Happy Birthday Bob Hope!

Hope_WWII_44

 

Leslie Townes Hope was born in England on May 29, 1903, and he died 100 years later. Could he have chosen a more traumatic century in which to live, with all its world wars and horrible violence? But it was those wars that brought out the best in Bob Hope, the comedian, dancer, and entertainer who often put himself in significant danger in order to bring a moment of enjoyment and a little bit of home to American and Allied soldiers during World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War, plus hundreds of other occasions on military bases. He is the only person named by Congress as an “honorary veteran.” Bob Hope is one of very, very few performers to have had success in vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies, and television.300px-Bob_Hope_and_Ann_Jillian

This is what he looked like in 1925 as a young hoofer in vaudeville.

This is what he looked like in 1925 as a vaudeville hoofer.

He got his start as a teenager in vaudeville, which is what got me interested in his story. I read several of his autobiographies (probably ghost written, but written with his help) and his official website, http://www.bobhope.com, and incorporated what I learned into his cameo role in my third mystery, RENTING SILENCE (due in 2015). He was still Les Hope when my story takes place in 1925 (he didn’t change his name until several years later), so I can’t call him Bob, but I hope readers will figure out who the young vaudeville “hoofer” really is. 

Published in: on May 24, 2014 at 9:26 am  Comments (4)  
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Vaudeville’s Transfigurators

Transfig-huh?

I’m learning about transfigurators as a possible plot twist for my fourth book. Since I haven’t finished the third one yet, it’s not foremost in my mind, but I ran across some interesting information recently that I’d like to share. 

Transfigurators were vaudeville performers who changed their appearance during the act. There were two types: proteans and quick-change artists. Quick-change artists just made quick changes with maybe a little patter in between. Proteans, however, worked an entire sketch themselves, playing all the parts by rapidly changing costumes very, very fast. The speed was the gimmick.

Robert Fulgora at left, 1911

Robert Fulgora at left, 1911

These were one-man or one-woman shows where the actor played eight or ten different characters. Some changed very, very fast–like Robert Fulgora, who left the stage wearing a woman’s outfit and reappeared five seconds later in full male evening attire. Fulgora was one of Houdini’s early partners. Another well-known protean made changes so fast that audiences believed he had a twin brother. (Maybe he did!)

Can you see some interesting plot ideas here? 

 

Published in: on March 9, 2013 at 9:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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Touring Theater vs. Vaudeville

Touring theater is not vaudeville. I originally thought they were the same thing, but as I’ve learned more about the two, I realize they are very different forms of entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vaudeville performances were variety shows consisting of about nine acts, almost always including music, singing, dancing, comedy, animal acts, and juggling or acrobatic acts. Vaudeville shows generally lasted one week, then the performers moved on to the next town to a different lineup.

Touring theater consisted of full-length plays, sometimes musicals, but they were often one-night stands. During the first part of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of touring theater companies working in the United States, most pretty poor quality. The height of success for an actor was to get a role in a Broadway play. That provided some stability and a stationary lifestyle, at least for a few months or as long as the play lasted.  

Silent film producers got their actors and actresses from vaudeville and the theater. Making films was originally considered a big step down from the theater stage, even for those touring in second-rate companies, like Mary Pickford. Little Mary, a teenager, was so mortified that her mother made her work for a New York film studio that she would sneak in and out of the studio so no one would see her. But the family needed money desperately and Little Mary, or Our Mary, as she would later be known, was the breadwinner. So she went slumming in the silent pictures, never imagining that they would bring her international fame and immense fortune.

Published in: on November 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crystal Theatre Lineup Makes You Smile

What secrets does this small vaudeville playbill from the Crystal Theatre hold? A couple very interesting ones . . .  

It dates from the 1909-1910 season, making it a century old and a bargain for $6. While it’s not quite the Roaring Twenties, there was little difference in vaudeville between that decade and the next.

Let’s investigate the program. A jewelry store advertisement on the back (genuine diamond engagement rings anyone? Only $25-$150) reveals that the theater is in Milwaukee. An old city map from 1910 shows it on Second Street; further checking places it there from 1903 until 1929. It was demolished sometime shortly thereafter. The Crystal contained 1032 seats, so it’s boast of being “High Class Vaudeville” (also known as Big Time) rings true. Another clue to quality is the fact that the theater had its own orchestra. Few did. You’ll note the orchestra opens the program.

My research failed to turn up anything about most of the acts. The Four Magnanis, described as “Musical Barbers,” must be a Barbershop Quartet. I haven’t a clue as to the third act, nor did I find any information about the novelty sister act of Lester and Mildred. Lester doesn’t sound like a girl’s name, so maybe that’s the novelty? Nor could I discover anything about the short play that followed or about Carroll & Cooke, and I’ve already mentioned the Holmen Brothers (Swedish gymnasts) in a previous blog. So far, nothing interesting. But wait! They saved the best ‘til last. Crystalgraph: Animated Pictures.

Crystalgraph had me stumped for a while. 1910 is too early for cartoons as we know them, so what could they mean by “animated pictures?” I believe it was a film, “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” made by J. Stuart Blackton in 1906—the very first animated film ever. Honest! It has to be–it was literally the only one from those years. Mr. Blackton drew comical faces on a blackboard, took a picture, stopped the film, erased one face to draw another, and filmed the new face. Audiences were amazed.

Here—join the 1910 audience and have a look yourself, courtesy of the Library of Congress. The film is only 3 minutes long and I know it will make you smile. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGh6maN4l2I

Male Impersonators

Women impersonating men on the stage were not as common as men impersonating women. While female impersonators could really fool an audience, one veteran vaudeville player claims that male impersonators, no matter how good, still always looked female. One of the best, though, was Florrie Le Vere, who played Big Time circuits, traveled overseas (I found one mention of her first visit to Australia in 1928), and later in clubs and even some early television. But Joe Laurie, Jr., the vaudeville chronicler, claims there was a reason male impersonators died out while female impersonators have never lost their popularity. “It ceased to be a novelty to see a swell-shaped gal wearing men’s clothes, when all kinds and shapes of gals started walking around the streets in slacks; the way some of them looked in pants, they looked like neither men nor women!”

Here’s the only picture of  Florrie Le Vere I could find. She’s the “gal” on the right of her husband, song writer Lou Handman.

Vaudeville’s Female Impersonators

Since the dawn of theater in ancient Greece, men have played women’s parts on the stage. Throughout most of history, the idea of women performing on stage was unthinkable. In Shakespeare’s day, men, or usually boys, played the female roles. Even after women on stage became respectable, acts where men impersonated women remained popular.

Both vaudeville and burlesque had their share of female impersonators, men who fooled the audience with their feminine clothing, voices, makeup, and mannerisms. Usually at the end of the act, they would pull off their wigs and revert to men, swaggering off stage and using a deep, masculine voice.

One female impersonator stands above the crowd. His name was Ray Monde. Ray performed his act as a woman, and when he was finished and the audience was applauding, he would take off his wig to show he was a man. Many in the audience were fooled, and there would be more applause. But then Ray did something different. As he bowed again, he removed his man’s wig and revealed a head of long blond hair. Duped again, the audience was now thoroughly confused. Of course, next it was off with the blond hair and Ray became a man again. The act was hugely popular and made an especially good finale before intermission. Audiences always left arguing among themselves about whether Ray was male or female.

Published in: on July 31, 2010 at 9:24 am  Comments (1)  
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Vegas Vaudeville

A recent visit to Las Vegas caused me to realize that vaudeville is not nearly as dead as I thought it was. It has merely settled in Vegas.

As I looked around at the many performances advertised along the Strip, I couldn’t help but make comparisons between today’s entertainers and those of the vaudeville stage. The names of the entertainers have changed, but the acts remain remarkably constant.

For instance, in the ever-popular category of female vocalists, we now have Cher at Caesar’s Palace; for male vocalists, Garth Brooks. The brother and sister routine is alive and well with Donny and Marie, dancing, singing, and telling jokes. (Clean jokes, I might add, in the vaudeville tradition, since vaudeville was very much family entertainment.) Comedians are always in vogue, and on the Strip we have the likes of Joan Rivers and David Spade. Magicians are still around, just look at the 10-story banner advertising Lance Burton or the long-running act of David Copperfield.  Animal acts retain their popularity, as evidence by Siegfried and Roy. And acrobats, always a vaudeville staple, are well represented by the seven different shows put on by the fabulous Cirque de Soleil. “Transfigurators,” or vaudeville impersonators, were popular and still are—just look at the crowds lining up to see Elvis impersonators or the female impersonators who pose as Dolly Parton, Madonna, Britney Spears, and others. Burlesque is well represented too—and not just with titillating female acts, but with the Chippendales, hunky male strippers. In fact, the only category of acts that I couldn’t find in Vegas today were kiddie acts. Audiences used to love watching children dance, sing, act, or do acrobatics, but nothing I could find comes close to this today. Maybe compulsory education killed the kiddie acts?

Of course, the length of the acts is the main change. A vaudeville show usually consisted of nine or ten short acts lasting ten to fifteen minutes each, whereas today’s Vegas show is one long act that lasts an hour and a half or two hours.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 12:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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Another Hollywood Rape Frame-Up

        In 1929, just a few years after the Fatty Arbuckle rape trials, another Hollywood rape scandal exploded onto the front pages of the country’s newspapers—notably Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. The names had changed, but much of the story was remarkably similar. Here it is:

       In 1928, Joseph Kennedy, father of the future president JFK, bought the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville theaters and merged them with his film distribution company, creating RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum). With the money he made from that deal, he decided to buy another famous vaudeville chain, the 63 top-quality theaters owned by Alexander Pantages.         

      Kennedy offered Pantages, $8 million. Pantages refused to sell. Always a ruthless businessman, Kennedy was not about to take No for an answer. First he stopped distributing RKO films to Pantages theaters. When that didn’t “persuade” Mr. Pantages, something unexpected occurred. Pantages was accused of rape by a 17-year-old vaudeville dancer.

Pantages (15-20 years before his trials)

       Eunice Pringle was her name and she claimed that Alexander Pantages had lured her to one of his theaters for an audition and raped her in a small side office. Sensationalist stories in the newspapers outraged the public: filthy old man (and a foreigner besides) rapes innocent schoolgirl. Pantages claimed he was being framed, but the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 50 years in prison. His attorney appealed and won a new trial.

       Pantages was acquitted at his second trial after evidence showed that the elderly man was too frail to have forced such a strong, acrobatic young woman to do much of anything, that the broom closet in which she was allegedly raped could not hold 2 people, and that she, with her Russian manager/lover, had a past as a con artist and possibly prostitute. The lawyer pointed out that Pringle’s testimony at the two trials was delivered in exactly the same wording and manner, suggesting she had memorized her part to perfection. He also hinted that business rivals (aka Joe Kennedy) had put her up to it. Subsequent biographies of Joe Kennedy corroborate this tale, although there is no “smoking gun” evidence.

       So Pantages was free. Still, Kennedy won in the end.

       Just like Fatty Arbuckle, Alexander Pantages’ finances and reputation were destroyed by the ordeal, even though he was ultimately found innocent. He was forced to sell his theater chain to the highest bidder—guess who?—for a paltry $3.5  million, less than half what Kennedy had originally offered.

Alexander Pantages (15-20 years before his trials)

Gus Sun Time

       Gus Sun was the unlikely name taken by circus juggler Gustave Klotz (born 1868, died 1959) who developed a booking agency that epitomized Small Time Vaudeville. At one time, his circuit included as many as 275 theaters.

       As the name suggests, Small Time vaudeville paid less than Big Time, and it required more work. But it was the starting point for many performers who made it to Big Time and beyond, ultimately to movies, radio, and television.

       Like who? Well, Bob Hope got his start with Gus Sun. So did the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Fanny “Funny Girl” Brice, Mae West, and many, many more. Most of the theaters Gus booked were located in small towns in the Midwest.

       It was said that Gus was so cheap, he sent all his telegrams collect, making his clients pay to hear from him about bookings and schedule changes. No one dared complain.

       Here’s a typical route for a performer in 1919 (all in Ohio): Cleveland, Lima, Mansfield, Canton, Portsmouth, Newark, and Marion. Gus also  booked theaters in small towns in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and even Canada.

What Was “Small Time” Vaudeville?

       Everyone knows the phrase “You’ve made the Big Time.” It originated in vaudeville and was used to distinguish the prestigious circuits like Keith Albee and Orpheum from the lesser ones like Gus Sun Time. Most performers started in Small Time and hoped to move up to Big Time. Few made it.

       But just what was Small Time vaudeville and how did it differ from Big Time?

       Small Time circuits booked performers in the smaller, less prestigious theaters in the cities. They also played in small towns and rural America. As you would expect, Small Time paid less. Gus Sun was a Small Time circuit that booked performers for half a week rather than a whole week or several weeks, meaning performers had to spend two (unpaid) days each week traveling to the next town rather than one. But the distances, or “jumps,” were shorter, so travel cost less. So did small town boarding houses or hotels. And in Small Time, performers could get by with cheaper costumes and scenery since audiences were less sophisticated.

       Small Time was much harder—performers were expected to play three, four, or five shows a day. Big Time theaters usually had two performances a day, which is why Big Time was sometimes called “Two-a-day.”

       Any vaudeville lifestyle was tough, but Small Time life was pretty grim.

Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 10:25 am  Comments (2)  
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