The Magic Anarchy of American Vaudeville: When Astaire, Houdini and the Marx Bros Came to Your Town

Before silver and shiny screens, in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, American showbiz came to you in person. To theater and opera house, and on the makeshift planks set up in bar, barn or butcher shop, went traveling acts, festivals of singers, hypnotists, puppeteers, ventriloquists, jugglers, ballplayers, acrobats, conjoined twins, clowns, sword swallowers and Shakespeareans.

The institution that encompassed these touring delights became known as vaudeville, a word that comes from the French expression for voices of the city, or voix de ville, or a location in France, the Val de Vire in Normandy, famous for its ballads and comic songs. Other countries developed their own vaudevilles, but the American version flourished in a big way, amplified by a booming economy, a free and vibrant press, and a continental appetite for tricks, shows, and celebrity culture.

A century ago, every U.S. town, city, village, hamlet and coal camp needed a stage so its people could see and share in the bright lights of the day, media superstars like Harry Houdini, Josephine Baker and the Marx Brothers. 

In 2009, Pittsburgh-based poet Geoffrey Hilsabeck was lecturing in Lisbon on a Fullbright scholarship when he found himself teaching about Buster Keaton, the actor synonymous with the silent film era. In the 1910s and 1920s, Keaton was a stage hero.

Studying Keaton’s life led Hilsabeck on a journey researching the glory days of vaudeville, the 45 years between, roughly, 1885 and 1930 when a first crop of celebrities performed on stages in big cities, and up and down rivers and rail lines in a growing, groaning country.  “I loved this weird anarchic energy from this world that was gone,” he told me. “I loved that the Marx Brothers were on stage before they were on film.”

Meet the Keatons

This year, Hilsabeck published a book based on his decade of exploration, American Vaudeville, with the excellent West Virginia University Press, that I picked up this weekend at White Whale, my farvorite Pittsburgh bookstore. The slender 146-page ode, a scrapbook of short essays, prose poems, and archival marvels, is a gem. It’s also a book I’d been looking for. I was born into a show business family, and my dad invoked Jacky Benny, Groucho Marx and George Burns and their tales of vaudeville. And I’d heard Lucille Ball and other legends talk about growing up in small town America going to shows and dreaming of vaudeville glory. American Vaudeville lights it all up.

What exactly was vaudeville? Here’s how Hilsabeck describes it:

Vaudeville shows were moody, like my days, full of strange combinations, modern in the way they lurched from high to low, from the tragic actress Nance O’Neill in “The Jewess” to the dancer Possum Welch, from Dr. Lorenzbreakabones to “Shakespeare in Tabloid Form.” A good showman laid out a show, wrote Brett Page in 1915 in Writing for Vaudeville, “not by rules, but by feeling.” A vaudeville show featured seven or eight acts, after opening with a dumb act while people found their seats, then a song-and-dance act, maybe a playlet, and a big name or two. After the intermission came comedy, typically, and sometimes a full-stage act. The show closed with sight gags. 

To be sure, vaudeville was a mirror of American tastes, loves, and hates. Minstrel acts were a staple. Jim Crow, in fact, was an act invented in 1829 by a man named “T.D. ‘Daddy’ Rice, the ‘Ethiopian Delineator’ who dressed himself up in rags and covered his face with burnt cork.” Vaudeville picked up the practice. Hilsabeck recounts the stories of Black actors, such as Bert Williams, who sometimes wore blackface, too.

Part of the fun of reading about vaudeville is picturing legends taking trains from town to town, skipping from stage to stage.

[Fred] Astaire grew up on vaudeville, performing a song-and-dance act with his sister, Adele. Their first show was in Keyport, NJ, at the end of a pier. They went from Keyport to Perth Amboy, Passaic, Paterson, Lancaster, “along with the inevitable dogs, the acrobats, the monologists and the illusionist,” then out to California, back through the Midwest, where for years they played on UBO’s small-time circuit, and finally the big-time in Texas and later New York. Like Keaton, Fred Astaire’s performance style was shaped by these formative years on vaudeville. His ease and cheer and presence, the air under his feat. “Believe it or not, there is even an artistic way to pick up a garbage can,” he writes in his memoir. Buster Keaton survives, his great stone face, which he picked up on vaudeville, where deadpan was king. Pan was slang for face. 

Both of Keaton’s parents were vaudeville performers. They appeared with Harry Houdini in coal and zinc mining camps. They reared Keaton on the road. At five, Buster “walked on stage at the Wonderland Theatre in Wilmington, DE, dressed like his father in a torn tux, oversized slap shoes, and a bald cap.”

One of the places that hosted vaudeville was the Strand Theaterin Moundsville, WV, where in Dec. 2018 we premiered Moundsville. (The film is now playing on PBS.) The brick structure built in 1920 seated 1,100 people, and included a pipe organ to play during silent films. The first tickets cost a quarter, more or less. In the rich decade that followed, almost every other Ohio river town built a theater or opera house.

The Strand Theater in Moundsville, WV, hosts the premiere of Moundsville, now on PBS

One of the mysteries that Hilsabeck contemplates is why some stars had appeal, even without transcendent musical or dancing abilities. One of them was the Canadian Eva Tanguay, who was billed as the “Queen of Vaudeville” and made as much as $3,000 a week.

And yet Eva Tanguay herself admitted to having no actual stage skills; she was not beautiful, could not sing or dance. Reviewes described her voice as a “hairshirt to the nerves” and compared her dancing to a “mad dog fleing a mob of small boys.” What then made her all that money? Just her raw, boundless energy, the “elastic intensity” of her performance? Did people go see her the way they went to Niagara Falls? Was she, like the falls, a manifestation of the natural world, of those ancient, sprawling rivers and towering mountains? A symbol of infinity? Did people worship, in their churches-turned theaters, this skipping and shouting jolie laide, the simultaenous expression and realiziation of energy– energy becoming conscious of itself?

Vaudeville was the gateway to 20th century entertainment, including short movies as early as 1896. Those were know as “flickers”, and usually tagged on to the end of shows, “in a spot traditionally reserved for dumb acts and visual novelties. Edison liked to buy up old locomotives and stage train collisions to film.”

The institution faded away with the Depression and World War Two and the suburbs and television. There were other factors. “The stars were asking for too much money, it became monopolized, and the movies, which had been a small part of the shows, started really eating into the shows,” said Hilsabeck. Now:

The theaters are gone, 210 Bowery, 585 Broadway, Waldman’s New Theatre, Howard Athenaeum in Boston, the Temple Theatre in Detoit, makeshift theaters in Toppenish, in Walla Walla, a freight care in Centralia, IL, the end of a pier in Gloucester. Barns, warehouses, factories, markets, and stables were converted into vaudeville theaters, churches too, pews removed to make room for tables and chairs, balconies become private boxes, pulpit and choirloft stage and proscenium. And the vaudevillians, the musicians, magicians, and clowns– they’re gone, too.

The culture of variety is still around, said Hilsabeck, “in Youtube, and TikTok, and the evening talk shows. In comedy, the emcee comes from minstrel shows. The Groucho wisecracks were early standup comedy.” What has been lost, I think, is the ownership that America between the coasts had in popular culture. The Marx Brothers belonged to all of America because they had been to all of America.

In a foreward, Lucy Sante, a writer I know well partly because we share the same country of birth, reminds us that “for little more than half a century, vaudeville was American popular culture. It wasn’t an aspect of it, or even its cornerstone, but–before there were records or movies or radio–the thing itself.”

The thing endures, in our Shakespeares in the park and parking lot skaters, our Kardashians and cat videos, and the wandering excitement of a country that always wants something else.

John W. Miller

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