Vaudeville – the original triple threat
Apr 25, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Last night I finished one of my favorite Netflix series and, not wanting to veer from the couch, I cruised through my recommendations looking for the next binge-worthy selection. I landed on a documentary about the life and work of Bob Hope. While I am familiar with his work, I didn’t really know much about the man behind the laughter. This thoughtful retelling of his life lifted the curtain to reveal a complex and caring person. The filmmakers’ dedicated considerable time to his selfless work with the USO, but also focused on the pivotal role Vaudeville played in building his career. It got me thinking about the “star-making” engines from modern time – like the Apollo Theater, Mickey Mouse Club, or Saturday Night Live. In more recent history, the desire to “make it big” has become big business in its own right, with vehicles like American Idol or The Voice. Not to mention shows like Glee or Empire – where the journey to stardom is dramatized and packaged for an eager television audience. I can’t help but wonder what the Vaudevillians would think of all this fuss and I really wonder how much more interesting a reality show about the rigor of Vaudeville – the original triple threat – would be for today’s audience.
Before we begin on our journey, we first have to transport ourselves to a specific time period. It’s the turn of the century and everywhere you look change is underway. The Industrial Revolution was tearing at the very fabric of our social/economic landscape, with Henry Ford’s mass-produced cars leading the way. The Wright Brothers were making flight possible and our dreams of reaching the heavens seemed tangible for the first time. Average people could document their lives now, thanks to the Brownie camera. Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest U.S. president and the beloved Queen Victoria passed away. The public was introduced to the theories of Albert Einstein & Sigmund Freud. For the entertainment industry, the first silent movie was created. What a time to be alive!
Amongst all of this excitement and upheaval, Vaudeville was finding its stride. Debuting in the mid-1800s & built from the tradition of the great music hall, by the turn of the century this form of entertainment was the most popular way to spend an evening out. From big cities to small towns, Vaudeville was omnipresent. What started as a comedy-focused event for an all-male audience quickly expanded to variety shows that were targeted at the entire family. Most credit the singer Tony Pastor with giving Vaudeville this foundation. These quirky performances would go on for hours, showcasing a wide variety of acts. Comedy remained at the center, but the performers who drew in the biggest crowds could make you laugh while they sang a tune and danced the night away. The name of the game was diversity!
That diversity wasn’t just present in the acts themselves, in many ways Vaudeville was the mirror image of American society. Immigration was at a peak and up on stage you could see a wide variety of folks. Some people showcased traditional dances from their home country or played exotic instruments. Many acts were a family, giving generations an opportunity to hone their craft and develop their acts as they acclimated to their new home. All that mattered was what you did on that stage – not your skin color, not your gender, not your personal history. Vaudeville was the definitive proving ground for talent and if you could bring in the crowds, your name went up in lights. That passion for pleasing the audience was a powerful force. Vaudevillians didn’t make much money and worked incredibly long hours, but the allure of the stage and the opportunity to make someone feel something – that was their motivation. The discipline required week after week astounds and inspires me.
By the 1920s Vaudeville was largely being replaced by the Great White Way. Broadway playwrights found their voice following WWI, shifting from comedy to drama as the world experienced victory and tragedy. But the seeds of a Vaudeville education made for some beautiful foliage.
As the entertainment industry evolved to include radio, film, and then television – the Vaudevillians were perfectly placed to evolve alongside it. Many of the retro stars we know and love are graduates of the Vaudeville stage: Buster Keaton, Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin, and Fanny Brice (just to name a few!). You may be surprised to learn that the graduating class also included many professional athletes. Baseball was still a young sport and while it was on its way to becoming a favorite pastime, it wasn’t the lucrative career choice it is today. Many athletes saw Vaudeville as an opportunity to showcase talent and help pay the bills. Even the great Babe Ruth himself was known to carry a tune!
The Ed Sullivan Show was a reinterpretation of Vaudeville in many ways, but I’m hard-pressed to find Ed’s successor in the television of today. So much of what we see now is scripted, carefully arranged, and scrutinized by layer after layer of market testing. Perhaps YouTube is the Vaudeville of our age, but I can’t help waxing poetic about the real deal. Vaudeville crossed so many boundaries and while the internet and streaming services are becoming just as omnipresent, it’s a passive experience. Vaudeville was an immersive event, no two performances were alike and it brought people together into one space to share in that moment. As much as I adore my couch, I’m not going to get that cool factor while I lounge in my yoga pants. So dear reader, do you think performance history will repeat itself? Let me know in the comments…