Monmouth runaway became vaudeville star
MONMOUTH, Ill. — On September 10, 1902, Monmouth stonecutter Henry T. Wells received a message that no parent would want to hear — that his son Willie had been arrested by Chicago police.
The widowed father of six had enough problems on his hands, especially dealing with Willie, who went by the name of “China” and was only 11 years old. The Chicago police asked Henry to take charge of the boy and he was returned to the family home at 925 South B St.
Commenting on the incident, a reporter for the Monmouth Atlas wrote: “He is a head strong lad and will not attend school unless carefully watched.”
No one in Monmouth would have guessed at the time that young Willie’s wanderlust would lead him to an international career as a popular vaudeville dancer.
China Wells, as he was known at the time, had indeed begun performing on local stages at the age of 6. It’s not clear whether he completed high school, but before the age of 20 he had moved to Peoria, where he began his theatrical career, and where he met an 18-year-old German immigrant named Tillie Pingera. The couple was married on Nov. 18, 1909, and the following year they were living in Chicago, where Tillie gave to a son, Lawrence.
Domestic life apparently did not agree with the young father, for in 1912 Wells boarded a steamer for Australia, where he found a ready audience in that country’s music hall scene on the Brennan-Fuller circuit. At only 5–4, he was a wiry kid who could do contortionist-like moves, and billed himself as Billy Wells, The Elastic Dancer.
While dancing Down Under, Wells met two Australian sisters — Iva and Cristin Fay — who performed a dance act as the Éclair Twins. They “adopted” him as their American brother, and in 1914 they became a popular act known as Billy Wells and the Éclair Twins. The team soon lit out for other countries, performing first in South Africa and by 1917 at London’s famous Coliseum music hall.
At the height of the first world war, the team was playing in Paris and Nice, where Wells was billed as Le Danseur Elastique. On his U.S. draft registration card in 1918, the athletic Wells interestingly claimed an exemption for “weak lungs.”
Wells and the Eclairs were recorded for posterity in 1919, when British Pathé shot a film short of one of their routines on a London stage. In its film catalog, British Pathé describes the action thus: “The Éclair Twins emerge through a curtain in frilly dresses and large floppy hats. Billy Wells emerges. A wild crazy dance ensues — Billy dances with one of the girls. It is pretty crazy ‘jazz dance’ and involves both of them doing the splits and throwing each other around all over the place.”
The video can be viewed today on YouTube.
After the Armistice, the team toured the United States on the Pantages and Marcus Loew vaudeville circuits. By this time, Wells was divorced, and Tillie was living with her mother and daughter in Peoria.
In 1927, the act was renamed Billy Wells and the Four Fays, when it added Iva and Cristin’s younger sister and brother, Jacqueline and Pat. Jacqueline would later marry bandleader Louis Basil, whose band would provide musical accompaniment for the troupe. The couple would also have a musical daughter, Toni Basil, most famous for her 1982 music video “Hey Mickey,” in which she dressed as a high school cheerleader.
Billy Wells and the Four Fays continued to tour throughout World War II, appearing on the same stage with many of the era’s biggest stars. On April 13, 1949, while appearing with Hoagy Carmichael at the Chicago Theater, Wells collapsed. He lingered for seven weeks before dying at the age of 58.
Even after Wells’s death, The Four Fays continued to perform as “comedic acrobats,” appearing three times on the Ed Sullivan Show and other TV variety programs into the 1960s. While performing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, they were joined in their act by high school student Toni Basil.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.