“Pennsylvania will one day be proud of you!”
Though the Trix Sisters’ fame isn’t well-known today, the above prediction was undoubtedly correct. The two-woman act of Helen and Josephine Yeiser, both hailing from Newmanstown in Lebanon County, boasted a winning combination of wit and musicianship that made them international stars a century ago. They performed in metropolitan Europe, toured North America, and even appeared before the King and Queen of the United Kingdom.
Stardom aside, the Trix Sisters’ story is about family, whether it be returning to old roots or planting new ones, and it begins with the Yeiser family itself.
The Yeiser Family
Helen and Josephine Yeiser were two of the seven daughters of John Henry and Kathryn Yeiser. The family was a musical one; John Henry himself was a skilled violinist and had performed in minstrel shows earlier in his life while Kathryn sung with a graceful soprano voice.
The history of the sisters and their careers has been researched by the late Carroll Lape, who authored a booklet on them for the Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society in 1992. Lape was in fact a distant relation of the family.
Helen, born on August 21, 1883, was the first to get noticed. While visiting friends in New York, she was encouraged to sing and performed in a Masonic concert. A man in the audience took notice and connected her with the Edison Phonograph Company with the suggestion that she try her hand (or voice) at making records.
Helen’s first recordings – made on wax cylinders – were released in 1906 and included “Is Your Mother In, Molly Malone?” and “The Next Horse I Ride On.”
Tony Pastor, music hall owner in London, was a fan of Helen’s singing and, according to her, made the aforementioned prediction that “Pennsylvania will one day be proud of you!” Pastor and other industry professionals put her in contact with many American and British entertainment stars of the day. According to the Reading Eagle, Helen also performed with Harry Houdini.
In addition to recording for the Edison Phonograph Company, she also recorded for Victor Records and made one Indestructible plastic record, “Rum-Tiddley-Um-Tum-Tay.”
Through her growing network of music connections, Helen began performing overseas at the London Coliseum. Her time across the pond lasted for three years before she came back to America to tour, performing around the country.
While on a visit back to the Newmanstown family farm, she watched an informal family performance of her younger sister, Josephine, born October 14, 1898. Helen was struck by her sister’s talent and pleaded with her parents to let her take Josephine as a performing partner in New York City. Reluctant at first, their parents eventually agreed.
Josephine was a bright girl and was 14 years younger than Helen. She was one of only four students in her local high school graduating class. Under her older sister’s guidance, she developed her performance and stage skills in New York. At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, the sisters took an opportunity to head back to the United Kingdom and began staging a revue, “The League of Notions,” in 1921.
A typical Trix Sisters show would consist of singing, banter, piano-playing, as well as other instruments, and dancing; Helen often composed her own songs. A revue, which had its heyday in the early 20th century, was a type of performance that featured similar content shared by several different acts. “The League of Notions” (a spoof of the international organization formed in 1920) featured 14 songs.
Perhaps the peak of the Trix Sisters’ career was their appearance as the penultimate act in the Royal Variety Performance on December 12, 1922, held at the London Hippodrome. King George V and Queen Mary were in attendance along with Queen Maud of Norway. That evening, Josephine reportedly danced with the Prince of Wales and future king, Edward VIII.
The sisters also staged other revues, including “A to Z” and “Tricks,” and opened “The Blues Room,” a cabaret in Montmartre in Paris. They continued to record throughout the decade and also appeared in shows in Germany and Australia.
The sisters visited Newsmanstown when they could. Outside of local papers, the fact of the sisters’ origins was sometimes used for marketing purposes. In 1918, for instance, an Ohio newspaper quoted Helen: “It’s worth working all winter just to get back to the farm in the summertime.” According to Lape’s research, the sisters were able to build a new house for their parents with their money – although their parents were evidently never quite comfortable in their new home.
The 14-year difference in age between the sisters prompted some speculation that Helen was in actuality Josephine’s mother. The rumors about the truth of the sisters’ relationship were apparently so pernicious that the duo issued a statement in 1923 dismissing them altogether. In that same year, the sisters’ mother Kathryn died, leaving both distraught.
Though the rumors about the sisters were totally inconsequential, there was another issue that was much more pressing. In 1926, Josephine married Edward Greenfield, another performer (she gave birth to a son, Edward W. Greenfield, the same year). This decision made Helen “extremely annoyed,” in Josephine’s words – and she decided to break up the act. Helen herself had been married before but was divorced at the time; why exactly she was opposed to the marriage is not entirely clear. The breakup of the act was a major source of buzz around Britain.
Both sisters ventured out as solo artists. Josephine found success on the stage, including the lead performance in the revue “Blue Skies,” but her sister, now in her 40s, was having trouble adapting to the changing times and the demands for entertainment. In 1928, Helen reportedly visited Josephine at her home unannounced and pleaded with her sister to reform the act and pursue work as a team again. Josephine agreed, and the two continued to perform as the sisters again for a period. They stayed primarily in the United Kingdom until 1944.
Helen continued to compose songs until her death in 1951 at the age of 65. Her work met little success — the music industry had completely changed since the days of vaudeville and wax cylinders, and her style of songwriting had simply fallen long out of fashion.
After Josephine’s husband passed away, she moved to New Orleans to remain close with family. Before her death in 1992 at 93, she had exchanged much correspondence with those interested in the sisters’ legacy, and appears to have donated a signficant amount of material on their career to the Lebanon County Historical Society.
Although both sisters passed away far from home – Helen in New York City and Josephine in New Orleans – they were both buried in the Yeiser family plot in Newmanstown Memorial Cemetery.
The sisters shared both a familial and a professional partnership that began at home in Newmanstown — a combination that sometimes strained their relationship. But it was the same family appeal that strengthened their career and has kept interesting those who would have otherwise never heard of these vaudeville stars of Paris and London that grew up on a certain farm in rural Pennsylvania.
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