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.

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

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)  

When did vaudeville end?

The Palace in 1920

Of course, there’s so simple answer here, since vaudeville faded away in the 1930s, but I’ve found some guideposts that helped me get a handle on the timeframe. (Some argue that Ed Sullivan’s television show was nothing more than televised vaudeville, but no old-time vaudevillians would have agreed.) 

New York’s famous Palace theater on Broadway had its last two-a-day show during the week of May 7, 1932. “Playing at the Palace” was slang for playing BigTime. If you played the Palace, you had reached the pinnacle of success. It was the flagship of the Keith-Albee circuit theaters. The Palace continued to operated after that, with movies and a series of second-rate acts, but the vaudeville heyday was over. W.C. Fields spoke for the industry when he said, “For many, vaudeville passed into the limbo when the old New York Palace closed as a two-a-day in 1932.” 

Remember Jack Haley, the Tin Man in the 1939 Wizard of Oz and a vaudeville star? He wrote: “Only a vaudevillian who has trod its stage can really tell you about it… only a performer can describe the anxieties, the joys, the anticipation, and the exultation of a week’s engagement at the Palace. The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theaters in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of Variety success.”

 

Published in: on February 10, 2018 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  

He foresaw the decline of vaudeville and the rise of movies

Who? Marcus Loew, founder of Loew’s theaters.

Early on, the Keith-Albee organization of vaudeville theaters started using films as one of the (usually) nine acts in their vaudeville lineups. That was when films lasted ten or twenty minutes, about as long as the typical vaudeville act.

But their competition, Marcus Loew, foresaw film eclipsing vaudeville as America’s favorite pastime. He bet right, although he didn’t live long enough to see how right he was. He died in 1927, just a few years before vaudeville began its rapid descent. 

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

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)