New NPR Article about Mary Pickford

Saw this article about Mary Pickford on NPR today and thought you might find it interesting too. 

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Published in: on February 27, 2018 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

Going up? Elevators in the 1920s

I learned something useful in this week’s Economist magazine. Until the twentieth century, the higher the floor, the lower the rent. The most desirable floor in a high-rise was the first floor (not the grand floor); after that the second; after that, the upper floors were for servants or the middle/lower classes. Think starving artists in garrets. What changed? The invention of the elevator.

Sure, the elevator was invented in 1854, by Elisha Otis, but it wasn’t very successful at first or widely used. People were leery of riding such a contraption. But by the twentieth century, elevators permitted buildings to be built taller than ever, and suddenly, the desirability order was reversed. By the 1920s, the penthouse was the most expensive floor. 

From the 1400s onward, penthouse meant at attached building with a sloping roof, like a shed. Something not glamorous. In fact, some Middle English homilies describe Jesus’ birthplace in the manger as a “penthouse.” But in the 1920s, the meaning of the word shifted and it became the desirable top floor of a tall building, accessed by an elevator. 

What was an elevator like in the 1920s? Check this Otis elevator ride. 

I can use this bit of information in my books–I’ll have Jessie step into an elevator (with an attendant, of course) and he’ll slide shut the gate before pressing the button. A tiny detail, to be sure, but these things help bring the Twenties to life. 

Published in: on January 2, 2018 at 3:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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Need Christmas Present Idea?

Need a Christmas present or hostess gift for someone who likes to read? Consider giving a journey back into the Roaring Twenties via my Roaring Twenties mysteries, set in 1924 with a vaudeville and silent movies backdrop. The first in the series, THE IMPERSONATOR, won the national award for Best First Crime Novel in 2012, the second, SILENT MURDERS, had a terrific review in the New York Times. 

Find them in your local bookstores, libraries, or online at amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Take one missing heiress, an unscrupulous uncle, and a young vaudeville performer fallen on hard times; add several murdered girls, a mysterious Chinese herbalist, and a handsome bootlegger; then move from the seamy world of Prohibition-era vaudeville to Oregon’s rugged coast, and what do you have? A formula for suspense, as Jessie finds herself torn between her deceitful charade and her determination to find out what really happened to the girl she is impersonating.

 

 

In the second Roaring Twenties murder mystery, Jessie trades her nomadic vaudeville life for a modest but steady job in the silent film industry. She quickly learns that all Hollywood scorns the Prohibition laws: studio bosses rule the police and gangsters supply speakeasies everywhere with bootleg hooch and Mexican dope. When a powerful director is murdered at his own party and Jessie’s waitress friend is killed for what she saw, Jessie takes the lead in an investigation tainted by corrupt cops. Soon tangled in a web of drugs, bribery, and greed, she finds herself a prime suspect as the bodies pile up.

The third in the Roaring Twenties mystery series takes Jessie from silent films back into the world of vaudeville to track down a performer with something to hide. At the request of her silent film star boss, Mary Pickford, Jessie uses her vaudeville talents to investigate the murder of an extra by a Hollywood actress already sentenced to death for the crime. Her inquiries lead to the discovery of a blackmailer and more than a dozen actors facing ruin or even death if their secrets are exposed. If the convicted actress is innocent, then who killed the blackmailer?

The fourth book begins in the fall of 1925 when a projectionist is gunned down in the theater booth. The killer flees to the balcony and vanishes. Jessie’s investigation succeeds where the police fail, thanks to her vaudeville skills and connections. A killer seeking revenge for an Old World massacre is targeting a group of Balkan immigrants, one by one. Jessie deduces the reason the killer is never apprehended—but fails to spot the killer until it’s almost too late. A young deaf girl whose mother has gone missing plays a significant role.

 

 

 

 

STOLEN MEMORIES, below, is not part of the Roaring Twenties series, although it is set in that decade, in France and England.

A brutal attack along the banks of the Seine leaves a young Englishwoman close to death in a Paris hospital without a memory in her head. She soon comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. The husband, who believes his wife’s amnesia is faked, spirits her away to an ancient chateau in the French province of Champagne, where prehistoric dolmens and standing stones dot the fields and caves hewn out of limestone are used for more than storing wine. For weeks he tries threats, bribery, and hypnosis to pry the truth out of her. As her memory returns piecemeal–some corroborating, some clashing with what she is told–she struggles to establish her identity. But who is trying to poison her and bury her in an avalanche of slate? Who is laying a trap for her deep within the wine caves of Champagne? The story takes place in 1928 against a backdrop of pagan ritual and an early Christian midsummer festival known as the Fires of John the Baptist.

 

 

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)  

A New Museum in Switzerland

Heading to Switzerland any time soon? There’s a new museum you might like to see. (I sure would.) They’ve taken Charlie Chaplin’s old home, located in a small lakeside town 50 miles from Geneva, and turned it into a museum–a fine museum, according to the New York Times article (attached), with re-creations of some of his more famous sets and of course, his films.

In my Roaring Twenties mysteries, Charlie Chaplin appears occasionally as the best friend of Douglas Fairbanks. They were inseparable for many years, until circumstances moved them apart. Fairbanks died quite young (56) in 1939; Chaplin lived to be 88 and died in 1977. Although he was English by birth and made Hollywood his home for decades, he spent the greatest portion of his life in Switzerland.

I’m going to be in eastern France next year, near the Swiss border. I think I’ll try to make this a side trip.

 

Published in: on November 19, 2017 at 4:11 pm  Comments (2)  
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