Irwin, May

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Irwin, May

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  • Campbell, Georgina May

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May Irwin was an actress who starred in burlesques, musicals, and plays on Broadway and other stages in the United States and England. She was especially well-known for her performances of ‘coon songs’, a popular musical genre of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

May Irwin was born Georgina May Campbell in 1862 in Whitby, ON, second daughter of Robert Campbell and Sophronia Jane Draper. When her father died around 1875, she and her sister, Adeline Flora (Flo), in order to support themselves, began performing at the Adelphi Variety Theatre in Buffalo, New York. May’s talent was noticed by impresario Tony Pastor and she spent the years from 1877 to 1883 under his management in New York City.
In 1883, Irwin acted with Augustin Daly’s company and spent several seasons at Toole’s Theatre in London, England. She returned to New York for the 1891-92 season and in 1893 she played Ophelia in a burlesque production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan. Irwin appeared in her first starring role in 1895 in J.J. McNally’s The Widow Jones, a role for which she received critical acclaim. In it, she played Beatrice Byke, a young woman who poses as the widow of a man who turns out not to be dead. Irwin forayed into film when she re-enacted the play’s kissing scene with co-star John C. Rice on film in 1896. ‘The Kiss’, as it became known, runs 47 seconds long and is considered the first on-screen kiss in film history.
May Irwin went on to appear in a number of other plays and musicals including Courted into Court (1896), Mrs. Black is Back, and Belle of Bridgeport (1900) until she retired in 1922 after her last performance in The 49ers.
In 1878, May Irwin married Frederick W. Keller but he died unexpectedly in 1886. The couple had two sons, Harry (born ca.1879) and Walter (born 1882). On May 26, 1907, she married her manager of 2 years, Kurt Eisfelt, at Clayton, NY, her home on the St. Lawrence River. She spent a great deal of her summers on her own island off Grindstone Island in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence. May Irwin died in New York City on 22 October 1938.


New York, New York ca.1875-1938

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