“Talkies” began to appear in movie theaters before the famous Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer in 1927. That was the first feature-length talkie, but Warner Brothers had produced some “shorts” in 1926 using the same Vitaphone sound system as used in The Jazz Singer. Audiences could now see and hear their favorite vaudeville headliners doing their acts on their local movie screen. This alarmed vaudeville bigwigs, who feared a loss of business. Why would people pay to see a live vaudeville show if they could see their favorite performers in a cheaper movie instead? After all, it cost theater owners less to rent a film than it did to pay vaudeville performers’ salaries. So vaudeville owners forbade their performers from appearing in any Vitaphone shorts. Of course, that didn’t–couldn’t–last long. Vaudeville’s decline was already in motion. Radio had a hand in its demise as well. Talkies were the coup de grace. My mystery series takes place in 1924 and 1925, when vaudeville was seeing its heyday, so I don’t have to deal with the battles that talkies brought about. Still, it’s interesting to know what lay around the corner for my fictional characters. 

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Published in: on April 21, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Comments (2)  

“The Last of Vaudeville”

Every week The Economist runs an obituary on its last page, about the most significant person who died in the past week. The choices are mind-boggling as they aren’t focused on America; it’s what the editors consider the most significant person in the world to have died that week. As always, the writing is superb and the choices intrigue me. Many times, I have not heard of the person profiled.

As is the case this week, with Sir Ken Dodd, “the last great music hall entertainer” who died at age 90. Dodd was an English comedian who, in the 1960s through 1990s, averaged 100,000 miles a year traveling throughout Great Britain. Television didn’t suit him; it was live performance–vaudeville–that he loved. We think of vaudeville as an American invention, but it existed in other countries as well. Dodd was knighted only last year for his service in entertainment and charity. He continued performing almost until his death. For the entire (short) obituary, click here. 

Or here  for Wikipedia’s entry. 

Published in: on March 26, 2018 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vaudeville during the Winter

The past week’s cold weather made me think about vaudeville performers (and their audiences) in theaters that were poorly heated, or not heated at all. The truth is, many theaters in the North closed down during the winter because they couldn’t heat the building and because locals couldn’t easily travel to the theaters. Same thing happened in the South during the summers before air-conditioning was feasible. Historians speculate that performing in cold weather could have contributed to the many cases of tuberculosis among performers. One performer recalled playing at an Orpheum theater in Edmonton, Canada:

“This was one of our ungodly icy stands on the way to Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, and Frisco. The Edmonton audience was in overcoats and furs. The temperature outside was thirty below. While the theater was supposed to be warmly heated I could feel the cold penetrating the floor of the stage as I stood there driving my monologue out at them despite a bad cold and chilling feet.” (from Vaudeville Wars by A. F. Wertheim)

 

 

 

Published in: on March 14, 2018 at 11:10 am  Comments (1)  

New NPR Article about Mary Pickford

Saw this article about Mary Pickford on NPR today and thought you might find it interesting too. 

Published in: on February 27, 2018 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

When did vaudeville end?

The Palace in 1920

Of course, there’s so simple answer here, since vaudeville faded away in the 1930s, but I’ve found some guideposts that helped me get a handle on the timeframe. (Some argue that Ed Sullivan’s television show was nothing more than televised vaudeville, but no old-time vaudevillians would have agreed.) 

New York’s famous Palace theater on Broadway had its last two-a-day show during the week of May 7, 1932. “Playing at the Palace” was slang for playing BigTime. If you played the Palace, you had reached the pinnacle of success. It was the flagship of the Keith-Albee circuit theaters. The Palace continued to operated after that, with movies and a series of second-rate acts, but the vaudeville heyday was over. W.C. Fields spoke for the industry when he said, “For many, vaudeville passed into the limbo when the old New York Palace closed as a two-a-day in 1932.” 

Remember Jack Haley, the Tin Man in the 1939 Wizard of Oz and a vaudeville star? He wrote: “Only a vaudevillian who has trod its stage can really tell you about it… only a performer can describe the anxieties, the joys, the anticipation, and the exultation of a week’s engagement at the Palace. The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success.”

 

Published in: on February 10, 2018 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  

He foresaw the decline of vaudeville and the rise of movies

Who? Marcus Loew, founder of Loew’s theaters.

Early on, the Keith-Albee organization of vaudeville theaters started using films as one of the (usually) nine acts in their vaudeville lineups. That was when films lasted ten or twenty minutes, about as long as the typical vaudeville act.

But their competition, Marcus Loew, foresaw film eclipsing vaudeville as America’s favorite pastime. He bet right, although he didn’t live long enough to see how right he was. He died in 1927, just a few years before vaudeville began its rapid descent. 

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How many Vaudevillians were there in the Twenties?

Vaudeville performers constantly worried about being laid off. None but the most famous acts worked regularly. Why? Because there were so many more performers than spaces for them. One historian, A. F. Wertheim, estimates that in the early 1920s, there were about 20,000 performers jostling for about 5,000 or 6,000 weekly engagements, which required about 9,000 performers. (That’s performers, not acts. Many acts had more than one or two performers.) 

What happens in such cases? The laws of supply and demand brought salaries down. Of course, women were paid less than men, and children even less than women. It was a hard life and a hard way to make a living.

Published in: on January 13, 2018 at 12:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Going up? Elevators in the 1920s

I learned something useful in this week’s Economist magazine. Until the twentieth century, the higher the floor, the lower the rent. The most desirable floor in a high-rise was the first floor (not the grand floor); after that the second; after that, the upper floors were for servants or the middle/lower classes. Think starving artists in garrets. What changed? The invention of the elevator.

Sure, the elevator was invented in 1854, by Elisha Otis, but it wasn’t very successful at first or widely used. People were leery of riding such a contraption. But by the twentieth century, elevators permitted buildings to be built taller than ever, and suddenly, the desirability order was reversed. By the 1920s, the penthouse was the most expensive floor. 

From the 1400s onward, penthouse meant at attached building with a sloping roof, like a shed. Something not glamorous. In fact, some Middle English homilies describe Jesus’ birthplace in the manger as a “penthouse.” But in the 1920s, the meaning of the word shifted and it became the desirable top floor of a tall building, accessed by an elevator. 

What was an elevator like in the 1920s? Check this Otis elevator ride. 

I can use this bit of information in my books–I’ll have Jessie step into an elevator (with an attendant, of course) and he’ll slide shut the gate before pressing the button. A tiny detail, to be sure, but these things help bring the Twenties to life. 

Published in: on January 2, 2018 at 3:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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Need Christmas Present Idea?

Need a Christmas present or hostess gift for someone who likes to read? Consider giving a journey back into the Roaring Twenties via my Roaring Twenties mysteries, set in 1924 with a vaudeville and silent movies backdrop. The first in the series, THE IMPERSONATOR, won the national award for Best First Crime Novel in 2012, the second, SILENT MURDERS, had a terrific review in the New York Times. 

Find them in your local bookstores, libraries, or online at amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Take one missing heiress, an unscrupulous uncle, and a young vaudeville performer fallen on hard times; add several murdered girls, a mysterious Chinese herbalist, and a handsome bootlegger; then move from the seamy world of Prohibition-era vaudeville to Oregon’s rugged coast, and what do you have? A formula for suspense, as Jessie finds herself torn between her deceitful charade and her determination to find out what really happened to the girl she is impersonating.

 

 

In the second Roaring Twenties murder mystery, Jessie trades her nomadic vaudeville life for a modest but steady job in the silent film industry. She quickly learns that all Hollywood scorns the Prohibition laws: studio bosses rule the police and gangsters supply speakeasies everywhere with bootleg hooch and Mexican dope. When a powerful director is murdered at his own party and Jessie’s waitress friend is killed for what she saw, Jessie takes the lead in an investigation tainted by corrupt cops. Soon tangled in a web of drugs, bribery, and greed, she finds herself a prime suspect as the bodies pile up.

The third in the Roaring Twenties mystery series takes Jessie from silent films back into the world of vaudeville to track down a performer with something to hide. At the request of her silent film star boss, Mary Pickford, Jessie uses her vaudeville talents to investigate the murder of an extra by a Hollywood actress already sentenced to death for the crime. Her inquiries lead to the discovery of a blackmailer and more than a dozen actors facing ruin or even death if their secrets are exposed. If the convicted actress is innocent, then who killed the blackmailer?

The fourth book begins in the fall of 1925 when a projectionist is gunned down in the theater booth. The killer flees to the balcony and vanishes. Jessie’s investigation succeeds where the police fail, thanks to her vaudeville skills and connections. A killer seeking revenge for an Old World massacre is targeting a group of Balkan immigrants, one by one. Jessie deduces the reason the killer is never apprehended—but fails to spot the killer until it’s almost too late. A young deaf girl whose mother has gone missing plays a significant role.

 

 

 

 

STOLEN MEMORIES, below, is not part of the Roaring Twenties series, although it is set in that decade, in France and England.

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine leaves a young Englishwoman close to death in a Paris hospital without a memory in her head. She soon comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. The husband, who believes his wife’s amnesia is faked, spirits her away to an ancient chateau in the French province of Champagne, where prehistoric dolmens and standing stones dot the fields and caves hewn out of limestone are used for more than storing wine. For weeks he tries threats, bribery, and hypnosis to pry the truth out of her. As her memory returns piecemeal–some corroborating, some clashing with what she is told–she struggles to establish her identity. But who is trying to poison her and bury her in an avalanche of slate? Who is laying a trap for her deep within the wine caves of Champagne? The story takes place in 1928 against a backdrop of pagan ritual and an early Christian midsummer festival known as the Fires of John the Baptist.

 

 

Vaudeville Travel

I spend a good deal of time in my mysteries dealing with vaudeville travel practices, because travel–especially train travel–was such an integral part of every vaudeville performer’s life. Performers paid for their own tickets. It was their single most costly expense they had, more than hotels or food. Most tried to leave town after the final performance on their last day, which would usually be late Saturday night, so they could sleep on the train and save the money for a hotel that night, and so they could arrive the next morning in time for rehearsal. 

Performers called each train ride a “jump.” They jumped to the next town on their itinerary. But booking agents were not arranging these jumps with any thought to efficiency, so often performers had to “back jump” or go in the opposite direction or re-trace their route. And railroad travel was unpredictable. Trains were often delayed by snow, landslides, or strikes, meaning the performers missed their next gig and a day’s or week’s pay. 

Here’s something I learned that doesn’t make it into my novels–trains in the 1920s were faster than they are today. Incredible? Yes, but true. Why? Less rail capacity and poorer rail quality, plus the dominance of freight travel over passenger travel.  Read this for more. 

Published in: on December 9, 2017 at 8:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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