If vaudeville died in 1932, as so many historians believe, why is local musician and retired CCRI teacher Lloyd Kaplan scheduled to lecture about it at the Warwick Public Library next Tuesday? Isn’t it a bit late to mourn its passing?
“Mostly, I love old songs and the days of Tin Pan Alley,” said Kaplan. “Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley had a symbiotic relationship and they both grew up at the same time. Vaudeville depended on Tin Pan Alley for new music and the publishers depended on vaudeville to sell their songs.”
For those who were alive before the dawn of television, radio and the iPod, the idea of sitting in a theater for the better part of an evening, watching acrobats, comics and animal acts may seem quaint, but for the years between the Civil War and the dawn of talking movies, it was the most popular form of entertainment in America. Many people believe that it was a uniquely American entertainment that grew out of the Industrial Revolution in this country and the prosperity of the middle class that ensued.
“Before vaudeville, there were variety shows and minstrel shows but they were often crude and the audiences were rough,” said Kaplan. “It was the father of vaudeville, Tony Pastor, who cleaned it up and made it respectable. He offered dress patterns, pots and pans and bags of flour to draw the women into his theater.”
Yale University historian Alan Trachtenberg saw vaudeville as a product of a capitalist society that grew out of the culture of incorporation that defined American life after the Civil War. It did mark the beginning of entertainment as big business, as more leisure time became available for white- and blue-collar workers. Tractenberg and others believe that vaudeville helped to change the tastes of urban audiences by savvy showmen that integrated developing technologies to create and control networks of theatres and standardize, professionalize and institutionalize popular entertainment.
Many historians credit Benjamin Franklin Keith as much as Tony Pastor as a founder of vaudeville. Keith was a Boston theater owner. He started in show business “working variously as a grifter and barker with traveling circuses in the 1870s, and for dime museums in New York,” according to www.xroads.virginia.org.
He returned to Boston and in 1883 established his own museum in Boston featuring “Baby Alice, the Midget Wonder” and other such acts that allowed him to build the Bijou Theatre, “a lavishly appointed, state-of-the-art, fireproof theatre, set the standard for the shape of things to come.”
Keith established a policy of cleanliness and order and forbade “vulgarity” or “coarse” material in his theater to appeal to the moral sensibilities of a middle-class audience. He even advertised that he had Sunday school officials reviewing all the rehearsals in his theaters.
Variety theatre existed before 1860. Theater patrons could enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, acrobats, singers, dancers and comics all in the same evening. Other entertainment came from a handful of circuses that regularly toured the country, dime-museums, amusement parks, riverboats and county fairs. Saloons, music halls and burlesque houses catered to the “low-brow” crowds. Minstrel shows and medicine shows toured the country with comedy, music, jugglers and other acts to help them sell their quack medicine. But it was vaudeville that incorporated all of them into a stable form centered in America’s cities and towns and made it respectable to watch, if not to perform in. Almost all of the vaudeville biography movies made in the 1940s and 1950s have gained respectability for the performers as a plot line.
“Once they got the women in the place, they had acts like the The Foys, Gus Edwards, who did a bit called ‘School Days,’ using younger performers like Eddie Cantor and George Jessel,” said Kaplan. “In fact, Gus Edwards wrote the song ‘School Days’ that you still hear today.”
What Kaplan can’t say for sure is exactly where vaudeville, the word, came from.
“Some people say it comes from vaux de ville or ‘worthy of the city,’” he said. “Others believe that it comes from a place in Normandy that was famous for satiric songs. I’m inclined to think it’s the first explanation.”
Others suggest it was chosen “for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility.”
Imitators sprung up and by the 1890s, vast theatre circuits spanned the country and “comprehensive networks of booking offices” handled promotion and production. Mirroring other captains of industry, “Keith and Albee consolidated their control of vaudeville, first through the United Booking Artists and later through the establishment of the Vaudeville Manager's Association, establishing a virtual monopoly that lasted well past Keith's death in 1914,” according to xroads.virginia.edu.
Keith also developed the continuous performance that fit perfectly into city life and catered to a middle class population with leisure time and workers constrained by shift work. Vaudeville theatres were often called “palaces,” and the Palace Theater New York, which opened in 1913, was another constant in vaudeville biography stories (“We open at the Palace for two weeks!”) and competed with each other for luxury, elegance and grandness. One writer in Boston said of Keith’s theater, that it was “incredible that all this elegance should be placed at the disposal of the public, the poor as well as the rich.”
Kaplan said that few people around today realize how big vaudeville really was in its prime.
“At its height, there were 15,000 houses that featured vaudeville,” said Kaplan. “The performers got tied into a circuit and could tour for years. Keith and Albee had contracts with acts for one or two years at a time.”
Kaplan said that most of the early television and radio stars got their start in vaudeville before going to Hollywood and making movies. It was talking movies that killed vaudeville. Why pay for a live performer if you had the best entertainers on film or on the radio?
“A lot of the best vaudeville acts went to the screen and radio,” said Kaplan. “W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, George Burns, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope. Some of them went to the mountains, the Borsht Belt, cabarets, nightclubs.”
For Rhode Islanders, George M. Cohan stands out as a vaudeville performer but there are others that are nearly forgotten that were huge stars in their prime.
“There was Ted Lewis,” said Kaplan, “He was second only to Paul Whiteman’s Band in popularity. He would dance and sing ‘Me and My Shadow’ with his shadow and sneak in a little clarinet.”
Speaking of bands, a lot of musicians got their start playing house orchestras in vaudeville but by the time the swing era rolled around, vaudeville was in its death throes.
“Most people who care about such things think that 1935 is the year that vaudeville officially died,” said Kaplan. “That was the year that The Palace had its last vaudeville show.”
Kaplan remains nostalgic about vaudeville because, like many of us, he wished he could have been there, at least to see some examples of the “Dummy Act” and “The Chaser” live.
“The Dummy was at the beginning of the show and it was usually an act that was kind of lousy, so that people who were still finding their seats didn’t feel like they were missing much,”
Kaplan said. “The Chaser was the last act on the bill and it had to be so bad that it cleared the theater for the next show.”