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  Leave a Comment  
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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

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 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. 

 

The Amazing Acro-Cats

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In my first Roaring Twenties book, THE IMPERSONATOR, I mentioned an act I called the Cat Circus. It had a young man named Walter who ran it, and one of Jessie’s friends, Angie, falls in love with Walter and leaves the act to join his Cat Circus. Angie and Walter appear briefly in the second book, SILENT MURDERS, when Angie helps send Jessie some information from Chicago, where the Cat Circus is playing. 

Well . . . I made up the act, of course, but here it is, the real thing–the Amazing Acro-Cats! They came to Richmond two weeks ago while I was, sadly, on vacation. When I saw the article in the newspaper, I immediately thought: Walter and the Cat Circus has come to town! The Acro-Cats have a female trainer, however. It’s Samantha Martin, and she has trained a dozen or more cats to do tricks (when they feel like it). Performances took place through June 21 at the Richmond CenterStage theater. See http://www.richmondcenterstage.com for details. Maybe they’ll return next year and I can see them. 

“The Amazing Acro-Cats are opening in Richmond today and, true to their name, their show features more than a dozen “amazing” cats performing acrobatics and tricks.
There’s Alley, who is a Guinness World Records holder for longest jump made by a cat; Tuna, leader of Rock-Cats, the world’s only cat band; and Sookie, who plays the chimes, to name a few.
The show is the brainchild of Samantha Martin, Chief Executive Human of The Amazing Acro-Cats, who trained all of her show cats — and rescued them all as well.
“I’ve been training animals since I was 10,” Martin said. “I started training the family dog.”
A lifelong animal lover, Martin said she started asking for a cat as soon as she was old enough to talk.
Cats, however, weren’t how the Chicago-based trainer got her start.
“I started training rats,” she said. “When I got out of college and moved to Chicago, I started my training business with rats” for television and film performances.
It was a fortuitous pet rescue, 10 years ago, that led Martin to cat training. “A very special cat came into my life,” she said.
So Martin made the shift from rats to cats. “Cats are actually the second-most requested animal” for movies and TV, she said. “You have to keep them working. Keep them socialized.”
Putting on a performance when her cats weren’t booked for TV or film kept their skills sharp, Martin said. But it wasn’t always easy.
“The show was a disaster in the early days. I was trying to figure out how to get these cats to do what I needed them to do. Cats are a little bit unpredictable. If someone showed up to a show with balloons — or if a clown showed up, the cats would be like, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” she said.
That’s why Martin introduced a chicken into the show. Yes, a chicken. Chickens, apparently, are much better behaved than cats, so if a show starts to go south, Martin knows she can bring out the chicken and save the day.
These days she’s on her third chicken, Cluck Norris, who plays the cymbals and tambourine in the Rock-Cats rock band, but a chicken has been part of The Amazing Acro-Cats since the very beginning.
The chicken even travels along with Martin and her 14-plus cats on their 35-foot-long tour bus. But don’t worry; everyone gets along.
“If anything, the chicken messes with the cats,” Martin said.
And there have been a lot of cats.
In 2009, Martin started fostering cats in addition to her regular performers. She was looking to add another performer, so she fostered a litter of kittens to see which one worked out. For the rest, she helped find their “forever homes.”
It’s a trend she continues — fostering whole litters of kittens and taking them on the road, hoping to find adoptive families for the animals after the shows.
In fact, in four years Martin has found “forever homes” for more than 150 cats and kittens — all of which come complete with some basic training from Martin.
“Every cat can be trained to do something,” she said.
Martin builds her show around that philosophy, working with each cat’s existing personality to develop performances.
“Some cats have different energy. I train active cats to do active things; cats that like to use their paws get trained for paw tricks. Some cats just like to do the bare minimum,” she said.
For Martin, training is an essential part of cat ownership. And she starts all of her cats off with one simple trick — one that could save their life one day: getting into their carrier.
To do this, Martin uses a whistle and then rewards the cat with a treat — semisoft chewables — when it gets inside.
“It usually takes three training sessions to get them to go in there,” she said.
For the rest of their training and for the shows, Martin uses a clicker — and treat rewards. Soft treats at home and the good stuff — boiled chicken, salmon or tuna — for live shows.
Under Martin’s training — and as part of the Acro-Cats show — these amazing cats walk tightropes, skateboard, jump through hoops, ring bells and balance on balls — when they’re not rocking out in their cat band (plus one chicken), which is the finale of the show.
The Acro-Cats show is basically live-action adorable cat Internet video-watching — and proof positive that if you can’t train your personal house cat, you might not be trying hard enough.
Running through June 21, the full show is one hour — 35 minutes of performance (“due to the short attention spans of these performers”) followed by a meet-and-greet. But face it, 35 minutes of trained performance is 35 minutes more than you’ve ever gotten out of your cat.”

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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