Thomas Banahan, The Forgotten Stage Dad

Tommy Banahan in the N.V.A. Burial Ground

Tommy Banahan in the N.V.A. Burial Ground

Kensico Vaudeville Project #: 4
Name: Thomas Banahan
Act: Juggler
Born: 9 March 1883, Chicago
Died: 24 April 1929, New York City

The juggler Tommy Banahan was a star in the era before World War I and was the father of silent movie child stars Jane and Katherine Lee. Born on Chicago’s South Side 9 March 1883, he left the Midwest to become an actor. He married an Irish dancer, Irene Lee, and lived off and on in Chicago when not on the vaudeville circuit.

Jane and Katherine Lee

Jane and Katherine Lee

In 1901 he went to Berlin for the start of a European tour with other American actors. His immigration form states he was 5’ 2” with fair complexion and light hair. He and Irene traveled between Europe and America on numerous tours. On 14 Feb 1909 their first child, Katherine, was born in Berlin; on 15 February 1912 Jane was born in Dublin. Irene became the stage mother while Tommy toured with a juggling act.

The girls made two-reel comedies billed as the Lee Kids in films such as Neptune’s Daughter (1914) and Tell It To The Marines (1918). The girls followed in their parents’ vaudeville career and also played the circuit between making silent comedies. Banahan was a member of the Juggling Mowatts (sometimes billed with five and six members) that toured for 10+ years. The act was in the Ringling Brothers Circus prior to 1906. In 1913 at the Orpheum, the Juggling Mowatts shared the bill with the Three Keatons, Buster Keaton’s family group.

In 1924 in the Brooklyn Standard Union, Dan S. Lysaght wrote:

There were the Juggling Mowatts, the greatest of them all. In this act were Ben Mowatt, the greatest club swinger that ever lived, and Tommy Banahan. These two always worked opposite each other and were truly wonderful. Three other members were in the turn who changed at intervals, but Mowatt and Banahan continued until the act disbanded about nine years ago. Banahan is the father of the famous Lee Kids of moving picture fame.

Jane and Katherine Lee went on to star in scores of films and were mid-level celebrities during the Depression. It appears the parents split up fairly early, as Tommy is never mentioned in press and publicity notices, only their mother is.

Banahan died 24 April 1929 at age 46. The N. V. A. held his wake at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Church on Broadway. Banahan’s funeral mass was held at St. Malachy’s, The Actors Chapel, on 27 April.

His grave marker has an incorrect date.

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  • National Archives and Records Administration; Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Emergency Passport Applications (Issued Abroad), 1877-1907; Roll #: 39; Volume #: Volume 072: Germany
  • The Washington Post, 7 Jan. 1906, p. 7
  • United States. Census Bureau. Washington: GPO. 1910; Census Place: Chicago Ward 32, Cook, Illinois; Roll: T624_278; Page: 23B; Enumeration District:1371; FHL microfilm: 1374291
  • Brooklyn Life, 20 Sept. 1913, p. 2
  • National Archives and Records Administration; Year: 1916; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 2462; Line:18; Page Number: 85
  • United States. Census Bureau. Washington: GPO. 1920; Census Place: Chicago Ward 31, Cook (Chicago), Illinois; Roll: T625_348; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 1918; Image: 1052
  • NY Morning Telegraph, 29 Oct 1922, p. 10
  • Brooklyn Standard Union, 15 June 1924, p. 5
  • Brooklyn NY Daily Eagle, 25 April, 1929, p. 24
  • Vaudeville News, 4 May 1929, p. 4
  • Travalanche
  • Old Fulton New York Post Cards
  • Trav S.D. No Applause—Just Throw Money, The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (Faber and Faber, 2005).
  • American Vaudeville Museum