I missed Vaudeville by about a century.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, if you were in the big city and you had a nickel (about five dollars today) and wanted to be entertained; you might go to a Vaudeville Theater.
You’d buy some popcorn and a beer or a soft drink and sit and watch a string of acts. These acts were about eight minutes, rarely more. You might hear a tenor sing an aria from an opera. Or a tap dancer might perform his act. You could see a novelty act of dogs (dressed as clowns) jumping through hoops. Perhaps a ballerina or a juggler who’d be followed by kids act.
Nothing I know brings on the glow like sweet applause.
And the comedians! It was fairly stock, either a loner with a prop (Jack Benny and his violin) or it was two guys; one who was the straight man setting up the jokes. Crude humor, imagine the busty nurse and the old man in the wheelchair — this was all vaudeville.
You could sit for two hours perhaps before the acts would repeat. You could stay if you wanted. The performers would do four to six sets a day, constantly perfecting their timing and act.
Of course, there was support. There was an orchestra pit with musicians. There were stage hands working back stage. Ticket takers and ushers and vendors. A lot of people were working and in those days, it was all about having a job.
Pinches from the stagehands, it’s the only quiet thing they do!
Vaudeville was all across the country. They’d do what was called a “circuit”. Eight weeks in Wichita and then eight weeks in Omaha and on and on. Albuquerque had two theaters, the Kimo and the Sunshine Theater. If you were good, you’d rise up to be a “head liner”, the draw or big name at the top of the marquee.
There were talent scouts and producers. If you were good, you might move up. You might even move up to the Follies in New York. Or, you might just remain a B act, constantly on tour in small towns — anything to avoid the factory, no?
You’ve had a taste of the sound that says love: Applause, applause, applause!
Thousands of acts, performers, musicians, stagehands all working all across the country. Immigrants, poor and scared, raised their children with music, dance, opera all in the hopes of having a star. Just think for a second of all the acts that did not make it: people who were trained in an instrument (or many) and dancing and singing.
It was on this that the greatest country in the world built it’s foundation. You can argue many other things but a nation steeped in the arts is a smart strong nation.
So let me entertain you. And we’ll have a real good time, yes sir. We’ll have a real good time.
And then, one day, the movies came out. Vaudeville theaters got converted, the orchestra pit was boarded over and a movie sheet now was hung instead of a curtain.
In the blink of an eye, this wonderful industry hit a dead end. The cream of the crop went to Hollywood. The Marx Brothers for example were of the very many who went to Hollywood to make movies.
One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.
Then, radio in the 30’s and then television in the 50’s; the vaudeville stars made their impact. George Burns and Gracie Allen, Uncle Miltie, Jack Benny all had their own shows and were loved. They’d all honed their skills on five shows a night in front of a everyman audience.
Vaudeville had a very naughty little sister called Burlesque; but that’s another story.
Now, one hundred years later, I turn on the television and see reruns of bad reality shows. Duck guys, Alaskan truck drivers, car repair guys; the medium is groaning for material to show. I wish that this generation was raised in music, dance and comedy. I wish that I was that back stage guy in Wichita watching Gypsy Rose Lee.
Today, television just doesn’t do it for me. I’ll play an interactive game like World of Warcraft with some friends or read a book. I’ll cook up a nice dinner and sit and write a blog that no one reads because it feels right to write.
A clown with his pants falling down
Or the dance that’s a dream of romance
Or the scene where the villain is mean.