Billy B. Van: The Sunshine Man
Can messages of optimism from the Depression-era book “Snap Out of It!” help steer today’s Americans toward a cheerier outlook for tomorrow?
“Boys and girls, if you would find the philosopher’s stone, the sure cure for depression, I say each morning stand facing the sun so that the shadows will be behind you, then keep moving so fast that they never catch up.”
Thus concludes a peppy little book, published in the depths of the Great Depression, called “Snap Out of It!” Its author had seen the sun rise and set on his own aspirations several times by then, but by all accounts he always followed his own advice.
Much of what we know about Billy B. Van’s personal history comes from “Snap Out of It!” which presents the trajectory of his life as a moral fable. Its aim is to motivate readers, for by then Van,
who had once been a legendary figure on the vaudeville circuit, had embarked on his latest of many careers, this time as a motivational speaker.
The book begins with a jaunty race across three centuries of U.S. history that illustrates how the country has gone through periods of boom and bust since even before its founding. In a not-very-subtle jab at F.D.R.’s New Deal policies, Van maintains that periods of bust have always been endured with the grit, hard work and optimism of individuals — with no thanks to shortcuts proposed by irresponsible politicians. He claims to see these traits embodied in the thrifty, resourceful and conservative temperament of his New Hampshire neighbors.
In Van’s view, a spell of political and economic depression had led to a collective psychological
depression mostly because Americans were conformists when it came to rhetoric: People often complained about problems not because they were personally affected by them, but because they heard others complaining about them and joined the dismal chorus. Such depressions, Van was convinced, would take less of a toll if everyone kept a cheery outlook, stayed busy and learned to deal with a little bit of adversity.
William Webster VandeGrift was born in 1870 and spent his earliest years in eastern Pennsylvania. His stepfather took him out of school when he was nine and sent him to work as an errand boy for a Philadelphia lawyer. This kindly but demanding employer recognized a gift for humor in the boy, and, lest he become “a senseless clown,” assigned him four books to read over and over again until he understood them. They were serious books, two or three paragraphs of which would exhaust the powers of concentration in most educated adults today: Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason,” Ernst Haeckel’s “The Riddle of the Universe” and the Bible. Meanwhile Van got his first glimpse of the acting profession while running messages to a theater impresario among his employer’s clients. Fascinated, he began to imitate what he saw and was soon honing his own material. Before long, he and his boss were spending their lunch breaks swapping bits of original comedy for history lessons. Van’s humor received a suffusion of moral seriousness it would never lose.
Around the same time, the still pre-teen William Vandegrift auditioned for his first stage play with a children’s theater company and won a part in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore,” earning a salary of $3 a week, twice what the lawyer was paying him. The producer gave him the stage name Willie Van, which he soon altered to Billy B. Van. When the company’s lead actor took sick, Billy initially filled in for him but came to replace him permanently. As a lead actor, he was paid $5 every Saturday night at a time when the average manufacturing employee in the United States commanded just $1.34 for a day’s work.
Once on his own, Van made the theater his life, working his way up from property boy through minstrel shows (often performing, regrettably, in blackface) and refining his peculiar talent for comic monologue, burlesque and vaudeville acts and even the circus, until finally, at 20, he had steady employment with a stock company based in Washington, D.C. By the time he was in his 30s he had reached Broadway, where he continued to appear in productions every couple of years for a quarter century. He had made a name for himself and, apparently, quite a lot of money.
Van’s association with New Hampshire began in 1897 when he was hit with what he called his “first great depression.” While on tour and passing through Boston, he experienced a flare-up of a chronic case of tuberculosis after playing shows in a damp theater. His company left him in the care of a hotelkeeper and his wife, with whom he spent 15 weeks being nursed back to health. The hotelkeeper happened to own a chain of hotels in New Hampshire and, having taken a special liking to the young actor, invited him to a property he owned in the little village of Georges Mills on Lake Sunapee, thinking it would be a better — and less expensive — locale for him to continue his recovery. Van was smitten with the place, so when the hotelkeeper offered to sell him an option he had on a large parcel of land nearby, he seized the opportunity. This first purchase would lead to others, and in the years to come, Van cobbled together a sizable estate.
He returned to touring with the theater for half the year but spent the other half in Georges Mills, where he kept a model farm and built a second semi-secret career as an expert on scientific dairy farming, with special attention to speeding up butter production. Under his birth name William Webster Vandegrift, he squeezed in lectures at agricultural colleges around the country between his many theatrical commitments. All the while, his fame and influence in the acting world continued to grow.
Cinema at the time was new, and it was not clear what niche it would fill in the show-business ecosystem. Billy B. Van had no intention of giving up on the stage, nor was he one to walk past an avenue opening up before him. It appears he saw motion pictures as both a threat and an opportunity for stage actors, and by setting up his own movie-production company in 1915, he hoped to ensure it would be the latter. His plan was to produce short-reel comic films starring prominent vaudeville actors. These films would then be played in vaudeville houses around the country as teasers in anticipation of the in-person arrival of the featured actors themselves. Van is known to have produced parts of five films in Georges Mills in the year or so that his Equity Motion Picture Company made its home on the shores of Lake Sunapee. In spite of his naturally expressive features and antic flair for physical comedy evident in the few scraps of surviving silent-film footage he features in, Van was ultimately a man of the stage whose reliance on language to convey his humor meant that he was a less-than-perfect fit for the then-mute medium of film.
Both before and after his short-lived foray into film production, Van frequently had his friends from the wild world of drama up to Georges Mills. Among those who put in appearances were a few names still well-known today, including Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle and Ethel Barrymore. These were flamboyant big-city personalities who lived fast, made lots of noise and embodied anything but the conservative and thrifty values of the New Hampshire neighbors Van would later celebrate in “Snap Out of It!” But, as one local reporter put it in his 1904 coverage of a two-day birthday bash held by Van and fellow actress Rose Beaumont that culminated in the surprise wedding of the pair, the crowd of hundreds from near and far “formed a collection of wits, talent and beauty seldom seen in these parts.” In anticipation of the party, Van had decorated the barn-turned-dance-hall with cheery signs of his own making, featuring messages such as, “Check your troubles by the door,” and “Life is short, be happy.” When the celebration was over, the signs were auctioned off and taken home to adorn the cottages and houses of people all over town.
Showy egos were not always welcome in Georges Mills, however — not even benevolent ones like Van’s. At the height of his popularity, he had a large dance pavilion built in town and named it Van Harbor Casino. He also managed to have a sign — reading “Van Harbor, NH” — placed on the steamship dock, where visitors got their first impression of Georges Mills. For a time he even lobbied to have the name of the village officially changed to Van Harbor by taking out full-page ads in the local paper, where he slurred those opposed to his case as narrow-minded pessimists. In the end, his rowdy company and un-Yankee-like sense of entitlement led to the waning of his popularity in the tiny lakeside community.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” Van liked to say. “That’s why Saturday night comes just before Sunday.” In 1921, which we might call the end of his Saturday night, Van lost his Georges Mills property after a divorce (possibly his third) and a downturn in his fortunes on the stage that had less to do with a decline in his appeal than with the economic fallout of the first World War. But he had no intention of leaving his beloved New Hampshire, his happy place; he purchased property in Newport, which would remain his homebase until he died in 1950.
In Newport, with a new wife and three kids on the way, he continued to look after his dairy herd, and it was there that he turned to the production of soap, an idea he had been working on for many years. Curiously enough, soap was a commodity whose association with the acting profession went back to the days when medicine shows relied on burlesque theatricals to sell their products. According to Van, making soap scented with pine was an idea that had never occurred to anyone before. He first thought of it out of gratitude for all the good that the pine-scented air of sunny New Hampshire had worked on him during his 1897 visit as a convalescent. The impulse to monetize the idea, however, came when he saw a once-famous New York actress who had grown old and fallen on hard times. He realized that his streak in the theater might not last forever.
Like later, more famous prophets of positive thinking such as Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, Billy B. Van saw salesmen as the paragons of the kind of industriousness he liked to champion. “The boys with the sample cases are the last line of defense for optimism in this country,” he wrote. He also liked to say that when life gave you lemons, you should take it one step beyond simply making lemonade: “We have accepted every lemon they have handed us, and we’re using them to open up a lemonade stand.”
Motivated by a combination of curiosity, native energy, the need for a long-term contingency plan should his acting career not hold out and an irrepressible entrepreneurial streak, Van embarked on a whole series of later-in-life careers in addition to the soap business, including radio broadcasting, motivational speaking and boosting the State of New Hampshire in whatever way he could. He got along better with his business-minded Newport neighbors than he had with the country folk and cottagers in Georges Mills, and dedicated himself to boosting the local economy as a whole — not just his own ventures. He became a fixture at town meetings, to which it is said people would attend just for the entertainment value of hearing him speak. In 1942, he was named honorary “Mayor of Newport,” a title he held for the rest of his life.
In Newport, things really did go well for Van. He dubbed it the “Sunshine Town,” a nickname that has stuck for almost a hundred years now, and liked to tell people that the sun shone on both sides of the street in the town.
“In New England,” Van quipped, “where poverty is still respectable and it is even fashionable to be poor, the so-called Depression has had a tough time trying to make the front page.” While the days of shabby gentility are mostly gone, in some parts of New England we still do pride ourselves on our ability to play down adversity. Our current global depression — for the moment, anyway — is mostly civic in nature, not yet economic, and moreover often seems like its most dire symptoms show up in places far away from New Hampshire.
What if there’s something to the idea that we make hard times harder for everyone by indulging our instinct to fall into a collective despair, even when our own lives are pretty good? In “Snap Out of It!” we are told the story of an old man who looks up at Mount Washington and says, “See that snow? We won’t have any good weather till that snow is off the mountain; and that snow won’t go off the mountain until we have some good weather.” See the state of the world — it’s not hard to imagine Billy B. Van saying — with its uncertainty, its political polarization, its inflation, its red-hot rhetoric, its violence and the never-ending pandemic? No one’s mood is going to improve until the state of the world takes a turn for the better; and the state of the world will never take a turn for the better until everyone’s mood improves.
So how do we snap out of it? Well, someone has to take the first step, so why not us? Maybe those of us who have the privilege of living in a quiet, peaceful and prosperous corner of the world, a part of the world where neighbors still know each other and get along, and where we are surrounded by natural beauty — maybe we should take it upon ourselves to disengage from all the doomsaying that goes on nowadays.
So, smile a little more than you might feel like smiling. Breathe in the pine-scented air that brought Billy B. Van through his “first great depression.” Make New Hampshire the place of gratitude and good cheer he believed it was, and maybe, just maybe, we can break the vicious cycle that leads from despair to trouble and back to despair again.