To truly understand the history of vaudeville, one must understand two phenomena too ephemeral to merit a separate writeup.
The concert-salon, despite its name, was a pop entertainment of the early to mid 19th Century: somehow the phrase makes me think of a round room with dove-grey hangings where a Sweet Young Thing in long ringlets and a huge maroon dress is singing arias to a fortepiano played by a fellow with long sideburns, while around her sighing dandies sip wine and nibble bisquits served by silent fellows in black. Well, maybe they did, at one point, but to turn a profit, there was a good deal more drinking. And there were benches and tables, instead of upholstered chairs and tiny stands. And there might be sawdust on the floor, to mop up spillage and, shall we say, various other fluids, instead of a carpet. And the songs weren't exactly ... ah opera, but something a little more, shall we say, explicit, and the Sweet-Young-Thing might not be exactly sweet. Or young. And the waitstaff might be female, also, and more inclined to play the Magdalene than to serve a Madeleine. And the patrons might pronounce the name of the place they were in with a somewhat more rounded "o", to rhyme with "June".
You've seen one of these places, I'm sure, if you've ever seen a Western like "Destry Rides Again", or their innumerable parodies throughout the years: the classic Wild West Saloon, with an overly-made up girl named "Lottie" singing "Roll Me Over in the Clover", or "Tell Me What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" in front of a stage plastered with advertising, all the while stuffing bills into her garter. Hollywood gets the ambience right, though few small Western towns could support such an elaborate set-up: the palmy days of the concert salon were in such places as The Bowery, not Out West. Also lacking in the Hollywood version is the incredible crowding, the noise, the fact that the drink was a water-ethanol mix of uncertain provenance and potency, the gambling, the ever-present threat of fights and the fact that every nook and cranny (not to mention the private rooms above!) were filled with plunging buttocks and female heels in the air.
Such places made money, but, like porno and crack houses today, were in danger every election. The labyrinthine laws that govern New York City bars and restaurants today are, to a great degree, a living legacy of this era: no dancing here, only male waitstaff there...although "respectable" citizens often attended, you certainly wouldn't bring your wife (or even your girlfriend) there, and certainly not your children.
Dime museums were invented by P.T. Barnum, and could be considered the still equivalent of freak shows, and the kind of display you sometimes see at carnivals: Prison on Wheels, The Wages of Sin, etc. There were flea circuses, displays of live and mummified mutants, magicians, demonstrations both scientific and specious, mummy unwrappings, spiritualists, waxwork recreations of famous events, weapons used in famous crimes, stuffed and mounted rare beasts, phrenologists and fortune-tellers, “scientific” lecturers, and the like. The idea was Science (of a sort), Moral Teaching (also of a sort), and Entertainment (most assuredly). It might be edifying, but it was also somewhat morbid, all in all, you might go there a few times a year, but hardly every week.
The latter part of the 19th century brought with it a civilizing tone: the middle class began to emerge as the fastest-growing group in society, and city centers were increasingly filled at midday by women and children, out for a day of shopping, or women alone, at work as secretaries, nurses, and shopkeepers. In the evening, they might be joined by their husbands and sweethearts, eager to show them a (decorous) good time. There was the concert-salon, there was the dime museum, but there also was a new thing, the “voice of the city” the voix de ville, the vaudeville. Let’s go!
Vaudeville houses took the pop concert aspect of the concert saloon, mingled it with the high-mindedness of the dime museum, and added every possible way of squeezing another few coins from the patrons. A visit to one of these places (to use the Francophile language of luxury common at the time) might begin at an on-premises restaurant in The Winter Garden (a large space on the roof, glassed-in in winter, open in the summer), where milady and her man might order after perusing a menu, followed by the well-nigh mandatory purchase of a program, a single rose for milady, and/or a box of bon-bons, either from a stall in the lobby or from an onsite boutique. A selection of inexpensive toys might be available for the children, as well as various arcade games and amusements (including that modern marvel, the hand-cranked flipbook called the zoetrope). Hurry, the gong's ringing, it’s showtime!
Shows would run continuously, or mostly so, during the day and evening, and had anything from six or seven to a dozen acts, though a small, storefront operation might have four or even fewer, and a really extravagant show might have as many as twenty or more. Usually, there would be no MC, rather, the names of the acts would be written on cards placed on an easel, so shows would tend to start with a whisper rather than a bang -- literally. The opener was usually a "dumb act" -- that is, dancing, mime, or acrobats -- to accommodate the inevitable noisy shuffling while people got into their seats and settled down. The deuce spot would be "wild", as in cards, and could be just about anything: a promising young performer, just breaking into the business, a lecturer, or an "old favorite" (read: has-been) -- along with the second act after admission and the "chaser" act after the finale, this was considered one of the hardest spots to fill. The third act, therefore, was the true beginning to the show, and would feature something flashy, like a magician, a novelty act, anything that would make people sit down, shut up, and take notice! The audience's ears now having been grabbed, you could progress to something quieter: here you might have a comedian, a one-act play, or some kind of topical celebrity, leading up to a triple threat of a musician onstage segueing into The Musical Number, and, emerging like the pistil of a flower, the Second Headliner. Intermission!
Examining the program in the lobby, modern eyes might find it a bit bewildering. It's almost solid ads, and the actual bill is, well, kind of hard to find. (However, there's all sorts of other material -- song lyrics, jokes, and the like, plus not-so-subtle hints that piano transcriptions of the music heard could be purchased in the lobby and that Miss Holliday's wardrobe comes exclusively from Best & Co.) It's also been, so far, somewhat unsettling -- the deuce-spot comedian's material was almost entirely jokes at the expense of ethnic groups and women, the one-act play had a young child bodily picked up and thrown in a way that would bring shudders, not laughter, in any modern audience, the performing dogs looked scared, not trained, and -- what's with all the little black kids, anyway?
"Oooh, they're adorable.” A woman coos, looking at some figurines at the stand in the lobby, showing a few more little-black-kids. "Roger, buy me one of those pickaninnies."
"That's what I like about this place." you hear from a somewhat loud middle-aged man standing by the wall. "Good clean fun.” (Which, you read, is this week’s theme.) “You can take the missus, the kids; never hear a blue joke or a real sob story. 'Course, I love that Sophie Tucker. My Yiddisher Mama, all that. Makes the old lady cry. Makes me cry, when I'm in the mood. But really. It's all fun and games, and you can go home happy afterwards."
Another gong. Back to your seats!
The first act after the intermission was usually a "top dumb act" -- that is, a ballet or tap routine. Then pair of comics, looking and acting like human Warner Brothers cartoons, or an "eccentric singer", or another variety act, faster-paced to contrast with the one before. Then a musical group, dancers again, and then, the Headliner!! with everyone coming on for a great, big, Finish!!
After that, there really wasn't any reason, given a ticket, not to see the next show -- it was stamped with the day, not the hour. As it said on the outside of the building, “Continuous Shows -- 24 Hour Vaudeville Fri-Sun”. But …profits had to be made, and some bums would watch anything. That's where the "chaser" came in. It could be anything -- a guy eating live frogs, a clergyman lecturing on the Evils of Drink, a tone-deaf singer, a teenager, eager to get experience, showing magic lantern slides--anything just boring, annoying or stupid to get people out. Most, if not all people would leave (indeed, you were within your rights to get up and go in and out through the whole show). Joining the mass exodus, however, you're once again gently reminded that the Winter Garden is available for after-theater supper...and would you like a souvenir? Goodnight, have a safe trip home, next week's show's theme is "Laugh All Through the Night".
Good clean fun. That was what it was all about. Nothing happened that was controversial, overtly religious, politically charged, sexually suggestive, or too hard for anyone with a minimal attention span to understand: acts went on for a maximum of about ten minutes, and nothing ever happened you wouldn't want your kid or mother to see. Although vaudevillians were usually drawn from the grimy working class, had often seen enough by twelve to cause premature aging and were like as not first-generation Americans, the overall emphasis was on glamorous fantasy, innocence and rabid Americanism. Even women singing about their care-worn Irish (or Italian, or German, or…) mothers would wear the latest in evening gowns, men doing routines drawn from minstrel shows would (by default) wear top hats and tails. Innocence was another draw: six-year-old boys singing love songs to five-year-old girls, grown men and women singing songs about Mother’s love, cute doggies and kitties and birdies in ballet costumes and party hats, fairy-tale themes, and the ubiquitous pickaninnies or "picks” (the name comes from a classic theatrical test of memory), either singly, or in a choral background to a diva, like putti around a Madonna, baby-faced, yet old enough to dance, sing, and flash perfect white teeth. America was the Land of the Free and the Brave: the mere mention of the flag was a matter of seriousness, but there was one figure, even more than Mother, whose mere mention would often cause a singer to fall on their knees in hushed reverence …
Sex was a sticky issue: on one hand, even with the nothing-you-wouldn’t want-to-show-your-mother-or-your-kids stricture, guys liked watching pretty girls, preferably with very little clothing. On the other hand, openly sexy women belonged to the domain of burlesque, not vaudeville. Florence Ziegfeld broke the impasse by creating the figure of the "Beautiful American Girl", in such statuesque, virginal perfection as to squelch all protests of indecency, first enshrined in musical numbers as “Lady Liberty”, the “Spirit of the Republic”, and later, in countless production numbers on her own as herself, her hair gold like the wheatfields of Kansas, her eyes the luminous blue of the Pacific ocean under starry skies, her ruby lips and delicately-bloomed cheeks the blush of New England apples. To view such a figure of perfection, either singly or in a chorus line of similar beauties, had nothing to do with male tumenecence or female jealousy… and even less to do with racism. If she didn’t look much like anyone viewing her, so much the better - she was meant to be otherworldly…a goddess. Brother, what you’re seeing isn’t sex, it’s art!
Against this perfection, comics in their oversized, checkered, garish garb would poke fun at anything less: any other country was, by default, fair game, as were unassimilated ethnics, ugly people, mothers-in-law, bums, stupidity, wiseasses, weird speech defects, items in the news...As one historian put it, it wasn’t really a totalitarian minority laughing at a bunch of peasants, but a bunch of peasants laughing at each other: here on stage was someone who kind-of spoke a language that their neighbors kind-of spoke, or that they kind-of spoke themselves. Eva Tanguay, the Queen of Vaudeville, made an entire multi-decade career of the unsexyness of sex in such an environment: The Ugly American Woman, in all her ripe obesity, she'd appear in outlandish, body-revealing costumes (one was made of several thousand new Lincoln-head pennies) to sing "I Want a Man to Go Wild with Me", "You Can Go as Far as You Like", and her signature tune "I Don't Care (What Happens To Me)". Sure, she might be making herself available, but it was like being pursued by Harpo Marx: you didn’t really want her, and in any case, had she any idea what to do with you? (In comparison, the younger Mae West was a total flop - sure, she wanted to do it, and maybe you'd want to do it with her, but that’s just not funny.)
It wasn't all ballad singing and comedy: any kind of celebrity could be put on display as a vaudeville act -- from war heroes to ex-criminals -- and often noted scientists and academics, if deemed interesting and noteworthy enough, would tour, lecture a bit, and take questions from the audience. As I’ve said before, short one-act plays were popular, as were excerpts from ballets, operas, and chamber music. Sliding down the spectrum there were the “variety” acts, from the spectacular (Houdini’s escapes, men shot from guns, water spectacles) to the bizarre (specialty regurgitation, anyone?): acrobats, jugglers, lightning painters, family acts with singers, dancers, bag punchers, not to mention concocted gimmickry of every sort, from planted performers, audience participation numbers and sing-alongs to contests and giveaways. All served up with a cheery smile, a bow, and a heartfelt thanks for you being there: “My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my sisters thank you, my brothers thank you, and I thank you.”
Like the man said, good clean fun.
The preceding description was of a large, well-established operation in a medium-to-large city: smaller towns (and even some big-city neighborhoods) would have smaller places, ranging from the size of a large modern nightclub to tiny, storefront operations with just a few dozen seats. They’d be served by a small-time circuit, sight unseen by the larger chains, and might only give shows on weekends - but then, even a small vaudeville house could be a place of glamour and electricity.
Every week, there'd be "show people" passing through town, staying at the local hotels, and eating at the local diner. They'd be different. They'd talk in strange accents, flash diamonds, and complain that they couldn’t get pastrami or lobster. They'd look different, act differently...talk about strange and exotic places like California, and Des Moines, Iowa. Some of them had even been out of the country. To the village queer, the once-pregnant teen, the genius kid stuck on the Lower East Side, the geek and the dweeb and the crazy...there was the opportunity to show up at one of the local circuit's Talent Nights, and win, not just the twenty-five dollars, but the Grand Prize: to live the dream in a week’s engagement in the deuce spot, with options. To a seasoned trouper, it was peanuts. To any of the above, it was a ticket out.
Vaud life was taxing, uncertain, and sometimes hazardous, but almost never dull, and two (or four, or six) shows a day could earn a good piece of change. (As Eva Tanaguy once sang rapturously, "My Paycheck!") The typical engagement was a week in each town, with one lay day (Monday) for traveling in between, and the circuit could include anything from small-town storefronts to the Palace Theater in New York City (which was as close to show-business apotheosis as it got). Depending on the performer’s perceived moneymaking ability and what chain they were contracted to, they were said to be on a “Small Time”, a “Sun Time”, a “Keith Time” or a “Big Time” circuit. It wasn’t much, but added up, and as the years went by, plenty of vaudevillians were able to carry out their dream to buy Craftsman bungalows in the 'burbs and settle down. Vaud managers and circuit owners managed even better: the Poli family, owners of one of the smallest chains (with only four theaters), managed to salt away enough money to build, not one, but two mansions. When the show business industry decided to have its own trade newspaper, what better name could they give it but “Variety”?
Vaudeville’s heyday spanned the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, and though its beginnings are easy enough to peg (c. 1880) its demise is less easy to ascertain, since it spent a long time a’dyin’, having more lives than the proverbial cat.
Phonograph records were the first attack, and were a rival from the start: it was cheaper to buy a phonograph than a piano, and on-demand music was a great novelty. For awhile, disembodied music was a wonderful stage effect, later, cylinders and disks proved to be a great lobby moneymaker, alongside the sheet music, but soon it became clear that some people found it cheaper simply to buy the records and stay home. Then, the movies, which had been similarly tolerated, as I’ve hinted, first as nickelodeon shorts, taken off flipbooks, then again, as a stage effect, and finally as a feature in itself: many theaters found it the perfect chaser act, since a projectionist was cheaper than paying one more performer. (Soon people came just to see the flick.) But, by and large, it was radio, more than anything else, that proved fatal to the industry: as .mp3's are today, for the price of a receiver, you could have all the music you wanted for free.
Many vaudeville houses, reluctantly, turned into movie theaters. Still, there was a considerable overlap: for many years, there were places where you'd get live acts along with the double-feature-plus-selected-shorts. (Speaking as a Rocky Horror fan, I've often thought that at least some of the original managers' hearts were warmed enough by the return to some form of live theater with the movie to allow our particular madness...) There's still one theater in New York City that features a live show-with-movie...(BIG hint: it's the one with the Rockettes....) Some of the first talkie films were staged-for-the-film revues, and at least one film "The Wizard of Oz", had a cast, writing staff, and direction almost entirely made up of vaudevillians. Cartoons, as I've hinted, owed a lot to vaudeville humor and feeling: one can almost see Bugs Bunny, Elmer and Daffy chasing each other around a Vaud stage…. and eating at the Carnegie Deli together afterward.
“Watacresh shandwich pleashe!”
”Naah…I’ll stick wit’ da veggie plate…Make sure dat de carrots is fresh.”
“I wanta paswamie on wie, muswawd on da side…”
Now and then, there'd be a legit theater or a resort that billed themselves as having "Old-Time Vaudeville Revues”. The magicians, comedians, and singers retooled their acts for night clubs, while some performers simply dropped off the map. But the biggest life support system to vaudeville turned out to be television.
TV was a misbegotten, malformed birth from the beginning. The Internet had a considerable hacker community (plus the Department of Defense) to launch it, the movie industry, a "feeder" from various parts of the legitimate stage, and of course vaudeville itself. Radio took over from the recording industry. Television had to deal with what it got, which was the dregs of has-been stars, industrial films, news, and the Farm Report. Hollywood would have nothing to do with it. However, there was one star that was not quite a has-been…
Which meant Milton Berle. Uncle Miltie, with his semi-sexual moniker, might seem, to some memories, to be an unlikely salesperson for a new media: his everything-too-big face, his cigar, his ever-present recycling of old jokes make him sound like most other Friar's Club roastees. In the vaudeville age, he’d been “The Wayward Youth”, too handsome to be comic-ethnic, too quirky to crash Hollywood as a leading man. In kinescopes, he's the proverbial ball-of-fire: unpredictable, darting from here to there, as adept at an opening monologue (dressed in a weekly-changing array of wild costumes) as keeping the flow of an hour's events. What would he do next? Wear drag, sing something sentimental, trash-talk the rival Dumont network? (In defense, they placed Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, a respected cleric, against him, to no avail.) You had to tune in to find out...
His example proved to be one of the most profitable formulae in television history: the variety show. It was fun, it was (almost) infinitely variable, and it was easy: take a charismatic host, a cast of regulars, and a few "guest" stars, shake together, and mix, mingling classic shtick with topical humor, running gags with surprises, the sublime (Van Cliburn on Ed Sullivan) and the ridiculous (Topo Gigio, on the same show).
It was somewhere mid-run that even this began to show its age: a new generation of performers had begun to chafe against the strictures of good-clean-fun. After all, America wasn't always the Utopia it was touted as being and sex wasn't always dirty. Making fun of Irishmen and Chinese was getting to be seen as on par with ridiculing beggars and cripples (and bum and harelip jokes were out, too). Be-bop, folk, and later, rock-and-roll was the lingua franca of the new generation, not hot jazz and pop crooning, more likely heard in the cabaret or the coffeehouse. Even more confusingly, there seemed to be a huge audience outside the Nielson “family” ratings system, and the nuclear family itself was beginning to spin off into strange permutations. A new seriousness was overtaking American media, and most broadcasters were clueless as to how to deal with it.
At first, it was simple: simply fold a little “egghead” material into existing shows, while throwing together a few "teenage"-themed shows for the kids. Beats and hippies were treated like walking punchlines in themselves, and “psychedelic trip” was just another word for “dream sequence”…nothing new to an industry that had been making pipe dreams concrete on stage for a century. As anyone "of a certain age" will tell you, the first glimpses they ever had of such things as a lightshow or a mirror ball weren't in The Electric Circus or Cheetah in the Village, but on such vaudeville-derived showcases as "Perry Como's Christmas Special" (and yes, it was true, and the group was The Lettermen.) As time went on one show was put together -- Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In -- that featured only such material, while at one point the lunatics took over the asylum in "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" and more notably, in "Turn-On", a show so way-out it was cancelled during its first episode. Norman Lear’s “All in the Family”, though owing very little to variety as such, formed a kind of bridge, humor-wise: Archie Bunker’s florid ethnic stereotyping (given forth in a Channel Irish accent) and Edith’s dumb-housewife act (whose accent was similarly assumed) was placed against Mike’s social commentary (and amazing gift for slapstick) and Gloria’s straight-man preaching (both given in speech-class perfect diction) - for the first time, I-am-Americanism and ethnic jokes were being considered old-hat versus social commentary, controversy and jokes about “real” “human” things like sex, babies’ inchoate bladders, and the flush of an off-stage toilet. (On the other hand, Alan Alda’s kitchen-clean way with wordplay came from of all things, burlesque.) In the ensuing chaos, variety shows had their last, great flowering in the Seventies, with countless “Hours” cemented by ever-smaller and more transient stars, ending with the ignoble Pink Lady and Spice.
However, like humanity after Ragnarok, one show managed to extricate itself as a favorite: Saturday Night Live. Although the content had little to do with good-clean-fun, it did adhere to a variety format, to a degree. As a tribute to the industry that nursed the infancy of television, one show was hosted by Mr. Berle himself. It flopped.