a friend and co-star of Greta Garbo.  The Duncan Sisters made a few other films including “It’s A Great Life” (1929) but nothing as significant as Topsy and Eva.  In 1930 Rosetta was living at 60 Ocean Way, Los Angeles with a private secretary, personal maid, companion and a butler named Gower; next door were the actor William Harrigan and his wife, Grace and the Irish actor Grorge Nolan.  In 1938 Vivian and Rosetta took the 9 year old, Evelyn along with a large staff to South Aftica on the Empress of Britain returning to New York from Capetown in April 1939.

During the latter part of their lives they opened The Duncan Sisters Dance School located in a large compound located on the SE corner of El Camino & Floribunda, in Burlingame, California; they are both noted as residing in Burlingame, California in 1950. Although the Duncan Sisters Theatre School is listed in the 1947 city directories but by 1953 it is no longer in the directory.

     The Burlingame Historical Society has two interesting newspaper articles about Vivian Duncan (1) From 1930 when actor Rex Lease was fined $50 for blacking Vivian's eye but Lease found himself on the receiving end of Hal Duncan's (Vivian's 28 year-old brother) blow to his eye. The second newspaper article dated 1931 states that Vivian had been told that childbirth would be fatal to her but she goes to Bavaria where her daughter (Evelyn Rosetta Duncan Asther) was born on March 20, 1931. "The first twilight sleep administration did not work so well, but the second caused no trouble. She went to sleep at 4 pm March 20 and awoke at 6 the next morning and was well enough when she reached Paris to go out and find an apartment for herself and the youngster the first day."


     Rosetta, the comedian of the pair was killed in an auto accident in December 1959 in Illinois; Evelyn passed away June 8, 1972 in Los Angeles, California and Vivian died September 19, 1986 of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 89 in Los Angeles, California.

      There are a couple of wonderful websites where the music of these playful woman’s voices can still be heard:








Words & Music by the "Duncan Sisters"
(New York: Irving Berlin, Inc.,
Music Publishers, 1923)


You say you're leaving me,
My heart is grieving,
See how it is aching,
Just nearly breaking,
Well, when you're far away,
With other hearts you'll play,
Remember, dear, what I say,

Remember the times we've had, dear,
Remember our vows so true,
Remember our kisses sweet, dear,
And don't forget that I love but you,
Remember my arms are aching,
To hold you close to me,
Rememb'ring is all I'll do, dear,
So try and remember too.
I'll remember you.



1922 with the Prince of Wales

The picture that the Duncan Sisters gave to

 Mabel was from the musical called "The

Heavenly Twins" and in the essay by John

Sullivan (he knows just everything about the

career of these lovely ladies) he tells that the

girls taught the Prince of Wales to dance!






The Duncans indeed had thought of "baby stuff" as a route to musical fame before Topsy and Eva hit the boards. Before blackface they had been working on a show to be called "The Heavenly Twins," a story about "two orphans in a home." From it came the signature song for Topsy and Eva -- "Rememb'ring."

Fragments of their vaudeville act remain in newspaper accounts and in rare interviews. It seemed to feature slapstick, close harmony and comedy songs plus a sprinkling of satire. What ever it was that they did, joking around while singing "She Fell On Her Credenza" or tossing vegetables into the audience or mocking current musical stars, it worked. While performing in England in the early Twenties, they met the Prince of Wales and soon were harmonizing with him on the party circuit. They even taught him to do "The Chicago." On stage there their usual high jinks drew audiences. Their "out of the mouths of babes" antics were typified when the Queen of Spain appeared one evening in the Royal Box. Rosetta came on stage with a skinned knee and immediately went to the side of the stage where the Queen sat "and did what any child would do," she pointed to her knee and said: "I skinned my knee Princess Mary! Can you see my skinned knee?" So much for decorum, the audienced howled. The skinned knee bit had been part of the routine from the days of Tip Top.