It was the most democratic popular art in American history. To get onstage, all you needed was chutzpah and moxie. If you had the right stuff, you picked up the dance steps, the vocal style, the comic timing that could make you a star—maybe even one of the Marx Brothers. No wonder their mother, Minnie, loved vaudeville. And millions of fans and thousands of performers agreed. Yet despite its profound influence on every facet of entertainment, from the musical to the television sitcom, American vaudeville had a trajectory as astonishingly brief—if sparkling—as a Roman candle.
The word “vaudeville” derives from the French vau-de-vire, referring to the Valley of the Vire in Normandy, where itinerant singers amused the crowds with double entendre–packed songs. The tradition soon crossed the pond and by the mid-nineteenth century had become even trashier. Coarse buffoons and loose women formed the customary fare. In Huckleberry Finn, those two wandering frauds, the King and the Duke, offer a typical act, the Royal Nonesuch. In big type, the handbill warns customers: women and children not admitted. “There,” says the Duke, admiring his handiwork. “If that line don’t fetch them, I don’t know Arkansaw!” The routine, Huck reports, features the King “a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and he was painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow. . . . Well, it would have made a cow laugh to see the shines that old idiot cut.”
Such travesties placed vaudeville performers at the bottom tier of show business, at a time when even legitimate theater folk drew suspicion. “Respectable” hotels and restaurants barred vaudevillians. The rooming houses and cafeterias that did admit them were always on the wrong side of the tracks. Even in more relaxed New York City, reformers began closing in during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.
And then came an unexpected moral turnaround, as profound as the change in Victorian society from loose to upright. The King-and-Duke sort of vaudeville received the thorough laundering it needed in 1881, when Tony Pastor, owner of a 14th Street New York music hall, made the calculation that Walt Disney repeated some 50 years later: a theater that excluded women and children curtailed its income by at least 67 percent.
The plump, mustachioed impresario had been showing pirated and racy versions of Gilbert and Sullivan, among them The Pie Rats of Pen Yan. Now, Pastor shut his adjoining barroom, forbade smoking (he was always ahead of his time), and presented a carefully supervised variety program. All performers had to clean up their acts before they dared to step upon his stage. Obscenity, vulgarity, and irreverence became taboo. Gone were such saline japes as:
Man: My sister-in-law thinks “lettuce” is a proposition.
Woman: She never married, did she?
Man: No, her children wouldn’t let her.
Woman: Someone is fooling with my knee.
Man: It’s me, and I’m not fooling.
Nor could patrons hear the closing song made famous in British music halls and sung on the streets of America:
What’s that for, eh? Oh, tell me Ma.
If you won’t tell me, I’ll ask Pa.
But Ma said, “Oh, it’s nothing,
Hold your row.”
Well, I’ve asked Johnny Jones, see,
So I know now!
Those who ignored the new rules wound up in burlesque, defined by a contemporary edition of Webster’s as: “A theatrical entertainment of broad and earthy humor; consists of comic skits and short turns (and sometimes striptease).” The same dictionary described vaudeville more approvingly: “A stage entertainment of successive separate performances, usually songs, dances, acrobatic acts, dramatic sketches.”
Thus arrived the first family shows, where wives, husbands, kids, even unescorted women could while away an evening without blushing. The new conventions and standards weren’t easy for performers to meet, however. As Charles and Louise Samuels observe in Once Upon a Stage, the majority of vaudevillians emerged from the slums, uneducated and untrained. After winning an amateur night or two, a performer would usually find himself booked into a small theater in a backwater—and often in a state—where he had never been before. Vaudevillians had to “discover by themselves how to dress, walk on the stage, talk to the audience with just the right mixture of humility and pride, find the right songs and material.” In addition to the intimidating audience that lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II called the “Big Black Giant,” “there were bad-tempered, dictatorial house managers who took delight in cutting your material, hounding you, doing everything possible to break your spirit.”
Performers with bulletproof egos kept going; the others faded away. It was a hard life. Out of some 20,000 choristers, group acts, and soloists performing across America, less than 2 percent would make a good living out of vaudeville. Fewer still would enjoy celebrity. Yet Times critic Brooks Atkinson was right: despite its drawbacks, vaudeville gave audiences “a brilliant form of stage entertainment that expressed skill, personality and ideas, and presented some of the most talented actors of all time.”
Those talents have long since vanished, and so have the venues where they performed, razed or transformed into octoplex movie houses. Vanished too are producers with the audacity and instinct that breathed life into vaudeville—producers like Oscar Hammerstein the first, grandfather of the lyricist. The German immigrant began his career as a cigar maker, developed a machine for turning out stogies with compressed air, obtained patents for several other inventions, and invested the income in real estate. He put up a couple of theaters in Harlem, parlayed the profits into an opera house on 34th Street and Broadway, and then made the move that would win him the title “The Creator of Times Square.”
Between 44th and 45th Streets on Broadway, then a nondescript part of midtown, Oscar erected the Olympia, encompassing a music hall, a theater, and a smaller concert arena. To control every aspect of show business, he hired his three sons as supervisors. Harry looked after construction, Arthur took care of the decorating, and Willie (father of Oscar II) booked the talent that would appear at the posh new houses.
Trouble is, the houses were costly and wasteful, as well as grand. Even after selling off his other properties, Oscar had to declare bankruptcy in 1898. Broke, he ran into a friend. “My fortune,” he sighed, “consists of two cigars. I will share it with you.” In fact, no one could take his greatest assets from him—his self-confidence and his gift for self-promotion. He talked friends into lending him some venture capital and built yet another theater, the Victoria, located between 42nd and 43rd Streets on Broadway. A reporter described it as “a big, tinkling pearl box—all white and gold with the opals of electricity studding it in profusion, gorgeous carpets, splendid lounges, and all the ultra-elegance of an ultra-elegance-loving metropolis.”
Hammerstein began with dramas and musical shows before turning the Victoria into a two-a-day vaudeville house. Thoroughly modern Willie booked popular singers and comedians, and a very different sort of headliner—the kind who made the front and back pages of the tabloids: Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champ; Lady Hope, who showed off the enormous Hope diamond; and Captain Cook, who claimed (falsely) to have discovered the North Pole.
Other producers, taking note, began to flourish their own celebrities: the brilliant blind and deaf Helen Keller, who did nothing but answer a few questions written into her palm; the saloon-smashing prohibitionist Carrie Nation; and the silent but scandalous “girl on the red velvet swing,” Evelyn Nesbitt, whose husband, drug-addicted socialite Harry K. Thaw, had murdered her former lover, the world-renowned architect Stanford White (audiences happily paid good money for a glimpse of the first twentieth-century sex kitten).
On occasion, Willie erred. The heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan starred in a truncated Uncle Tom’s Cabin and noticed that the actor playing Uncle Tom was getting more applause. The Great John L. erupted one night after “Tom” took his fifth bow, and chased him into the street. But Willie rarely went wrong when he took the murderess route. Florence Burns had shot her lover in Brooklyn after he had dumped her for another woman. Let off on probation, she used the time to play in vaudeville. At the Victoria, Florence tried a dance step or two, to show that she could do something with her feet as well as her hands, but the routine failed to please the critics. One compared her to “a sidewheel steamer catching a porpoise.” The crowds came to gawk anyway. Other glamorous criminals included Ethel Conrad and Lillian Graham, who had conspired to kill W. E. D. Stokes, a rich hotel owner. Willie billed them “The Shooting Stars.”
Effective as the Hammersteins could be at vaudeville presentations, their efforts paled beside those of two shrewd New England impresarios, Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee. Keith began his ascent in the circus, running a sideshow populated with freaks, strongmen, fortune-tellers, and other wonders. He hired Albee (adoptive grandfather of the playwright) to look after the animals. E.F. was just as smart as B.F., and soon the men worked as equals, operating the Keith Circuit, a string of vaudeville houses across the country.
Keith was an upright, hands-on manager who repaired the broken seats himself. His parsimonious, deeply religious wife scrubbed the floors of the theaters near their Manhattan office and ran a boardinghouse for actors. She made certain that no ladies showed up in single gentlemen’s rooms after dark. And she saw to it that the artistes’ onstage behavior never embarrassed the Keith name. A young juggler, Fred Allen, who later put down his Indian clubs and became a radio superstar, recalled a sign posted backstage along the Keith-Albee circuit:
notice to performers
Don’t say “slob” or “son-of-a-gun” or “hully gee” on this stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you have not the ability to entertain Mr. Keith’s audiences without risk of offending them, do the best you can. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act, consult the local manager before you go on the stage, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive, you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theater where Mr. Keith is in authority.
Albee was no less rigid, but profit, not deportment, consumed him. In 1902, when a group of actors decided to unionize, he bought off the leaders with two-year contracts, shattering the organization. Six years later, when S. Z. Poli, owner of a smaller string of New England theaters, decided to break the Keith-Albee stranglehold by booking talent on his own, Albee promptly informed banks in every city with a Poli theater that the Keith circuit planned to build a grand theater there, which would doubtless drive the town’s other vaudeville houses out of business. When the banks called in all of Poli’s outstanding debts, he agreed to book his performers through the Keith office.
The following year, the Keith houses raked in some $30 million. As Albee had made his point fiscally, Keith had made his morally. Under his aegis, vaudeville not only acquired class; it became as formalized as a minuet. In his online history of vaudeville, John Kenrick describes the typical bill of fare at major houses. “The ‘Opening’ was a ‘silent act’ that would not be ruined by the bustle of an audience settling in”—trained seals and acrobats, say. Next came juvenile acts like the Gumm Sisters, whose youngest member later changed her name to Judy Garland, and the Nicholas Brothers, dancing troupers who subsequently became headliners. A comedy sketch or one-act play would follow. Customarily, these featured names from the legitimate theater, including Sarah Bernhardt, Alfred Lunt, and the Barrymores—Lionel, John, and Ethel.
Then came an eccentric novelty act. This might involve a magician who sawed his spangled assistant in half, or a mind reader, or a trio like the Three Keatons: mother, father, and Buster, “the Human Broom”—father Keaton delighted audiences by grabbing his son by the ankles and sweeping tables, chairs, and the floor with the boy’s hair. Other favorites included the escape artist Houdini, who would emerge from a sealed coffin; Julian Eltinge, a female impersonator; and Julius Tannen, a monologist celebrated for his word pictures: he said that using a paper cup reminded him of drinking out of a letter, and excused himself for being late by explaining that he had squeezed out too much toothpaste and couldn’t get it back into the tube. A little girl caught his act in upstate New York; to her, Tannen was pure enchantment: “Just this voice,” wrote Lucille Ball, “and this magnificent man enthralling you with his stories, his intonations. He changed my life. I knew it was a very serious, wonderful thing to be able to make people laugh and/or cry, to be able to play on their emotions.”
Celebrities of note, famous or notorious, held fifth place. That brought down the curtain on Part One.
Part Two opened with a large set and a lot of people onstage. Choirs, novelty orchestras, and trained tiger-and-lion acts were favorites.
The seventh spot—“next to closing” in vaudeville-speak—was for the big names. One of the customers’ favorite teams, Ed Gallagher and Al Shean (the Marx Brothers’ uncle) spouted doggerel inspired by the headlines or by old jokes set to rhyme and music.
Shean: Oh, Mr. Gallagher, oh, Mr. Gallagher.
Gallagher: Hello, what’s on your mind this morning, Mr. Shean?
Shean: Everybody’s making fun
Of the way our country’s run,
All the papers say
We’ll soon live European.
Gallagher: Why, Mr. Shean, why Mr. Shean,
On the day they took away our old canteen,
Cost of living went so high
That it’s cheaper now to die.
Shean: Positively, Mr. Gallagher.
Gallagher: Absolutely, Mr. Shean.
Those gentlemen enjoyed a comparatively brief, if intense, vogue, and never crossed over to the new media of film and radio. Other headliners did, including Keaton, Jack Benny, W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin (whom Fields grumpily described as “a God-damned ballet dancer”), George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Eddie Cantor.
The finale was for acts on the way down. By now patrons were donning coats, chatting, and heading for the aisles. If they bothered to turn around, they saw a monotonous singer, a cacophonous one-man band, a juggler of little note. Occasionally, these bookings surprised. The Cherry Sisters were so inept that they won a pre-camp eminence. Ranging in number from two to five, the group sang off-key and had such bad timing that audiences threw vegetables at them: an enterprising manager began to sell produce outside the theater. The Cherries warbled behind a net to avoid injury.
In the new century, these performances that cost so little—rarely more than $1— and gave so much, beguiled not just the common folk but intellectuals, too. As novelist William Dean Howells wrote in Harper’s, “I am an inveterate vaudeville-goer, for the simple reason that I find better acting, and better drama, than you get on your legitimate stage.”
Moving up the vaudeville ladder could be as hard as a shortstop’s climb from Class B to the majors. Nostalgia sweetens entertainers’ recollections; their memoirs often throw a golden light on the early years of mean boardinghouses, meager salaries, and hecklers. Still, the best of them are candid about the long and arduous climb to the top of the marquee.
Brooklyn-born Mae West put in years as a shrewd, ambitious chorine before scoring with a series of risqué Hollywood films that resuscitated nearly bankrupt Paramount Pictures in the 1930s. She never failed to praise vaudeville as the night school where she learned “to adjust mood, tempo and material.” The husky-voiced high-camp temptress went on to observe, archly, “I didn’t get it from books.”
Neither did Minnie Marx’s son Arthur, better known as Harpo. “If an audience didn’t like the Marx Brothers,” he wrote, “we had no trouble finding it out.” Southern audiences pelted the Yorkville kids “with sticks, bricks, spitballs, cigar butts, peach pits and chewed-out stalks of sugarcane. We took all this without flinching—until Minnie gave us the high-sign that she’d collected our share of the receipts. Then we started throwing the stuff back at the audience and ran like hell for the railroad station the second the curtain came down.”
Arthur’s studious brother Julius remembered Mama pushing him onstage in tank town after tank town, then city after city, watching the young man invent and reinvent himself with an accumulation of staccato delivery, insult jokes, outrageous puns, and fluid slouch. “When we were playing small-time vaudeville,” he told a friend years later, “I would try a line and if it got a laugh, I’d leave it in. If it didn’t get a laugh, I’d take it out and write another line. Pretty soon, I had a character called Groucho.”
A rotund young woman made her entry one amateur night in Connecticut—and got the hook even before she stepped onstage. “This one’s so ugly,” said the theater manager, “the crowd up front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up. She’ll kill ‘em.” That she did, and Sophie Tucker, the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, remained in blackface, hiding her race, if not her talent, for five years.
Fred Astaire (né Austerlitz) from Omaha also harkened back to his days as a vaudeville hoofer. He and sister Adele opened a show in New York—and met with silence. The next day, they cased the board listing the order of acts. A “cold sweat set in when I couldn’t find our names anywhere at all,” Astaire wrote.
“Confused, I went to the doorman and asked him what this meant.
“ ‘Sonny,’ he said, ‘I heard the manager say they had to make a change. Why don’t you run out to his office and see him? He’s there now.’
“We went out and got the story from the manager. He said simply, ‘I’m sorry kids—your act wasn’t strong enough. You’ve been canceled.’ That was it. There is no worse blow to a vaudevillian than that word ‘canceled.’ ” The Astaires persevered nonetheless. Adele married a British aristocrat and retired from the stage. And Fred . . . well.
Bob Hope had trouble getting started, too. He ruefully recollected a time in Texas: “When I walked before my first Fort Worth audience with my fast talk, I might as well have kept walking to the Rio Grande. Nobody cared. I couldn’t understand it. I came back offstage, threw my derby on the floor and told the unit manager, ‘Get me a ticket back to my own country.’ ”
George Burns, who eventually joined with his wife, Gracie Allen, to become one of the prime comedians of radio and television and film, had a similarly rough beginning. Week after week he would change his name, hoping that a fresh reputation would rise from the ashes of the previous one. “I joined up with another guy, and we called the act Burns and Links. My name was Links. Confusing isn’t it? We were a two-man dancing act, and couldn’t get a job anywhere.” Sitting outside an agent’s office, they overheard him speaking on the phone: “I could use a dog act in Ronkonkoma.” George asked the receptionist to give her boss a message. “Burns and Links and their dogs are sitting outside.” Landing a one-night contract for $10, the pair quickly acquired two stray mutts. “The act opened with eight bars of an introduction, ‘Down Among the Sheltering Pines,’ pianissimo, offstage, then a repeat of eight bars same, forte, and we would run onstage holding our straw hats high in the air with one hand so the audience could see the red linings. This time we ran out, hats in the air, and dogs under our arms. We dropped the dogs, finished the act, collected the $10, and I changed my name again.” When it became Burns, and he got a partner named Allen, it was gravy from then on.
William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W. C. Fields, switched from juggler to comedian in his vaudeville years. He described the metamorphosis, starting with “a trick in which I toss a silk hat on the rim of which lies a lighted cigar, from my foot, balancing a hat on my nose as it falls, while I catch the cigar and go on smoking. Half the time I fail to do it on the first trial, but by means of a lot of little extra comedy turns following the failure, I usually succeed in making my audience believe my failure is intentional. Though my regular time is 21 minutes, I rarely get through in less than 25 or 26 minutes. The additional time is taken up with laughter.”
Fields’s contemporary, another New Yorker named Milton Berle (né Berlinger), had his own vaudeville memories. “It took monologists like Jack Benny and Bob Hope and me 18 months to two years to get seven solid minutes to put into an act,” Berle observed. “You weeded out the crap, deleted and edited stuff that wouldn’t play. Then when you went to Wilkes-Barre, it had to be changed again. And then another town, and still more changes.” Shaking his head, he asked rhetorically, “Where can you get that kind of training today?”
Every one of these headliners began in “Small Time”—little theaters where they made maybe $15 a week while they polished their dance steps and songs or tried out new jokes. One manager “who was in the raincoat business,” Fred Allen recalled, “tried to talk the actors into taking their salaries in raincoats.” In Bayonne, New Jersey, Allen went on, “during my act, a cat came down the aisle, emitted a series of blood-curdling cries, and delivered a litter on the carpet.” Riposted Allen, “I thought my act was a monologue, not a catalogue.”
The most promising troupers moved on to “Medium Time”—second-class theaters in first-class cities, at salaries from $75 to a few hundred dollars a week. In one of those houses, a New York hoofer named James Cagney broke into show business. “A three-act,” he recalled, “needed a replacement for one of their number. This act was Parker, Rand and Leach, and Mr. Leach was Archie Leach, now known to history as Cary Grant.” In Medium Time, Cagney found that vaudevillians “knew something that ultimately I came to understand and believe—that audiences are the ones who determine material. I remember Dr. Johnson’s couplet: ‘The drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give, / And we who live to please must please to live.’ ”
“Big Time” was the acme— a two-a-day format in the top venues in major cities. Those in the “next to closing” slot earned well over $1,000 a week, when the average workman took home $40 for five and a half days’ labor. Fields belonged in that august company; so did comedienne Fanny Brice, the kilted Scotsman Sir Harry Lauder, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and the former Metropolitan Opera singer Fritzi Sheff. An awed Buster Keaton recalled the week that he played on a bill with her: “This little lady carried 36 pieces of luggage and an entourage consisting of her pianist, a chauffeur, a footman and two French maids.” A week before she arrived in each city, Keaton reports, she’d send an interior decorator to redo her suite and dressing room, with “magnificent mirrors with gold frames and drapes suitable to one of the fabulous boudoirs at Versailles.”
Big Time’s center was New York City. After Hammerstein, Albee, and Keith, producer Martin Beck, who had recently bombed in Chicago, tried again on the Great White Way in 1913, with a brand-new Palace Theater in the theater district’s heart. But as the last coats of paint went on and the last members of the cast signed short-term contracts, the Hammersteins announced that Beck had violated an agreement. Their Victoria Theater owned exclusive rights to all Keith vaudeville acts from 34th Street to Columbus Circle. With a large, glistening theater and no one to play in it, Beck agreed to buy the Hammersteins’ rights to the talent for an unheard-of $225,000. On opening night, critics lauded the 1,800 plush seats, huge crystal chandeliers, ivory and bronze decorations, and lobby walls of Siena marble—but not the headline act: La Napierowska, a Polish danseuse.
The World scoffed at the “Polish representative of the great horde of wriggle dancers who have swooped down on New York. This lady was supposed to be stung by a bee. She divested herself of her clothing to find it. She called herself a classical dancer but no one seemed to notice it.” The comedian at the bottom of the bill was swept away with the debris, and Ed Wynn, like the danseuse, pushed on. Willie Hammerstein gloated over the Palace’s dim future: “I give it six months.”
His crystal ball was cloudy. As the theater entered its sixth week of half-life, Beck engaged established superstar Ethel Barrymore. She appeared in a one-act melodrama by dashing journalist Richard Harding Davis, who had covered the Spanish-American and Boer wars. The bill also boasted the singing Courtney Sisters; Bessie Clayton, a brilliant ballet dancer; and Nat Wills, “The Comedy Tramp.” Wills’s wife had been a circus bareback rider; when they split, he laconically drawled: “I should have married the horse.” They all played to SRO houses.
Following that bill came Sarah Bernhardt, the French stage doyenne. Emoting in English, she treated onlookers to the death scene from Camille and surefire excerpts from other European dramas. Every performance of her 17-day run overflowed. Variety had ridiculed the Palace’s “outrageous” policy of charging $2 for the best seats; now the theater asked $2.50, and scalpers got as much as $10 for a pair.
After that, the Palace was a symbol of accomplishment. If an act could make it there, it could make it anywhere. Entertainers who had appeared at that theater never let anyone forget it. One manager of another theater wearily nailed a sign near his dressing rooms:
don’t tell me how you killed them at the palace
do it here
Yet with all the power that vaudeville exerted, it still lacked a final ingredient: elegance. That was B.Z.: Before Ziegfeld. Like Martin Beck, Florenz Ziegfeld had started off in Chicago, where his father owned a failing nightclub. As a last resort, he let young Flo take over the bookings. In came “The World’s Strongest Man,” George Sandow, who wrestled a drugged lion and turned the season into a winner. Next stop: Broadway. After producing a few so-so musicals, Ziegfeld had a brief marriage to singer Anna Held. She left Flo with bitter memories and one thing of value: the suggestion to stage a revue patterned after the les Folies Bergère of Paris.
The Ziegfeld Follies debuted in 1907 at the New York Theater’s roof garden, where evening breezes eased the fierce summer heat. From the start, the impresario sought the best talent in show business. His director was Julian Mitchell, a former dancer who would put his head against a piano to feel a song’s beat, and then create dynamic staging for it. Designing the scenery was the great art-deco architect Joseph Urban. Lady Duff-Gordon and Erté did the costumes. Follies comedians included Bert Williams, the first black luminary to star on the same stage with white folks; lariat-twirling Will Rogers; Eddie Cantor; the original Funny Girl, Fanny Brice; the dancing Dolly Twins, who would mirror each other’s moves perfectly; and Ed Wynn, the bottom-of-the-bill comic Flo had spotted at the Palace during its disastrous opening weeks. Even with all this talent, the key ingredient was the line of females singing the songs and wearing the skimpy (though always decorous) fur-trimmed or spangled costumes. Irving Berlin’s song, written at Ziegfeld’s behest, said it all:
A pretty girl is like a melody
That haunts you night and day.
Just like the strain
Of a haunting refrain,
She’ll start upon
And run around your brain.
Berlin’s number became the Follies’ unofficial anthem, but Ziegfeld showcased a series of best-selling tunes, including “Shine On Harvest Moon,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “Second Hand Rose,” the comic number that made Fannie Brice’s reputation—and Barbra Streisand’s two generations later.
When the U.S. entered the Great War, Ziegfeld, now married to the beautiful actress Billie Burke, decked his chorines out in military uniforms—except for one who bared a breast, impersonating Liberty as shown in various paintings. In the midst of this triumph came the horrific 1918 flu epidemic, in which some 550,000 Americans died in a matter of weeks, forcing theaters to close around the country. It nearly ruined Flo. But he hung on out of a stubborn belief in himself and in the future, presenting show after show to almost empty houses as he edged closer to insolvency. His faith held. The plague stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and customers trickled back. The boom picked up where it had left off, and by the end of the War to End All Wars, as historian John Kenrick notes, “a subtle yet momentous change had taken place. America had shifted from being a debtor nation to being a lender to the world.” The citizens wanted to party, and vaudeville led the way.
The party briefly broke up in 1919, after the nascent Actors Equity Association, demanding better pay and job security, struck, and the Stagehands Union honored the walkout. Almost every theater shut down. The producers recognized Equity and met its demands, and reopened their shows, gratified to see that the lines of ticket buyers reached clear around the block. Equity didn’t represent black performers, however. Instead, the Theater Owners Booking Agency—T.O.B.A.—represented “colored” performers, who played to all-Negro audiences in segregated theaters. The actors said the initials really stood for Tough On Black Asses, because the fees fell far below those paid up north. These stars developed a hard glitter: Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith became recording stars; Bill “Bojangles” Robinson went on to Broadway and Hollywood.
By now, Ziegfeld’s success had encouraged others to cash in on the postwar festivities. The Shuberts, theater owners and producers, offered a series of revues called Artists and Models. George White, a dancer turned impresario, labeled his shows The Scandals. While Flo was still covering the American Girl, White, sensing a Roaring Twenties swing away from propriety, was busy undressing her. The Scandals featured abbreviated skirts that finally drove critic Percy Hammond to complain, “The knee is a joint, not an entertainment.”
Audiences disagreed and made the producer a millionaire. Unlike Ziegfeld’s Follies, White’s Scandals gained special luster not from the chorus lines but from the melodic ones. George and Ira Gershwin wrote the Scandals’ music, and their songs included “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Somebody Loves Me.” The songwriting trio of De Silva, Brown, and Henderson offered hits like “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Earl Carroll, a former songwriter, produced a series of Vanities, outdoing White by starring chorus girls in their underwear—and sometimes less.
To compensate for an exuberant lack of taste, Carroll presented first-rate comedians like Fields and Benny. Both men were fearless practitioners of their art—except when it came to one act. The two hated to appear with the Marx Brothers. In his memoirs, Fields commented, “They sang, danced, played the harp, and kidded in zany style, were vaudeville entertainers. Never saw so much nepotism or such hilarious laughter in my life. The only act I could never follow.” Benny echoed: “My God, they did 35 minutes of their own stuff, and when my quiet act followed, it was disaster!” Nonetheless, the Marxes did give him some benefits. “After a while I used to stand in the wings and laugh like hell; which meant I stopped worrying about my act.”
Vaudeville remained big in the early twenties, but as the decade wound down, two inventions started to make fatal inroads: radio and films. By then Keith had died, and Albee had wrested control of the Palace from Martin Beck. Marcus Loew, onetime furrier and currently owner of a group of nickelodeons, had come on the scene, combining live acts and two-reelers at his New York showcase, Loew’s State. The theater had well over 3,000 seats, charged less than the Palace, and grossed more.
Unsettled, Albee ordered one of his ushers to buy a ticket at Loew’s State as soon as the box office opened—and another just as it closed. Since the tickets had consecutive numbers, Albee could figure out exactly how many people had paid to get in. After a few weeks, someone figured out what the usher was doing and told Loew. He picked up his phone and twisted the knife: “Ed, you don’t have to go to all that trouble. You can call up my house manager, and he will give you the box-office figures each day.”
As late as 1927, the year of the first big sound film, The Jazz Singer, Marcus Loew still sounded eupeptic about vaudeville’s fortunes. Invited to a Harvard seminar on movies, he spoke about the way he combined cinema and live performances at the State. Afterward he took questions:
Q: Does a strong vaudeville act tend to bolster up a weak picture?
A: A great name will help bolster up what is lacking in a picture.
Q: Does broadcasting hurt your business any?
A: Not at all. The only time radio hurts is when there is a big fight on or some other occasion that makes everybody stay home and listen in. That particular night we are hurt.
Q: Is the Vitaphone going to cut into the vaudeville business in the near future?
A: That is hard to say. I put that on a par with anything else that is new. Personally, I do not think that it is.
If the emergence of the “talkies” reduced the opportunities for vaudevillians, the Great Depression shrank them even more. Edward Albee, the tight-fisted Mr. Vaudeville for so many years, himself fell victim to a hostile takeover by the Kennedy founding father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Expert at outmaneuvering businessmen, Kennedy sold off the Keith circuit and used the income to create the RKO movie studio. Albee, with a big office and nothing to do, kept burdening his new boss with suggestions, until Kennedy finally snapped: “Ed, don’t you know you’re all through?” The deflated executive retired to Florida, and died in 1930.
Two years later, vaudeville made its own way to the cemetery, when the Palace Theater relinquished its identity. Novelist and vaudeville aficionado Sarah Addison was there: “On a certain evening in May a few hundred New Yorkers attended a wake. The rites were held at the Palace Theater; the corpse was Vaudeville, being shown for the last time in the last two-a-day, reserved-seat, non-film vaudeville house in America. The authorities are pretty well convinced that the corpse is permanently dead.
“The house was embarrassingly empty, the orchestra seats not half filled. There was no funeral oration and there were no tears. The performers were jolly, and the audience, scant as it was, was amused. Only a few lonely souls sat back in their seats mourning. Vaudeville, old-time, big-time vaudeville, had outlived its usefulness—the empty house certified to that—and its death carried no sting. The date was, incidentally, Friday the thirteenth.”
Sophie Tucker agreed: “The movies have a death grip on vaudeville.” And June Havoc, whose sister Gypsy Rose Lee became a headline stripper in burlesque, spoke for many colleagues: “Show business as I knew it had simply dwindled and vanished before my eyes. The happy island of vaudeville which had been my kindergarten, elementary and junior high school had sunk into the sea and left me treading water. . . . I was a displaced person.”
Yet vaudeville has a lively ghost. From the late 1940s, when hardly anyone watched it, until the late 1960s, when almost everyone did, The Ed Sullivan Show carried on the vaudeville format on television, loading Sunday nights with pop singers and opera divas (the rarely seen Maria Callas performed an aria from Tosca) and a splendiferous variety of comedians, hoofers, singers, and performing seals. Like Flo Ziegfeld, who could neither sing, dance, nor play an instrument and yet produced the most enticing shows of his time, “Ed does nothing,” Alan King quipped, “but he does it better than anyone else.”
The public appetite for variety hasn’t diminished. Stephen Sondheim recently described his newly revived collage of vignettes, Pacific Overtures, as “documentary vaudeville.” Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien, taking cues from predecessors Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, have welcomed many a comic, singer, dancer, and juggler, Palace-style, though we call these programs “talk shows.” You could even argue that the most obvious manifestation of the ghost is not the stage musical or such retro films as Chicago but the battery-powered remote. It allows potatoes to choose from a cascade of entertainment without leaving their couches, just as yesteryear’s audiences did by sitting back and placing themselves in the hands of Albee, Keith, and Ziegfeld. “If vaudeville is dead,” observes writer Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H*), “television is the box they put it in.” Requiescat in video.