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)  

Nance Performers

They were called “nance” or “pansy” performers in the Roaring Twenties, those burlesque men who sang and acted in an effete manner, spoke with a lisp, and pranced about stage with a swish. The N.Y. Times had an article about them in a recent Sunday Theater section, focusing on some of the more famous ones. Two examples that people today might recognize were imagesBert Lahr’s performance of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Edward Everett Horton, whose distinctive voice many will recall from “Fractured Fairy Tales” on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and  images-1Paul Lynde in Hollywood Squares and Bye Bye Birdie. Of course, nance performers were parodying gays, but that didn’t mean the performers themselves were gay, just as many people in blackface weren’t black. And many were.

Here’s another example mentioned in the Times article: Harry Rose singing “Frankfurter Sandwiches” as seen on

As you might think, I was very interested in this subject for possible use in one of my Roaring Twenties mysteries. But then I realized such performers only worked in burlesque and so far, I’ve steered clear of that genre. Maybe in a future story, I’ll be able to incorporate a nance/pansy performer, or at least I might mention that so-and-so had been a pansy performer in burlesque some years ago . . . You never know when these little tidbits of information will come in handy.

Published in: on April 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Male Impersonators

Women impersonating men on the stage were not as common as men impersonating women. While female impersonators could really fool an audience, one veteran vaudeville player claims that male impersonators, no matter how good, still always looked female. One of the best, though, was Florrie Le Vere, who played Big Time circuits, traveled overseas (I found one mention of her first visit to Australia in 1928), and later in clubs and even some early television. But Joe Laurie, Jr., the vaudeville chronicler, claims there was a reason male impersonators died out while female impersonators have never lost their popularity. “It ceased to be a novelty to see a swell-shaped gal wearing men’s clothes, when all kinds and shapes of gals started walking around the streets in slacks; the way some of them looked in pants, they looked like neither men nor women!”

Here’s the only picture of  Florrie Le Vere I could find. She’s the “gal” on the right of her husband, song writer Lou Handman.

Vaudeville’s Female Impersonators

Since the dawn of theater in ancient Greece, men have played women’s parts on the stage. Throughout most of history, the idea of women performing on stage was unthinkable. In Shakespeare’s day, men, or usually boys, played the female roles. Even after women on stage became respectable, acts where men impersonated women remained popular.

Both vaudeville and burlesque had their share of female impersonators, men who fooled the audience with their feminine clothing, voices, makeup, and mannerisms. Usually at the end of the act, they would pull off their wigs and revert to men, swaggering off stage and using a deep, masculine voice.

One female impersonator stands above the crowd. His name was Ray Monde. Ray performed his act as a woman, and when he was finished and the audience was applauding, he would take off his wig to show he was a man. Many in the audience were fooled, and there would be more applause. But then Ray did something different. As he bowed again, he removed his man’s wig and revealed a head of long blond hair. Duped again, the audience was now thoroughly confused. Of course, next it was off with the blond hair and Ray became a man again. The act was hugely popular and made an especially good finale before intermission. Audiences always left arguing among themselves about whether Ray was male or female.

Published in: on July 31, 2010 at 9:24 am  Comments (1)  
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Vegas Vaudeville

A recent visit to Las Vegas caused me to realize that vaudeville is not nearly as dead as I thought it was. It has merely settled in Vegas.

As I looked around at the many performances advertised along the Strip, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between today’s entertainers and those of the vaudeville stage. The names of the entertainers have changed, but the acts remain remarkably constant.

For instance, in the ever-popular category of female vocalists, we now have Cher at Caesar’s Palace; for male vocalists, Garth Brooks. The brother and sister routine is alive and well with Donny and Marie, dancing, singing, and telling jokes. (Clean jokes, I might add, in the vaudeville tradition, since vaudeville was very much family entertainment.) Comedians are always in vogue, and on the Strip we have the likes of Joan Rivers and David Spade. Magicians are still around, just look at the 10-story banner advertising Lance Burton or the long-running act of David Copperfield.  Animal acts retain their popularity, as evidence by Siegfried and Roy. And acrobats, always a vaudeville staple, are well represented by the seven different shows put on by the fabulous Cirque de Soleil. “Transfigurators,” or vaudeville impersonators, were popular and still are—just look at the crowds lining up to see Elvis impersonators or the female impersonators who pose as Dolly Parton, Madonna, Britney Spears, and others. Burlesque is well represented too—and not just with titillating female acts, but with the Chippendales, hunky male strippers. In fact, the only category of acts that I couldn’t find in Vegas today were kiddie acts. Audiences used to love watching children dance, sing, act, or do acrobatics, but nothing I could find comes close to this today. Maybe compulsory education killed the kiddie acts?

Of course, the length of the acts is the main change. A vaudeville show usually consisted of nine or ten short acts lasting ten to fifteen minutes each, whereas today’s Vegas show is one long act that lasts an hour and a half or two hours.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 12:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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Burlesque: Where Bawdy Was Accepted and Acceptable

In the Roaring Twenties there were basically three forms of stage entertainment: theater, vaudeville, and burlesque. The latter two no longer exist and are often confused, but they were quite distinct in their day.

Vaudeville was family entertainment—songs, dancing, music, animal acts, skits, acrobatics, comedians, magicians, and ventriloquists made up the bulk of the acts. Performers had to abide by strict rules or face immediate dismissal. No swearing or dirty words were permitted, and in the early part of the 20th century that included words like liar, slob, son-of-a-gun, devil, sucker, and damn. No blue jokes or anything that even hinted at sex or body parts—like the words fanny or chest—were allowed. Here are two examples of jokes that were actually banned:

“Are you looking at my knee?”
“No, I’m way above that.”

“I’ll never marry a girl who snores.”
“You’re going to have a swell time finding out!”

Wicked, huh?

But across the street in a burlesque house, bawdy was accepted and acceptable. That was where audiences went for more earthy humor, parody, and satire. By the 1930s, strip-tease had become the dominant element, but prior to that, burlesque performers included comedians, singers, and the whole range of acts.

Vaudevillians generally looked down on burlesque performers. If hard times forced them to “cross the street” to work in burlesque, they often changed their names. It was probably easier to break in to burlesque and then move up to vaudeville than it was to start directly in vaudeville, or “vaude” as the performers called it, so some noted vaudevillians like the comedy team of Abbott & Costello got experience in burlesque before moving up.

This 7-minute burlesque show has six or seven different acts. Although I’m pretty sure these are later than the Twenties (the hairstyles look to be 1930s and 1940s), it will give you an idea of the genre.

Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 1:13 am  Comments (1)  

The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties—the decade that careened from the heights of vaudeville and silent film to the depths of Prohibition; a time when gangsters, flappers, bootleggers, and jazz musicians came right into the parlor courtesy of a new invention called radio; the moment that women declared their independence at the ballot box, raised their hems, bobbed their hair, slurped bathtub gin, and shimmied late into the night.  

As a writer/historian working on a mystery series set in the Roaring Twenties, I’ve come across mountains of fascinating information that, sad to say, will never find its way into my novels. This is my way to share it.

For example, take vaudeville. Vaudeville was America’s primary form of public entertainment from the 1880s until the 1930s when it was muscled out by silent films, then talkies, and then the Great Depression, until finally, the advent of World War II finished it off forever.

But a form of vaudeville continued to entertain on television, of all places. What was Ed Sullivan if not a typical vaudeville emcee? And those variety shows of the Sixties and Seventies were little more than vaudeville resurrected on the airwaves.

To see some genuine examples of vaudeville, try these youtube links. These are pre-Twenties acts but they would not have differed much from what was to come. The first film shows some pretty lame animal acts, followed at minute 8:20 by a very odd muscle man performance that must have titillated the ladies. . The second is more burlesque than vaudeville. Burlesque was the risqué side of theatrical entertainment that featured scantily clad women, hoochy-kooch dancers, lewd jokes, bawdy skits, and mostly male audiences.  starts with a woman dancing while holding a chair in her mouth—something you’ve always wanted to see, right? Skip ahead to minute 3:25 and watch another woman on a swing take her clothes off. Well, some of them.

Published in: on August 5, 2009 at 7:34 pm  Comments (3)  
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