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.

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

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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What Did Vaudeville Performers Earn?

In my mysteries, vaudeville performers play major roles, so it is critical that I understand how much they were paid, which tells you in turn how they lived.

Often salaries didn’t change over the space of many years–no incremental raises. No raises at all unless your act experienced a dramatic jump in popularity. Early in the twentieth century, most acts earned between $100 and $200 per week (regardless of how many people were in the act); that’s about $2,500 today. Not bad you say? They had to send at least 10-15% to their booking agent, and often more. According to Fred Allen (comedian who died in the 1950s), most performers sent more to their agents to gain favor. Graft was rampant throughout the industry. Performers paid for EVERYTHING: hotels, train tickets, food, costumes, publicity, and stage props. And the weekly fee didn’t necessarily get paid every week–few performers worked steadily. Maybe your schedule was 20 weeks a year, maybe it was 30 or 12. Newcomers, like the Spring Flowers act in Renting Silence, often earned less, since they were considered to be on trial. Child acts often earned less. 

Note that 2 of the performers are children (front center).

My conclusion is that only the best vaudeville performers made a decent living. Most scraped by.

Published in: on December 3, 2017 at 1:58 pm  Comments (2)  

Warning: Foul Language

Vaudeville was considered family entertainment and theater owners and managers took great pains to censor their acts for language or anything that could be considered offensive. I came across this notice that was handed out to performers at the Keith-Albee theaters back in the early years of the 20th century.

PERFORMERS PLEASE TAKE NOTICE.  You are hereby warned that your act must be free from all vulgarity and suggestiveness in words, action and costume, while playing in any of Mr. Keith’s houses, and all vulgar, double-meaning and profane words and songs must be cut out of your act BEFORE THE FIRST PERFORMANCE. If you are in doubt as to what is right or wrong, submit it to the Resident Manager at rehearsal. Such words as ‘liar,’ ‘slob’, ‘son-of-a-gun,’ ‘devil,’ ‘sucker,’ damn,’ and all other words unfit for the ears of ladies and children, also any reference to questionable streets, resorts, localities and bar-rooms, are prohibited under pain of instant discharge.” 

Can you imagine what Mr. Keith would think of today’s television and movies?

Published in: on November 26, 2017 at 9:39 am  Comments (2)  

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.

 

Published in: on September 16, 2017 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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 (5)  
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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)  

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)  

Henry Creamer (Little-Known Today, Well-Known in the 1920s) Resurfaces Last Night

Last night, I attended a wonderful musical event at the Library of Virginia that featured two groups who played and sang music from the Prohibition era. The musicians gave some historical background and told little stories about the original singers and composers, then played their pieces. So were funny, some were hokey, and the talent was terrific.

One of the songwriters mentioned Henry (Hank) Creamer, an African-American lyricist and vaudeville performer well known in his day. Coincidentally, I mention him in passing in the first of my Roaring Twenties mystery series, THE IMPERSONATOR, so I was familiar with the man. What I didn’t know was that Creamer was born right here in Richmond, VA–a nice surprise for me. One of his most famous songs was “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” (1922), which was still popular in 1939 when it was included in a dance numbers in Fred Astaire’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. 

Here’s the passage from THE IMPERSONATOR that mentions Creamer. Jessie is speaking to the man she’s just danced with. 

“What’s the matter?” I asked finally. “Aren’t you going to tell me how pretty my frock is?”

“Like everyone else? You can’t need that many compliments. I’ll tell you that your shoes are delightful, but I’ll wager your feet will be killing you by dinner. How can you dance in such high heels?”

The band began playing “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.”

“Oh, that is one of my favorite jazz tunes!” I said.

“Hmmm, yes. Sadly, this is not a jazz band, and I’m afraid poor Hank Creamer wouldn’t recognize his own song if he were here tonight.”

I laughed. “You’re right, this is awful. Let’s sit.” We moved to the nearest table and I couldn’t resist saying, “As a matter of fact, I know Hank. He’s written a number of popular songs and is a talented song-and-dance man himself.”

“He’s a friend of yours?”

“I haven’t run into him in a while, but yes, we’ve shared billing a few times.”

“But I—but, I thought he was colored?”

“He is.”

“Oh my god,” he said, clearly horrified. “How very . . . interesting.”

 

Published in: on May 6, 2017 at 9:32 am  Comments (1)  
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