Vaudeville acts ran the gamut, from the knockabout comedy of Buster Keaton and his parents to staid monologists on the Chautauqua circuit. Appropriately, two new books on the topic are likewise diverse, with “No Applause” a wise-cracking overview and “Vaudeville Wars” a scholarly take on rivalries during a 40-year period. Even when the scribes cover the same ground, they serve up wildly different takes.
“No Applause — Just Throw Money” starts with a romp through entertainment history, from the Greek revels of Dionysus through the men’s-only saloon shows of the 19th century to vaudeville’s influence on TV variety shows and sketch comedy. Never dull, Trav S.D. includes enlightening tidbits that put vaudeville’s history into context for a 21st-century audience. Five decades of vaudeville are condensed into punchy summaries that may or may not be wholly accurate — but as circuit magnate E.F. Albee said, “Vaudeville demands speed.”
“Vaudeville Wars,” subtitled “How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big Time and Its Performers,” covers the four decades leading up to Joseph Kennedy’s takeover of the major circuits in 1928.
Arthur Frank Wertheim, a former USC prof, provides overwhelming detail on the biz end, and as a collection of sources the book can’t be beat (besides footnotes and bibliography, more documentation is promised at the author’s Web site).
However, sloppy editing and indexing mar the book, as do factual errors. For instance, the Marx Brothers did not desert vaudeville for Broadway’s “Cocoanuts” in 1925; they were blacklisted by Albee and launched the show “I’ll Say She Is” two years earlier.
Is it fair to nitpick over such things? Given the book’s price and its inclusion in the Palgrave Studies in Theater & Performance History line: Yes.
At times, Wertheim gives too much information, with little filtering or interpretation. (Do we really need to know how contemporary newspapers described the decor and ambience of so many theaters?) But S.D. gives too little; the World War I era fight between Albee and Variety, which nearly put the paper out of business, merits one sentence in “No Applause.” That book largely ignores the bickering and backstabbing details of the vaudeville circuit overlords, which are the meat of “Vaudeville Wars.” Likewise, performers and their quirky acts are hardly mentioned Wertheim’s book, but celebrated throughout S.D.’s.
Consider their widely different take on the 1914 takeover of Martin Beck’s Palace Theater by the Keith-Albee Combine. Did Albee connive and shove the absent Beck (who was in France, wooing Sarah Bernhardt for his Palace) into a business corner, forcing him to sell controlling interest in the Palace — as S.D relates in two paragraphs? Or did Beck capitulate to rounds of secret, complicated dealmaking that went back years, which is Wertheim’s claim?
Take the hook and choose: “Vaudeville Wars” for details or “No Applause” for an entertaining read.