Histories

LOOKING AT THE AUDIENCE
HISTORY I

You can pick the date, but somewhere in time between 1780 and 1820, Europe and the United States opened the door to the modern era. Several wars waged during that period jump-started the Industrial Revolution, and the political revolutions in American Colonies and France preached that all men were equal, even if this concept took longer to get into practice and include more than white guys with property. Still, there is nothing like a successful revolution to demonstrate that the divine right of kings could be displaced by those playing the equality card.

A lot happened in this period that was important to the growth of the USA. England finally defeated Napoleon after a quarter of a century of conflict, and in turn the young United States finally completed its effort to throw off English claims when the War of 1812 was called a draw. Six years later, Spain lost most of its colonies in Central and South America. Not only had the young nations of the Americas proved they were here to stay, but for the first time in 50 years the Atlantic Ocean was not a battleground. By 1820 Europeans could come to America in ships made bigger, faster and safer through forty years of improvements in naval warfare.

For more information about Looking at the Audience send for Volume I, Issue #1 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume I

THE PEOPLE’S ART
HISTORY II

Vaudeville was more than an assembly of ragtime pantaloons, topical monologists, eccentric dancers, barrel house songbirds, ventriloquists, tumblers and jugglers, and more than a coast-to-coast network of once-gilded theaters now shambling into plaster dust.

Vaudeville was a people’s culture. Some folks have made the case that vaudeville acculturated more immigrants than our national system of public libraries and public schools. Not everyone went to night school or felt comfortable in the majestic reading rooms of Andrew Carnegie’s monuments. But, for a few cents, an immigrant could go to the neighborhood Proctor’s Theatre without worrying that he wasn’t dressed well or that she was unaccompanied.

Merchants and customers, adults and children, old-country folk and assimilationists, they met weekly to cheer their own who were triumphing on stage for all to see. The success of the Irish step dancer, the Jewish singer, the Mittel European circus act, the Italian musician was a signal to every man and woman in the audience that they had a chance too.

For more information about The People’s Art, send for Volume I, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume I

TOBY TIME
HISTORY III

Vaudeville was never an easy life, despite the rosy remembrances of its top stars decades after the struggle had landed them on Broadway or in films, radio and television. For them the struggle turned into success. Of the many others it was a grueling grind of small time theatres. The performers had no security beyond their current contracts and they dwelt in an isolation that ill-prepared them for life after the death of Lady Vaudeville.

For black entertainers it was worse; they were segregated. The theatres they worked in hardly deserved the name. Promised earnings were minuscule and unsupported by enforceable contracts. Local law was always on the side of the white owners.

For more information about Toby Time, send for Volume II, Issue 3 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume II

THE RISE AND FALL
HISTORY IV

Like most historical events in retrospect, the decline and death of vaudeville appears clear, certain and inevitable. For the participants, with no perspective other than the ‘there and then’ of their lives, each day differed little from the last or next, and speculation about the future was, as ever, informed by gossip, guessing and past experience.

As a motley of specialty acts, vaudeville was an itinerant enterprise without name that, over many centuries, could be found in the marketplaces of Africa, Asia, Europe. It spread around the world to the last frontiers of the Americas and Australia. Performers worked where they could and where their acts seemed most suitable: saloons, fairgrounds, circuses. A certain cachet attached to performing in inns, saloons and public houses after their owners added stages and audience pits separate from the tavern.

In England it was called variety, a designation that followed the performance to the Empire’s colonies in America and Australia. It was in the United States that variety was christened “vaudeville,” a name of ambiguous lineage that implied something French, hence cultured. It was selected by hucksters not to define the art form but to obscure its coarse background with a respectable sheen. Producing relatively wholesome entertainment spared the entrepreneur clashes with the law and attracted the patronage of the entire family rather than the men alone.

For more information about Vaudeville’s Rise and Fall, send for Volume II, Issue #4 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume II

VAUDEVILLE TRUST
HISTORY V

In 1895, Abe Erlanger had been the organizing force that formed the infamous Theatrical Trust with his partner, Marc Klaw, and Charles and Daniel Frohman, Alf Hayman, Sam Nixon and J.F. Zimmerman. The Trust’s purported purpose was to impose order and sensible business practice upon a theatre scene which was burgeoning rapidly in every way: geographically, commercially and artistically. Their true goal was to control every legitimate theatre of consequence, every booking route, the means of production, the hiring of talent and the sale of tickets.

The Trust’s success was so complete that only a few extraordinarily gifted actors such as Minnie Maddern Fiske and a few resourceful producers such as her husband, the dogged Harrison Fiske, or the revered David Belasco could buck the Trust year after year and survive professionally. One source of help to rebel producers were the Shuberts who would embrace any available good cause or foul means to purchase a foothold in the entertainment business. The Shubert Brothers, Sam, Lee and Jake, were small time fringe players, easily overlooked, who slipped into New York theatre life almost unnoticed until they couldn’t be dislodged.

For more information about Vaudeville Trust send for Volume III, Issue 1 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume III

WHITE RATS I HISTORY VI

BY ARMOND FIELDS

The year 1900 appeared to be a very good year for the country.

The U.S. had handily defeated Spain and thereby gained control over the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam. Business was booming. Americans showed increasing interest in new technologies—automobiles, telephones, phonographs, subways and moving pictures—all still considered novelties. Less than 8,000 horseless carriages existed in the entire country, and not yet ten miles of concrete roads. One hundred taxi cabs solicited business on New York City streets. There was one telephone for every sixty-six people. Prices were low. One could buy a suit for ten dollars, a sofa for fifteen, a turtleneck sweater for eight cents. For a penny, using a hand crank, one could watch moving pictures in Kinetoscope studios. The public seemed upbeat about the nation’s future, happy and excited about their personal prospects. Indeed, the dawn of a new century appeared bright and encouraging—but not for actors and actresses.

“Are you a Rat?” “No.”

“All right, then, come in.”

For more information about the White Rats, see Volumes III #4 and IV #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume III or Volume IV

WHITE RATS II HISTORY VII

BY ARMOND FIELDS

After its initial losing battle against the Syndicate in 1901, the White Rats actors’ organization was reduced to an ineffectual and ceremonial social group that spent its time sponsoring baseball games and holiday barbecues. Not until 1910, under the direction of Harry Montford, did the White Rats regain a modicum of influence among performers. An eloquent spokesperson with seductive, evangelistic charisma, Montford recruited hundreds of new members, helped erect a clubhouse, and formed a sister organization among women vaudeville artists. While White Rats’ membership grew many thousands during the next few years, little was accomplished against the Syndicate.

In 1913, a group of actors banded together to form a union called the Actors Equity Association. Led by well-respected actor Francis Wilson, the A.E.A. advocated half pay for all rehearsals over four weeks and full pay for extra performances during actual runs. Their complaints against the ever-present Syndicate were clearly stated by Milton Sills at an early A.E.A. meeting when he declared, in angry terms, that “the actor is the one and only class that is bullied, belittled, despised, cheated and enslaved.” To enhance its position and gain legitimacy, the A.E.A. joined the American Federation of Labor, a union already representing stagehands and musicians.

For more information about the White Rats, see Volumes III #4 and IV #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume III or Volume IV

SAN FRANCISCO THEATRES
HISTORY VIII

Shrouded in fog, the Bay Area lay peacefully undiscovered by European adventurers until the 1780s when the Spanish sailed into the harbor and established a colony. Neither the Spanish nor their Mexican successors saw much potential in Yerba Buena; it was still a quiet settlement edging the bay and the Pacific Ocean when Captain John Montgomery landed in 1846 and claimed the territory for the USA. At the time there were less than one thousand people living there. Three years later the population had increased forty- fold as the adventurous, the desperate and the criminal, lured by the discovery of gold in 1849 at nearby Sutter’s Mill, flocked to Yerba Buena, soon to be called San Francisco.

By the time San Francisco incorporated as a city in 1850 it was growing into a lusty, brawling port of call. Its saloons offered bawdy entertainment in a district known as the Barbary Coast. This was a ‘for men only’ diversion; the women who frequented the saloons worked there as dancing girls, chars or prostitutes.

For more information about San Francisco Theatres, see Volume VI, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume VI

IRISH IN EARLY VARIETY HISTORY IX

In 1895, Abe Erlanger had been the organizing force that formed the infamous Theatrical Trust with his partner, Marc Klaw, and Charles and Daniel Frohman, Alf Hayman, Sam Nixon and J.F. Zimmerman. The Trust’s purported purpose was to impose order and sensible business practice upon a theatre scene which was burgeoning rapidly in every way: geographically, commercially and artistically. Their true goal was to control every legitimate theatre of consequence, every booking route, the means of production, the hiring of talent and the sale of tickets.

The Trust’s success was so complete that only a few extraordinarily gifted actors such as Minnie Maddern Fiske and a few resourceful producers such as her husband, the dogged Harrison Fiske, or the revered David Belasco could buck the Trust year after year and survive professionally. One source of help to rebel producers were the Shuberts who would embrace any available good cause or foul means to purchase a foothold in the entertainment business. The Shubert Brothers, Sam, Lee and Jake, were small time fringe players, easily overlooked, who slipped into New York theatre life almost unnoticed until they couldn’t be dislodged.

For more information about Vaudeville Trust send for Volume III, Issue 1 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume III

NEW VAUDEVILLE
HISTORY X

An octogenarian magician who had worked at the tail end of vaudeville was asked if he had one wish what it would be. He replied that he wished there was no such thing as electricity. Without electricity, he explained, there would be no television and radio, and for entertainment the public would go to live shows and vaudeville would return.

If we are unable to share his melancholy, it’s because we cannot miss something that we have never personally lived through. On the other hand, some feel that a vaudeville circuit does exist in which variety entertainers of all stripes perform their acts, make a fine living and spend time with their brethren both on and off the stage. This circuit is found aboard the hundreds of passenger cruise ships traveling the open seas today.

With the demise of the two-a-day, four-a-day and more-a-day vaudeville bill, American variety acts lost their common home. Some adapted to the nightclub and burlesque scenes, but these venues didn’t survive much longer than vaudeville and had completely disappeared when the last Playboy Club closed down in the mid-1970s.

For more information about New Vaudeville, send for Volume VII, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume VII

BOSTON VAUDEVILLE PERFORMERS
HISTORY XI

Fred Allen
1894–1956
Born in the Dorchester section of Boston, Fred was a bad juggler turned great humorist. A ‘nut comic’ in vaudeville and Broadway revues, he found the best showcases for his wit on network radio and in writing books. He also made several effective movie appearances and, with less success, tried television. As with Will Rogers, the quality of Fred’s wit and writing elevated him to the level of an American humorist.

Ray Bolger
1904–1987
A great eccentric dancer-comedian born in Dorchester, Ray is remembered chiefly for his stage role in Charley’s Aunt (1950-51) and for the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. Ray patterned his film role as the Scarecrow after his boyhood idol, Fred Stone (the stage Scarecrow in 1903). Ray was nearly as adept a comedian as a dancer.

Richard Carle
1871–1942
Born in Somerville (close enough to Boston), Carle was one of the brightest lights and most versatile leading comedy actors on Broadway between 1890 and 1930: he was a skilled comedian, actor, dancer, singer, producer, playwright, lyricist, composer, dance director and show director.

For more information about other Boston Vaudevillians, send for Volume IX, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume IX

BOSTON:
BIRTHPLACE OF AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE
HISTORY XI

Stop the presses! There have been several books written about vaudeville this year, and more are expected. Before any publisher prints another word about the beginnings of vaudeville, let’s get a couple of things straight: B. F. Keith did not invent vaudeville, nor was he the first vaudeville entrepreneur to use the word to advertise his programs. Vaudeville was produced in Boston decades before Keith was born.

Keith didn’t even originate the idea of ‘continuous vaudeville,’ a rap a lot of folks would like to hang on him. He adopted the concept from the continuous loop of performances that was the modus operandi of the circus sideshow and dime museums, where he began his career.

Most big business barons don’t invent anything. They are good at what they do because they see the usefulness to their own operations of the ideas and innovations of others (that was true even of Edison). Often the only thing an executive needs to do to establish his reputation as a shrewd operator is to hire the right people. This B. F. Keith did when he took on Edward F. Albee, a fellow alumnus of the sawdust circuit.

For more information about the Birthplace of American Vaudeville, send for Volume IX, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume IX

VAUDEVILLIANS IN MOVIES
HISTORY XII

Vaudeville still hadn’t peaked in popularity when challengers began to compete for theatre audiences. The emerging motion picture industry proved to be the most formidable of the contenders, and eventually it replaced vaudeville as America’s favorite theatrical pastime. Burlesque, musical comedy and revue were live entertainment rivals to vaudeville, but they, like vaudeville, faced their greater challenge from flickering images on a flat screen.

Movies were linked to vaudeville from the time they began to be exhibited to paying patrons. Even before motion pictures presented stories on the screen, many people saw their first films at the close of a vaudeville bill. Those early exhibited films were primitive in technique. Moviemakers had barely begun to explore the possibilities of editing and continuity, and the available cameras, usually mounted on tripods, required a steady focus and stable source of light to properly capture images. Cameras were repositioned only between scenes. Lacking plot, the most entertaining subjects for film were events—an automobile race, a gushing geyser in one of the new national parks or a locomotive steaming into a station, seemingly headed right into the audience’s laps.

For more information about Vaudevillians in Movies, send for Volume X, Issue #1 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume X

VAUDEVILLIANS IN RADIO
History XIII

Like many technological breakthroughs, radio presented different opportunities to different people. To those who developed the tools of broadcasting, the challenge was to send signals across a large area without delay between the transmittal and its reception. The telephone and telegraph had achieved some of that purpose when they managed to send, via cable, electronic impulses that converted back into distinguishable sounds such as words and music. The first durable Trans-Atlantic Cable, laid across the ocean from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1866, seemed at the time to be the major breakthrough in signal technology, but the future proved to be in wireless transmission.

Radio, to those not involved in its development, seemed to burst on the American scene much as computers did more than a half century later. But before radio ended up as a piece of talking furniture in millions of homes throughout the western world, it evolved through a long process beginning in the 1880s with experiments in electromagnetic waves. During the 1890s and early 1900s, many individuals invented bits and pieces of the transmission and retrieval technology that culminated in 1906 with the first successful wireless broadcast of words and music.

Unlike the telegraph and telephone that transmitted messages between two fixed points, the great advantage of radio (named for the process wherein electronic impulses radiated through the ether) was that a receiver could be mobile as long as it remained within range of the sender. It was a communications boon between ships at sea and quickly was adopted by the military for its navies, whose communications via undersea cables could be cut.

Less grand but of greater interest to the eventual radio listener were the crystal radio receiver kits. A rudimentary predecessor of the radio receiver, the crystal set was the outgrowth of many years of experimentation dating from the nineteenth century. The sets were manipulated by its users to scan the air to detect broadcast signals and to pull in, amplify and convert those signals into language and music. Crystal sets were easily built by people with little or no training. Many became amateur enthusiasts who worked to improve and better integrate the components and enhance amplification. Crystal sets were in operation across the USA more than a decade before the first true radio station, Westinghouse’s KDKA was licensed in Pittsburgh.

For more information about Vaudevillians in Radio, send for Volume X, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume X

NEW YORK CLIPPER
History XIV

The New York Clipper was published weekly from 1853 to 1923. Called “The Old Reliable” and “The Showman’s Bible,” the newspaper was the comprehensive journal for the entire amusement world. The accuracy of its news and the generous treatment accorded performers in minstrelsy, variety, vaudeville, musical comedy and moving pictures made the Clipper the most important and influential medium for people in the entertainment business.

The Clipper, first published by Harrison Fulton Trent on 14 May 1853, was a competitor of the sensationalist Police Gazette, a weekly covering sporting activities and lurid stories of murder and mayhem. After two years of editorial and financial struggle, Trent sold the paper to its young editor, Francis (Frank) Queen. During its early years, the Clipper devoted its space to sports news, including pugilism, sculling, billiards, running, horse racing and the beginnings of baseball. The paper provided authoritative and reliable coverage for the most part disdained by the news dailies.

For more information about The New York Clipper, send for Volume X, Issue #2 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume X

Vaudevillians in Television
History Part XV

In 1947, show business seemed to have conquered the final frontier: bringing sight and sound entertainment into America’s parlors through television.

The phonograph, radio and silent movies had once seemed the ultimate. Technology can enhance but does not define artistry. So creativity turns limits to advantages. A silent screen lacking dialogue and sound effects (save musical accompaniment) seems experimental and incomplete, yet the artists of the silent film created poetic masterpieces for which chatter and realistic sound effects would have been ruinous. Deprived of words, the silent movie surmounted the barriers of specific language and became a universal art form.

Then came radio, which offered sound but no picture. Listeners, though, accustomed to phonograph records, were fully engaged by singers, orchestras, orators, news reports, stand-up comedians and dramas and comedies for which those at home provided the mental images. Even ventriloquists (Edgar Bergen), mentalists (Dunninger) and tap dancers could succeed in a totally aural environment. Sound effects, good writing, direction and acting combined with the listener’s imagination to create the vision.

For more information about Vaudevillians in Television, send for Volume X, Issue 3 of Vaudeville Times or Bound Volume X

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