When Vaudeville Got Tired

Long before vaudeville ended, it got tired. Some insiders warned that the medium was becoming stale. Years of profits made owners like Ed Albee think they had a magic formula for success, a formula they clung to rigidly. Some tried to point out this error: “Big Time vaudeville theaters in most cities were antiquated buildings run by local manager who never tinkered with tradition. The Big Time stars came back year after year with their same songs, dances, and jokes,” said William Morris (of the William Morris Agency). The editor of one of the more important theater magazines criticized the “blind reverence for, or slavery to, tradition that resists every effort to shake the variety show out of the old routine, the traditional way of choosing and staging acts.”

Some shows bored their audiences with a string of similar acts, such as nearly all dancing acts or nearly all comedians. And audiences were growing impatient with the censorship rules. According to A.F. Wertheim in his book, Vaudeville Wars, the Keith-Albee Circuit (the leading circuit) continued to order performer to delete objectionable jokes, such as “I’ve been studying abroad,” or “Give us this day our daily bread, yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum.” Moving pictures were newer, more exciting, more risqué, and more exciting to audiences. The vaudeville magazine, Variety, (founded in 1905) reflected this shift when it moved vaudeville news to the back pages and movie news to the front in 1925.

Advertisements
Published in: on September 29, 2018 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

George Will’s history lesson touches my books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’ve read THE IMPERSONATOR, you may remember a character who is running for public office named Henry. Henry is a bigot, typical of Oregonians (and many other Americans, it should be said) in the 1920s, who rails against Catholics, the Japanese, and private schools (because some were Catholic). Henry mentions that the current governor is a friend of the Ku Klux Klan, as is Henry himself.  In my third book in the series, RENTING SILENCE, the main character Jessie goes on a vaudeville tour in Indiana and comes up against serious threats from the KKK–but she can’t get help because the town’s entire police force are Klansmen. Some readers thought these portrayals were inaccurate–that the Klan was only in the South.

History books seldom go into enough detail to mention that the Klan was stronger in Indiana and Oregon than it was in parts of the South, but it is true. So I was delighted when conservative columnist George Will wrote about this in last week’s column. Here’s the excerpt:

In the Twenties, however, Oregon was a national leader in a different flavor of nonsense, as historian Linda Gordon recounts in “The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.” The Klan’s revival began in 1915 with the romanticizing of it in the film “Birth of a Nation,” adapted from the novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon. He was a John Hopkins University classmate and friend of Woodrow Wilson, who as president made the movie the first one shown in the White House. Wilson was enraptured: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

The resuscitated Klan flourished nationwide as a vehicle of post-World War I populism. It addressed grievances about national identity — pre-war immigration (too many Catholics and Jews) had diluted Anglo-Saxon purity — and disappointment with the recalcitrant world that had not been sufficiently improved by, or grateful for, U.S. involvement in the war.

Gordon, who grew up in Portland, says: “Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, and extending through the mid-twentieth century, Oregon was arguably the most racist place outside the southern states, possibly even of all the states.” By the early 1920s, “Oregon shared with Indiana the distinction of having the highest per capita Klan membership” because the Klan’s agenda “fit comfortably into the state’s tradition.”

In 1844, Oregon territory banned slavery — and required African-Americans to leave. Prevented by federal law from expelling African-Americans, Gordon says it became the only state to ban “any further blacks from entering, living, voting or owning property,” a law “to be enforced by lashings for violators.” The state offered free land, but only to whites. It imposed an annual tax on non-whites who remained. Oregon refused to ratify the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (not doing so until 1959 and 1973, respectively).

In 1920, Oregon’s population was 0.006 percent Japanese (they came after the federal government banned Chinese immigration in 1882), 0.3 percent African-American, 0.1 percent Jewish and 8 percent Catholic. To make living difficult for Japanese, Gordon says, the state “banned immigrants from operating hospitality businesses.” In 1923, only one state legislator voted against barring immigrants from owning or renting land. In advance of today’s progressive hostility to private schools competing with government schools, Klan-dominated Oregon — it was primarily hostile to Catholic schools — banned all private schools. In 1925, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (Gov. Walter Pierce was a Democrat and, Gordon says, “an ardent Klan ally”), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down this law.

Interesting, huh? Thanks, George Will, for elaborating on this subject.

Published in: on August 12, 2018 at 8:53 am  Comments (2)  

The Last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars

Once upon a time, a sure-fire way for an aspiring screen actress to get noticed was to be named a WAMPAS Baby Star. Each year from 1922 until 1934, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers chose thirteen young women whom they believed would be the screen’s next stars. The girls got lots of attention, party invitations, publicity, and small parts, and some did break into big time stardom. I found this photo at an antiques mall hanging on a pegboard wall in a shoddy frame and bought it for $10. It was taken in 1934, the last year of the promotion.

WAMPAS Baby Stars you might know include Clara Bow (the “It Girl”), Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, Mary Astor, Ginger Rogers (Fred Astaire’s dance partner), Sally Rand, and Fay Wray (of King Kong fame).  For a complete list, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WAMPAS_Baby_Stars

So when I read in this week’s NY Times that Mary Carlisle, the last WAMPAS Baby Star, had passed away, I thought it was worth noting on my blog. She was reputedly 104 years old, but since she had always fudged her age, no one–not even her son–is quite sure how old she was. She may have been 106. Mary Carlisle was named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1932, along with Ginger Rogers. While not as big a star as some would become, Carlisle had a good film career, playing in movies until 1943 opposite male stars like Will Rogers, Bob Cummings, Jimmy Durante, Buster Crabbe, Ray Milland, and Bing Crosby. As she said in a 1937 interview, she was usually cast as the “sweet young heroine.” Read the NY Times obituary here. Or here, for the Washington Post.

Published in: on August 6, 2018 at 9:25 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

The Girls in the Picture: Book Review

I just finished the new book by Melanie Benjamin titled The Girls in the Picture, a fictionalized version of the lives of two women who were massively influential in the development of both silent movies and talkies: Mary Pickford and Frances Marian. Mary Pickford was the stage actress who moved into silent movies in her teens, when they were little more than one-reel “shorts” filmed in New York. “Little Mary” became the first international movie star and is credited with inventing modern screen acting techniques. Although she never went to school, she had a brilliant mind (“a man’s brain,” as it was called then) and became a sharp businesswoman and the founder of United Artists. She was also probably the richest woman in the world at one point. Frances Marian wasn’t quite the star that Mary was, but she wasn’t an actress either–she was a writer who penned “scenarios” for silent films and later wrote scripts for talkies. She and Mary were close friends from their early days, although they drifted apart during middle age.

The book is written from the first-person POV of Frances Marian, in alternating chapters, one about Mary, the next about Fran. Mary’s chapters are written in third person. I wondered why. The effect was to make Fran the effective narrator, and a stronger character than Mary.

As a historian focusing on the 1920s for my own novels, I’ve done tons of research into the era, so I had to smile when I read the author’s note at the end describing her research. She and I have studied the exact same histories, biographies, and autobiographies, which perchance explains why I found every detail in her story so familiar. I commend the thorough research job she did. She also did a good job trying to explain some of the unexplained aspects of these women’s lives, such as why Mary Pickford became such a recluse and what happened to destroy her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. There are only so many pages in a novel, so the story focuses on the early years when the two women worked together and were close friends. Once they reach middle age, the story pretty much ends. I wish the author had not had to leave out the two children Pickford adopted, and I would like to have read more about Douglas’s death, Lottie’s and Jack’s deaths, and many other important events in their later lives, but maybe she’s planning a sequel!

If you like silent films and enjoy learning more about the famous names of that era–Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish, Fred Thomson, W.D.Griffith, Marie Dressler, and Adolph Zukor, to name a few–you’ll enjoy this book. Although I already knew tons about Mary Pickford, I knew much less about Fran Marian. I think that’s why I enjoyed those chapters the most, because I was learning something about a woman who made a significant contribution to the art of film-making, one that isn’t widely acknowledged or even known today. These two were the two most important women in the history of movies. It’s about time someone wrote a book about them!

Published in: on June 10, 2018 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Vino Sano Grape Bricks

At a talk I gave a week or so ago, I mentioned Vino Sano Grape Bricks. That led some in the audience to follow the thread, and I’ve turned up a few more fun photos on this subject.

For those who don’t know, a grape brick is a dehydrated block of grape juice and pulp that was sold–quite legally–during Prohibition for people to make their own wine at home. Instructions couldn’t tell you how to make wine–that would be illegal–so they told you how NOT to make wine. Don’t add sugar and yeast and don’t let it sit in a warm place for 21 days or it might ferment! There were other brands too, but Vino Sano was the leader.

Here are a few other interesting illustrations I found. A want ad for salesmen to sell the product. This also revealed the price of a grape brick ($1.25), something I hadn’t known. 

And here’s another advertisement:

 

Published in: on May 16, 2018 at 2:27 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Bootlegging in the Basement

When I gave a lecture on the Roaring Twenties to the Campbell County Historical Society last week, I mentioned several examples of reputable institutions that dabbled in making illegal liquor, such as one hospital in Los Angeles that began ordering denatured alcohol by the boxcar instead of by the gallon, as it did before Prohibition, and churches buying ten times the amount of “sacramental wine” that they previously used. 

Well, Campbell County, Virginia, had an example of its own: the Academy Center of the Arts in Lynchburg. A newspaper article from 1918* told about a police raid on the Academy of Music Theater that resulted in the confiscation of 71 pints of liquor, along with the arrest of the theater manager and a stage hand. It seems that bootlegging in the basement brought in some extra income.

(*If you’re thinking that 1918 date is a mistake because Prohibition didn’t start until 1920, you’re thinking about national Prohibition. Virginia and several other states began their own version of prohibition several years before the rest of the country.)

Published in: on May 3, 2018 at 3:23 pm  Comments (2)  

Talkies

“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. 

Published in: on April 21, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Comments (3)  

“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