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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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 (1)  
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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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Vaudeville’s Popularity

th th-1Vaudeville’s heyday lasted from about 1890 to about 1930. During that time, an estimated 2 million people EACH DAY attended a vaudeville show somewhere in the U.S. That’s from a population of about 70 million (in 1900).

For comparison purposes, today 3.6 million people see a movie each day, from a population of 325 million. That works out to 4 1/2 times the population watching about less than twice the number of movies. Why the decline? Surely it’s because there are so many alternatives in entertainment today. Vaudeville’s only competitors for entertainment were theater (called legit, for legitimate theater as opposed to variety), circuses, and musical concerts. Today . . . well, we have radio, television, movies, computer games, and social media in addition to live entertainment and recorded music. 

the-ventIn my mysteries, I depict vaudeville as the major entertainment form of the 1920s. Of course, radio was new then, but it was very expensive and few individuals could afford it. 

Published in: on January 7, 2017 at 4:37 pm  Comments (3)  
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Commemorating Jack Benny’s death 42 years ago

Benny Kubelsky in 1909

Benny Kubelsky in 1909

Benny Kubelski, born in 1894 in Chicago, died 42 years ago on Dec. 26, 1974. He got his start in vaudeville at the age of 17, playing his violin, sometimes with a musical partner. He struggled for years, changing his name to Ben K. Benny and then to Jack Benny. It wasn’t until World War I when he was in the navy and entertaining servicemen that he began adding comedy to his act. After the war, he returned to vaudeville and found greater success, but it was radio that made him a star comedian. I have many fond memories of watching him on television–his humor and sense of timing was legendary. 

thI use Benny as a character in my first book, THE IMPERSONATOR, when he was a not-so-great vaudeville performer in 1925. 

Published in: on December 17, 2016 at 3:04 pm  Comments (1)  
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A vio-tortionist? One of Vaudeville’s most unusual acts . . .

I’m always on the look-out for unusual vaudeville acts that I can weave into my novels. When I met a woman whose mother and aunt had been unusual vaudeville performers, I knew I had a keeper! These two young women were violinists and acrobats, which gave them a most interesting profession: bio-contortionist. Helen Myra, my friend’s mother, was a ballerina who performed Pavlova’s Dying Swan while playing the violin. Her sister, Olga Myra is pictured below, playing the violin as she performed acrobatic feats. They performed in the mid-1920s, which is when my Roaring Twenties series is set, so I incorporated these usual acts into the fourth book in my series, due out next year.

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Here are some of Olga’s reviews, courtesy of her niece. I found them fascinating to read. 

Pittsburg Daily Post, 3 July 1923, p. 10

“Olga Myra’s high kicks and her violining while she did the split…”

Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle, 25 September 1923, p. 23

“Olga Myra and her Southern Entertainers “stopped the show” in the fifth position. Miss Myra was also favored with a fetching personality…and in a variety of picturesque  costumes she exhibited marked suppleness and more or less originality of style in  dancing. Hers was mostly “stunt” dancing, and she excelled in “splits,” back bending and kicking.”

Amsterdam, NY Evening Recorder, 9 October 1923

“No other performer on the stage has been able to execute a happy combination of  acrobatic dancing and violin performance at the same time as young and winsome Olga Myra…She is a finished artist in her line, having devoted eight months of continuous  study and practice at the Theodore Art School in New York.”

Louisville, KY Courier-Journal, 20 December 1923, p. 4

Olga Myra will top the new vaudeville program that will be offered at B.F. Keith’s  National this afternoon and the remainder of this week. She is a dancer who combines  violin playing with a characteristic form of acrobatic dancing…”

Variety, 1 April 1925, p. 11 (reviewing the show at the NY Palace)

Olga Myra and the Bitter Sisters, a Foster Hip turn, with a big production and swift changes of pace, costumes and methods in dance, ran 13 minutes and seemed like six. Miss Olga Myra is an accomplished contortionist, but of the refined and subdued order. She does some unusual fiddling while going through her bends…”

Rochester, NY Democrat and Chronicle, 13 October 1925, p. 18

“Keith’s Theater: One of the most colorful and artistic dancing acts presented at Keith’s vaudeville house this season, or any other season for that matter, is the offering of Olga Myra and her two assistants, Betsey Rees and Margaret Litchfield. All three are graceful and agile dancers of an exceptional order. Then the act is staged with exceedingly good             taste, a charming simplicity of setting being used for each dance number so that the audience’s eye is centered on the dancers and yet conscious that all surrounding details are satisfying artistically. In fact, it is one of very few dance acts that is not over done in setting and costuming. Olga Myra herself is a supple dancer who seems capable of achieving any position at all with her agile limbs. The other two are toe dancers and interpreters of charming dance designs, which their grace and ability make remarkably appealing.”

In separate article on page 23: “Keith star offers real dance novelty…Olga Myra offers a distinct novelty in the nature of acrobatic dancing with violin playing. She knows how to fiddle well, and she lays her instrument while exerting exceedingly difficult acrobatic dancing feats. Miss Myra is the only performer who does this novelty. In various numbers she also displays ability to do true aesthetic dancing. Hers is obviously a genuine dancing temperament coupled with an understanding of vaudeville showmanship…”

Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 22 December 1925, p. 15

“Olga Myra, dancing violinist, and two other dancing artists who are featured in the same act, Misses Betsy Rees and Margaret Litchfield, the latter a Pittsburg girl…Miss Myra was the embodiment of ease of movement in a waltz that lofted toes sideways, forward and backward with equal smoothness and rhythm. She also played sweetly on the violin as she performed an acrobatic obbligato in slow movement. The entire act was prettily staged and it was one of the most popular on the bill.”

In separate article on p. 11: “A much-admired dancing attraction by Olga Myra includes her curling and uncurling herself to her violin playing, her backward bending and high kicking and splitting…”

Variety, 16 June 1926, p. 21 [a review of the act]

“Olga Myra and Company, Dancing, 16 minutes, Full Stage, at the Palace.

“Olga Myra formerly appeared with a band. In her new turn are but two girl brunet dancers, while a special musical director, Fred Hathaway, is in the pit. Betsy Rees and Margaret Litchfield dance with Miss Myra, the minor members opening the act with a Columbine-Pierrot dance, backed scenically by a Venetian Canal drop revealed through a set frame mounted upon a platform. Miss Rees, a toe dancer, was the Columbine and Miss Litchfield (hair short) the Pierrot.

Opened well and led to a solo waltz by the featured artist, whose forte in this number was high side kicks, helping to send her off well. A special drop backed the frame for this.

For the following number, “The Enchanted Rose Bush,” Miss Litchfield was a pensive lover admiring a rosebush, which suddenly opened, disclosing a toe dancer who went into some nice steps to the measures of “La Traviata’s” ballet music and ending with the dancer retiring to the bush, the lover resuming the pensive attitude.

Then, Miss Myra for a violin solo played as she went through a difficult contortionistic routine on the platform. This was her old specialty and is built up to be the act’s feature. A Russian trio dance closed the act [other accounts note this dance trio was entitled “Boots”]. The turn was moved from fourth to closing intermission and scored in that good spot. In addition to the good work of the principals, especially the featured girl, the costuming is not only handsome and lavish but in excellent taste.

As a dance-flash turn for vaudeville or the big picture houses, this one frames all around. With some speeding it would be a set-up for the cinema palaces, where they appear four- a-day, but pay more money than in vaudeville.”

 

 

 

Published in: on December 11, 2016 at 11:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lecture at the Downton Abbey Exhibit

 Downtown-image2_medium[1] - size 75

 On Nov. 14, I gave this talk at the Virginia Historical Society as part of their Downton Abbey exhibit, “Dressing Downton.” My presentation was titled Weird-but-True Things Most People Don’t Know about the Roaring Twenties. The VHS always records its speakers, so if you’d like to hear/see it, just click on the title. It’s a light, but serious, lecture that lasts 40 minutes (plus a Q&A). In it, I share some of the surprising things I learned during my research for my Roaring Twenties mystery series, things I have incorporated into my novels.