Thursday, August 19, 2010

Vaudeville and the Family Connection

Ever since I was a young child, I would hear my mom talk about something called Vaudeville. Her stories included performances as a young child in this phenomena all over the United States. Apparently, at one point, she had a partner in the act, but parents got into an argument and broke up the act. The argument went so far as to having the pictures taken of the two of them performing cut in half and partner side tossed away.

The only thing I really knew about vaudeville is that it seemed that it was a varied bunch of performances done by folks young and old all over the U.S. and that many early film actors came originally from vaudeville acts.

Interestingly, since my mother lived in the hub of early movie films and in Los Angeles, she had heard of the opportunity to try out for "The Little Rascals" in the film media. Her mother, hearing of the same, scoffed at the idea, saying that "such things like that will never become popular", and refused to let mom audition. Boy, was she ever wrong!

But, I digress. I wanted to tell a little history of what was vaudeville, so here is what I know.

Vaudeville was a form of variety entertainment that became popular from around the 1880s until the early 1930s. Performances were like a variety show of more modern television. Acts included musicians, dancers, comedians, magicians, animal trainers male and female impersonators, acrobats, singers, jugglers, short plays, athletes; almost anything that could be performed on a stage setting. It was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in North America for many decades.

Before the American Civil War, entertainment existed a bit differently.  There were different types of variety type  performances, such as Shakespeare play, circuses, dime museums, wild west shows and medicine shows. Saloons, music halls and burlesque houses catered to a form of entertainment that was a bit more risque. In the 1840s, minstrel shows became popular. Vaudeville incorporated all of these various forms of entertainment into a stable, institutionalized format.

In the early 1880s, a circus ringmaster, Tony Pastor who turned theatre manager, capitalized on the spending power of the growing American middle class by featuring "polite" variety programs in several of his New York City theatres. The birth of vaudeville was born. He hoped to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic in uptown New York City by barring the sale of liquor and bawdy material from his shows. He also offered gifts of coal and hams to those attending. Pastor's experiment proved successful, and other managers soon followed suit.

By the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits in almost every sizable location in the U.S and Canada, standardized booking, broad pools of skilled acts, and a loyal national following. One of the biggest circuits was Martin Beck's Orpheum Circuit that brought together 45 vaudeville theatres in 36 cities by 1919.  Another major circuit was run by Alexander Pantages, who owned more than 30 vaudeville theaters and controlled, through management contracts, perhaps 60 more in both the United States and Canada.

As performers established national followings, they worked their way from often arduous working conditions to better pay and "the Big Time". The capitol of the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre, built by Martin Beck in 1913. The Palace provided what many vaudevillians considered the climax of their vaudevillian career.

A number events occurred that caused the decline of Vaudeville. Many vaudeville performers began to transfer from the vaudeville circuit to the movie business. In an effort to keep vaudeville alive, Alexander Pantages quickly incorporated motion pictures in his shows around 1902 and later went into a partnership with Famous Players, a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. There was no official end to vaudeville, but it was obvious that it was going through death throes by the late 1920s.

Lesser priced cinema in the early 1910s dealt the heaviest blow to vaudeville. Many performers such as W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and Jimmy Durante were lured away from vaudeville to the cinema by better salaries and working conditions. Other performers, who entered in vaudeville's later years, including Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Rose Marie, Sammy Davis Jr., Red Skelton, Burns and Allen and the Three Stooges  used vaudeville only as a launching pad for later careers.

Vaudeville suffered further with the rise of broadcast radio and then the wide availability of inexpensive receiver sets later in the decade.  Standardized film distribution and talking pictures of the 1930s confirmed the end of vaudeville.

Perhaps the concept of vaudeville never really ended due to its strong influence on the film, radio and television. Television variety shows were inspired by the old vaudeville acts, one of the most famous being the Ed Sullivan Show.
By the way, you are probably wondering about the picture at the beginning of this writing. That was my mom at the height of her own vaudeville career. Wasn't she cute?