IT HAS BEEN called the most influential entertainment genre in the nation’s history — and it’s not the movies.
As a fascinating exhibit at Lincoln Center makes clear, it was vaudeville that permeated and reflected America more thoroughly than any other art form, thriving as it did between the 1880s and the 1930s.
Names that still flicker in the public consciousness — Sophie Tucker, Ma Rainey and Fanny Brice; Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and Bert Williams — were the precursors and inspirers of much in entertainment today.
Through an array of posters, cabinet photographs, costumes, broadsides, stage bills, letters, recordings, films and lectures, the curators argue that our “Vaudeville Nation” was a richly varied place. It thrived in large and small urban communities, providing audiences and support for America’s two native art forms — jazz and tap dance — and promoted standup and skit comedy, serving as a model for radio, early sound film, and television.
Then New York-based Variety, now celebrating its 100th anni, was born out of and reflected this milieu, its pages chock-a-block with stories about, and ads for, these now largely forgotten faces.
The show features memorabilia about talents as diverse as the “I Don’t Care Girl” Eva Tanguay, who graced the famous Roof Garden in Times Square around 1915 (and who boasted the best press agent of the age, one Percy Williams), to “the upside-down man” Alexandre Patty, who, among other contortions, danced down stairs on his head!
The exhibit also shines light on child performers who were dragged around the country, including Dainty June, the early act that eventually inspired “Gypsy,” black minstrels like S.H. Dudley, gender impersonators like Julian Eltinge, tandem acts like Verlan & Berlan and exhibition dancers like Ruiz & Bonita.
The show demonstrates that we would never have had the Marx Bros., Burns & Allen, Irving Berlin, even the Rockettes, had it not been for these now mostly anonymous talents.
Perhaps as important were the organizational structures of vaudeville, which provided the early bulding blocks of the entertainment biz.
Take the circuits, which were mostly run by managers out of New York or Chicago, who essentially selected and juggled the acts, balancing music, dance, comedy and other performers.
The exhibit does a good job in illustrating how some of these early Sal Huroks and Bernie Brillsteins put it all together: The first was one Tony Pastor, who started organizing talent for tent performances soon after the Civil War.
Walking through the exhibit is also an exercise in cultural and political connections.
The widespread use of railroads and telegrams allowed managers in the big cities to control theaters and dispatch performers around the country. Social conflicts over the Spanish-American War and WWI and the Suffrage and Prohibition movements did not evaporate when the audience entered the theater.
Consider two songs which waged a friendly on-stage battle around 1898: “I Didn’t Raise My Son to be a Soldier” and “I’m Proud I Raised My Son to be a Solidier” both vied for auds to join in the chorus.
And you thought the country was bifurcated now.
A smaller but indirectly related show called “Show Business! Irving Berlin’s Broadway” tracks the six-decade career of the theater’s most prolific and influential composer.
His early years (1909-1924) demonstrate the debt that Berlin owed to vaudeville. He and other Tin Pan Alley songwriters wrote specialty songs for these performers who brought these ditties with them onto the Broadway boards.
His “Music Box Revue” of 1924 was thus both a cornucopia of vaudeville elements and a sign of things to come for Berlin as a Broadway powerhouse. Or just put on the headphones and listen to Fanny Brice singing Berlin’s “Don’t Send Me Back to Petrograd” or Ethel Waters belting out “Heat Wave.”
(“Vaudeville Nation” closes April 1; “Irving Berlin’s Broadway” continues until May 26, both at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.)