How to be a success in Vaudeville?

How to be successful in vaudeville was a burning question in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many people, rural and urban, thought they had talent or a special trick that could make them a fortune on the stage, but few knew how to go about getting there. Frederic La Delle of Jackson, Michigan, wrote a how-to book for those people in 1913. Fred claimed to have spent 30 years on the vaudeville stage–might be true, but I couldn’t find a shred of information about him on line. He probably made decent money on this publication, but I doubt it propelled anyone to a successful career.

According to Fred, “Special talent is not necessary for acting any more than it is for any other profession.” Oh, good. No talent needed. And I smiled at the advice on how to write press notices: “It is an excellent plan to spend some of your spare time in writing up a number of clever anecdotes in which of course you figure prominently . . . A friendly newspaper reporter will generally help you in this.” Sure he will. Newspaper reporters are always looking to do free work for aspiring performers. And many pages are devoted to obscure, nonsensical descriptions of the various sorts of acts one supposedly sees in vaudeville, meant, I suppose, to inspire the talentless. Acts like Paper Tearing, Rolling Globe Acts, Statuary Posing, Iron Jaw Acts, Tambourine Throwing, and Chapeaugraphy (taking a hat and “by a simple twist” shaping it into “hundreds of different forms. . . a very realistic act.”) Sure it is.

But in my line of work (writing mysteries with a vaudeville backdrop), I found the book quite valuable. The section on vaudeville slang was useful, as were the pages on theater terms. I wouldn’t have known some of them, as they are only relevant to vaudeville, like “split week,” which my character, Jessie, and her partners play in book 3, Renting Silence. “Working in one” or “working in two” are also phrases I used in that book, with suitable explanations. Like this:

The three of us arrived at a seedy theater in Dayton, ready for our split week—a Sun Time innovation despised by all Small Timers. We started with the usual Monday morning rehearsal. No costumes, no makeup—just a run-through to get the orchestra familiar with the music for each act and let the theater manager determine their order for the program. At this theater, the “orchestra” consisted of a pianist, a fiddle player, and a boy pounding away on the drums.

“You gals working in one?” the manager asked. April looked at me, alarmed.

“No,” I answered. He made a note on his clipboard.

“’In one’ means in front of the curtain,” I whispered to April and June. “We’re working ‘in two,’ using the full stage. He needs to alternate the acts so they can set up for a flash act or a tab act—those come with their own scenery and props—while the preceding act is working ‘in one,’ in front of the curtain.” They still looked confused but we were up. “I’ll explain later. Now, give it your best,” I hissed. I almost added, “We don’t want to get stuck in the deuce spot,” but I figured that’s where we’d land, so I kept my mouth shut.

 

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Published in: on September 16, 2017 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Surprising Facts about Fingerprinting

Fingerprint records. Photographed on 24 November 1924, in the Fingerprint Division of the Bonus Bureau, Washington DC, USA.

I knew that fingerprinting was new in America in the 1920s, when my mysteries take place, so I was careful not to place too much reliance on such new technology, technology that was slow to catch on in many parts of the country. But I recently learned some surprising facts about fingerprint identification. Such as–

The first country to use fingerprint classification for law enforcement was–surprise!–Argentina in 1892.

The first fingerprint bureau was established in British India! In 1897 in Calcutta. England adopted the practice and established a fingerprint branch at Scotland Yard in 1901.

The U.S. Army was the first place in America to use fingerprints for identification, in 1905, but not for criminal identification.

In the U.S., the use of fingerprints first resulted in a criminal conviction in 1911.

My books, set in 1924 and 1925, coincide with the year Congress established the Identification Division of the FBI in 1924.

I was not surprised to learn that most of the actual identification work was done by women.

 

 

Published in: on August 30, 2017 at 1:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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Did I pass the Page 69 Test?

The Page 69 Test

from Marshal Zeringue  SUNDAY, AUGUST 27, 2017

“Murder in Disguise”

 Mary Miley grew up in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and France, and worked her way through the College of William and Mary in Virginia as a costumed tour guide at Colonial Williamsburg. As Mary Miley Theobald, she has published numerous nonfiction books and articles on history, travel and business topics.

Miley applied the Page 69 Test to Murder in Disguise, her fourth Roaring Twenties mystery, and reported the following:

From page 69:

If I had been on trial for my own life, I do believe I would have felt more composed than I did on that day, Tuesday, November 3, as I climbed the steps and entered the courthouse at Main and Temple. After all, a lifetime spent in front of audiences that jeered as well as cheered should have equipped me with enough poise to soothe any amount of stage fright, and a jury is nothing more than an audience empowered to judge and to determine a performer’s fate. I knew my part to perfection. I’d chosen my costume carefully—an ivory tunic dress with its pleated skirt demurely hemmed below the knee—and applied my makeup—a light application of kohl rimming the eyes and subdued lipstick—to emphasize my wide-eyed, ingénue honesty.

So why was I shivering like a dead leaf in a gale? Because it wasn’t my life; it was David’s. And I owed him a life for what he did for me in Oregon last year.

Page 69 finds the reader at the start of Chapter 12 and the beginning of the courtroom scene where Jessie’s significant other, David, is being tried for murder and a host of Prohibition-related crimes. Jessie is one of the witnesses. David’s shady lawyer is confident of acquittal—why not? He’s bribed the jurors—but things don’t go as expected. Things never do. That’s what keeps the reader turning pages.

Is this page representative of the rest of the book? Well, yes. As a matter of fact, it’s representative of my entire Roaring Twenties series, because it furthers the saga of David and Jessie’s relationship, which began in the first book, The Impersonator, and continues through the second and third. One of my goals in creating this subplot story arc is to illustrate the absurdity of the Prohibition laws that corrupted our legal system in horrifying ways.

Readers tell me they enjoy being immersed in the 1920s, easily America’s most intriguing decade. This was an era that soared from the heights of silent movies to the depths of Prohibition, a time when vaudeville, gangsters, flappers, bootleggers, and jazz came right into the parlor courtesy of a new invention called radio. As the male establishment watched in horror, women declared their independence with the ballot, raised their hems, bobbed their hair, smoked cigarettes, slurped bathtub gin, and shimmied at speakeasies late into the night.

Learn more about the book and author at Mary Miley’s website, blog, and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: Murder in Disguise.

–Marshal Zeringue

Published in: on August 27, 2017 at 4:39 pm  Comments (2)  

Dr. Bernardo still exists! Who knew? Not I.

In my gothic mystery, Stolen Memories, I mention a man named Dr. Barnardo (d. 1905), who founded a charity for children in England in 1866 with orphanages. My fictional character, Claire, spent some time in one of Barnardo’s orphanages in London, and this plays a significant role in her story. 

Still, while I knew about the late doctor’s deeds, I was unaware that the charity was still going strong. At least, this is what I saw from the window of the bus I was riding last week in Scotland. We were vacationing in Edinburgh, taking the bus to Leith to visit the Royal Yacht, when we passed several of these establishments. They seem to be something like Goodwill or Salvation Army, selling donated goods to raise money for the charity. According to Wikipedia, this is the UK’s largest children’s charity. I was surprised to see this link to my story, which is set in the 1920s. 

 

Published in: on August 12, 2017 at 2:50 pm  Comments (3)  

Invitation to my new book’s birthday party

It’s my book’s Birth Day! The date the publisher chose to release it. Come to the party on Aug. 16 at Chop Suey Books in Richmond’s Carytown district and get a copy of my latest mystery, MURDER IN DISGUISE. In the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, I’m doing a short reading at 6:00 and serving suitable Prohibition beverage–and giving away a hardcover copy of the first in the series, THE IMPERSONATOR, with every purchase. Convenient, free parking behind the Byrd Theater across the street. 

Published in: on July 28, 2017 at 8:24 am  Leave a Comment  

How long was a vaudeville act?

Of course, the length of time for each act varied, but not by much–no less than ten minutes, no more than twenty. A standup comic might run a ten-minute act, a song-and-dance routine could be twelve, and a short play might run as long as twenty minutes, but twelve was the average and the number most acts aimed to meet.

“Vaudeville demands speed,” said Edward Albee of the Keith-Albee circuit. “You cannot move too fast in vaudeville. The dramatic sketch must plant its story and have the action stirring rapidly before the curtain has ceased to rustle; the acrobats must show the best they have and show off the singer, the monologuist, the dancer, the animal trainer and every other artist must have his or her act boiled down to essentials, and the appeal must be direct, sudden and unmistakable.” 

In my books, the acts last twelve minutes. 

Published in: on July 22, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (3)  
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Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit Grows in the 1890s

When I write my Roaring Twenties mystery series, which is set in the 1920s, I depend on my research about the vaudeville circuits of the early 20th century. One thing I learned was that these “circuits” (groups of theaters that joined together to host an itinerant group of performers) didn’t materialize out of nowhere. In the 1890s, the Orpheum Circuit, which was largely made up of west coast theaters and a few in the Midwest, needed to find some theaters in between so that performers didn’t waste a week of unpaid time traveling from the Midwest cities (like Chicago) to the west coast. Yes, it could take three or four days to travel from the Midwest to the far west by rail, which meant the performers lost that week. Anything less than one day of travel cut into their 6-day week, rendering the act unemployable for that week.

The first in-between theaters added were in Kansas City, MO, and Omaha, NE, both railway hubs that were growing in population and sophistication. After that came Denver, in those days, the largest city between Kansas City and San Francisco. The Denver Orpheum was built in 1899 at the unheard of cost of $350,000. (Sadly, it was torn down in the 1930s.) But with this stunning theater, the Orpheum Circuit could at last attract big names, because performers could travel between engagements one day at a time.

Published in: on July 10, 2017 at 4:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Houdini’s Rise to Stardom

I mention Houdini briefly in a couple of my mysteries, so I became interested in his remarkable life and unusual talents.

Houdini began as a small-time magician in vaudeville. Fortunately for him, he was spotted by Martin Beck, an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who became one of the top booking agents in vaudeville thanks to his uncanny ability to discover new talent. When he saw young Houdini, he told him he should cut out the regular magic tricks that other magicians did and concentrate on one big thriller that only he could do–escape-artist tricks like the handcuffs in the trunk.

Houdini took his advice and became a vaudeville sensation. Beck became the Orpheum Circuit’s general manager.

Published in: on July 1, 2017 at 6:19 am  Comments (1)  

Murder in Disguise Gets a Nice Review

Author: MARY MILEY

Title: MURDER IN DISGUISE

Publication: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Issue: 19TH JUNE 2017

 Murder in Disguise: A Roaring Twenties Mystery, Mary Miley. Severn, $28.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8714-6

The shooting murder of projectionist Joe Petrovitch, during a showing of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush at a Hollywood movie theater, propels Miley’s engrossing fourth Roaring Twenties mystery (after 2016’s Renting Silence). The police rush to the theater, but the gunman escapes without a trace. The victim’s wife, a hairdresser at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, asks script girl Jessie Beckett, who’s a skilled amateur sleuth, to investigate. With help from Adele Astaire (Fred’s glamorous sister and dance partner), actress Myrna Loy (later to achieve fame in The Thin Man), assorted vaudevillians, and police detective Carl Delaney, spunky, resourceful Jessie sets to work. Aficionados of showbiz history will delight in the technical details of filmmaking in the silent era and the peripatetic lives of the performers. Readers will also get the lowdown on bootlegging, speakeasies, and gin joints. Series fans will be pleased to know that David Carr, Jessie’s love interest, has a tidy subplot of his own.

 

Published in: on June 26, 2017 at 3:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Vaudeville Wars: Book Review

With a title like Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and it’s Performers, I knew it would be right up my Roaring Twenties alley. I was right, and I learned some things. But the book itself was excruciatingly dull reading. Granted, it was published by Palgrave-MacMillan, the academic imprint for MacMillan publishing company, so I should have expected dry. 

Basically this is a book about how Keith, Albee, and other vaudeville tycoons monopolized the business and screwed the performers as they made boatloads of money.

In pursuit of their goal to make vaudeville a form of family entertainment, Keith and Albee stressed the Three C’s — cleanliness, comfort, and courtesy. “The city’s (New York) social reformers and religious leaders attacked the concert saloon for its drinking and lewd amusements and instead avidly supported wholesome recreation for the working class. Keith’s refined vaudeville was exactly the type of entertainment the city’s leaders wanted.” In the early years (1880s and 1890s), Keith himself welcomed audiences at his Grand Opera House and emphasize the rules: no hats, no smoking, no whistling, and no stamping feet, spitting or yelling obscenities. Playbills pointedly mentioned the wholesome environment. Performers were forbidden to use profanity or off-color jokes. Profanity meant something different in the 1880s: words like slob, son-of-a-gun, and gee, would result in an act’s cancellation. Keith hired a Sunday school teacher to censor the jokes. From then on, vaudeville was family entertainment. Those looking for more risqué fare could visit one of the many burlesque houses where raunchy jokes and semi-nudity were common. 

Published in: on June 18, 2017 at 3:46 pm  Comments (2)