Greg Palmer’s created a worthy account of vaudeville, found good film clips, brought forth enough ex-vaudevillians to reminisce, and has penned an enlightening, often witty observation on an art form that dates back to the 1800 s. A gallant memoir of showbiz, entertaining and ultimately sad, it’s worth a visit.
Produced by Thirteen/WNET, KCTS-9 TV and Palmer/Fenster Inc. Executive producer, Gary Gibson; producer, Rosemary Garner; creator-writer, Greg Palmer; Spec points out a couple of the origins of vaudeville — the English music hall, minstrel shows from antebellum America, Yiddish theater (ancient Greeks and Romans deserve a nod). Benjamin Franklin Keith’s name is raised, along with that of his manager, Edward F. Albee, and other vaude-circuit kings.
Not enough attention’s given to star-finding Gus Edwards and his “School Days” acts in which Groucho Marx, Eleanor Powell (glimpsed briefly with a ukulele-playing Gracie Allen in the 1939 film “Honolulu”), the Duncan Sisters, Walter Winchell, legit actress Helen Menken, Hildegarde (Hildegarde!), Ray Bolger and legendary Mae Murray were among the starters.
But real historical interest lies in rare, if abbreviated, footage of the likes of Eddie Cantor, Blossom Seeley & Benny Field, Weber & Fields, Molly Picon , Bert Lahr, Chick Sale, Trixie Friganza and early Rose Marie. “Street Singer” Arthur Tracy, female impersonator Julian Eltinge (so popular he had a Broadway legit theater named after him while he was still alive), W.C. Fields, the Nicholas Brothers, Clayton, Jackson and Durante, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Fanny Brice, Pat Rooney all get their short moments.
Working in vaudeville was a privilege as well as a grind, and people performing in it watched forlornly as it died. Fayard Nicholas, of the dancing Nicholas Brothers, comedienne and former child radio singer Rose Marie, the informative Billy Barty, anecdote-telling June Havoc, Eddie Lane, Bill Irwin, Morey Amsterdam, agent Coralee Jr., Carl Ballantine, Thelma White, Bobby Short, Jack Spoons and Morton Gould are among those sharing memories of days when they were playing countless exhausting performances a day. If they were lucky.
As Amsterdam notes, how does one show a night wear out today’s performer?
George Burns brings it all into focus when he’s quoted as saying, “We had a hunger for something more important than fame. Food.” Studs Terkel, lifetime vaude fan, points out the personal impact of vaudeville’s entertainers on an audience member. It was live, and the acts were magic. And there’s talk of how Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians and Slavs could appreciate onstage low humor about their ethnicity. Politically incorrect?
In its heyday, the vaudeville house might have as many as 12 on a bill, a program that could include such choice delights as Ethel Barrymore in a J.M. Barrie one-act (the late George Abbott’s comment on such plays is pithy), a trio of acrobats, the pointless Pajama Handkerchief Girls (who the young girls were and why they chose to do a handkerchief dance in their p.j.’s has been lost to time — but they did it and were filmed), Zeb Carver & His Country Cousins, a soubrette and the table-dancing Mayo Brothers.
Helen Hayes, Alfred Lunt and Sarah Bernhardt were among the illustrious. Divas, toe-dancers, contortionists, rifle shooters, hoofers (Jimmy Cagney, for instance), veil dancers, animal acts all tumbled onto vaudeville’s stages across the country. Vaudeville would also serve as part of film star p.a.’s, and stage acts would accompany a feature, sometimes complementing it, as in L.A.’s Chinese Theater.
The program veers off into a look at the dreadful plight of black entertainers of that day. Comic Pigmeat Markham, Stump & Stumpy, Moms Mabley, Ethel Waters (with too thin a sliver of “Am I Blue?”), Leonard Reed & Willie Bryant, and Eubie Blake, for instance, are packaged together to make the valid point about the abysmal treatment of black performers.
The great Bert Williams was the first black to break out of the customary ridiculing-coloreds acts. Seen in a 1916 risible fishing film clip, he was the first black entertainer since the 1890s to show up in an all-white production before Southern audiences. Eventually, traveling with the Ziegfeld Follies, he stayed in only the best hotels.
As emphasized, vaudeville was not burlesque: Swearing and off-color acts weren’t permitted (according to Havoc). Point is, vaudeville was not only respectable, it was considered great family entertainment, safe and uncorrupting.
Palmer gives a sense of family, energy and loyalty to his study. Program tries comparing vaudeville to TV surfing, but of course that’s nonsense: On the tube, there isn’t the personal impact Terkel talks about, or the variety of talent. Or the space for anyone like Eva Tanguay, who covered three miles in one performance of “I Don’t Care!”
Among the missing vaudevillians here: Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Fred and Adele Astaire, Jesse Lasky, Texas Guinan, Lillian Russell, Harry Lauder, Anna Held, English comic Vesta Victoria, Irene Franklin, George Jessel, Annette Kellerman, Nora Bayes and Jack Noworth.
The editing for the docu is superior, the spirit way up there. Too bad more of the great stars’ works weren’t discovered so they could be seen in action. But this serves as an able reminder of what it must have been like.