All posts by Liza Ketchum

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas

Sophie Tucker

Photo of Sophie Tucker from the Billy Rose Collection at the New York Public Library

Speaking of Sophie Tucker, she would have been on vaudeville stages at the same time Teresa was starting out. Her story is one of an immigrant’s success. She was just a baby when her Jewish family moved from Russia to Hartford, Connecticut. Her family ran a boarding house for show people.

When she took to the stage, she began on vaudeville, building an international career singing in English and Yiddish. Some of her most famous songs were “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Her career spanned 63 years, from vaudeville to film to television.

When she first started, “In 1907, [six years earlier than Theresa in The Life Fantastic] Tucker got her first break in vaudeville, singing at Chris Brown’s amateur night. After her initial audition, she overheard Brown muttering to a colleague, “This one’s so big and ugly, the crowd out front will razz her. Better get some cork and black her up.” Despite her protestations, producers insisted that she could be successful only in blackface. Quickly booked into Joe Woods’s New England circuit, she became known as a “world renowned coon singer,” a role that she couldn’t bear to let her family know she had taken.” (Anne Borden, Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia)

More about Sophie Tucker, born Sonya Kalish, a Russian immigrant, from The New York Times.


Keeping It Clean

Receiving the Blue Envelope

Vaudeville bosses had strict ideas about what was acceptable language and behavior on its stages. Today we still refer to something risqué or naughty as being “blue.” Here’s why:

“Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show the blue envelopes began to appear in the performers’ mailboxes backstage … Inside would be a curt order to cut out a blue line of a song, or piece of business. Sometimes there was a suggestion of something you could substitute for the material the manager ordered out … There was no arguing about the orders in the blue envelopes. They were final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn’t work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit, I took my orders from my blue envelope and — no matter what I said or did backstage (and it was plenty) — when I went on for the Monday night show, I was careful to keep within bounds.” – Sophie Tucker, Some of These Days

Learn more about Sophie Tucker.


Vaudeville Theaters

What kind of theaters would Teresa have performed in when she traveled with the troupe across country? This Orpheum Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, was brand new in 1913, the year in which The Life Fantastic is set.

Orpheum Theater, Salt Lake City

From publisher Signature Books, a photo from their book Seeing Salt Lake City by Alan Barnett.

From Seeing Salt Lake City [p.125]: “The Orpheum Theater, November 30, 1920. This lavish theater on 200 South was built for the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit and completed in 1913. It later became the Capitol Theater and the steel arch over the street was altered to reflect the change. In 1973 a city ordinance forced theater owners to remove the arch and it was relocated to Trolley Square. In the mid-1970s, the theater underwent renovation and now serves as a center for the performing arts. (Neg. 20768.)”



Vaudeville Entrepreneur, Marcus Loew

Marcus LoewFrom penny arcades to vaudeville to major motion pictures, Marcus Loew was one of the early entrepreneurs of vaudeville. You may have a Loew’s theater in your home town to this day.

“Marcus Loew’s success has the makings of myth, but was a result of both his immigrant and American backgrounds. His early failures in the fur business made him somewhat conservative in his future dealings (he never took up the fight against the vaudeville or film trusts), but when he finally hit upon the successful combination of vaudeville and film presentation he continually expanded his theater holdings, correctly viewing them as the source of his wealth and power.”

Citation: Caso, Frank. “Marcus Loew.” In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified January 28, 2014.

Read more about Marcus Loew at Immigrant Entrepreneurship, biographies of German American business owners. His life story is fascinating.



The Beginnings of the NAACP

NAACPThe Life Fantastic is set in 1913, by which time the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had established branch offices in such cities as Boston, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; Kansas City, Missouri; Washington, D.C.; Detroit, Michigan; and St. Louis, Missouri. They believed strongly in local organizing. When Pietro Jones discusses W.E.B. DuBois’ writing with Teresa, it’s likely that he was familiar with this organization.

As their website states, “The NAACP seeks to remove barriers of racial discrimination.”

“The NAACP was formed partly in response to the continuing horrific practice of lynching and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, the capital of Illinois and resting place of President Abraham Lincoln. Appalled at the violence that was committed against blacks, a group of white liberals that included Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, both the descendants of abolitionists, William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moscowitz issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, seven of whom were African American (including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, which was released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.”

Learn more about the NAACP, which continues its work today.



W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBoisIn The Life Fantastic, Pietro Jones is inspired by the writing of W.E.B. DuBois. From the PBS show, “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” DuBois is described in this way: 

W.E.B. DuBois, 1868-1963

For many young African Americans in the period from 1910 through the 1930s, Du Bois was the voice of the black community. He attacked Woodrow Wilson when the president allowed his cabinet members to segregate the federal government. He continued to fight against the demand by many whites that black education be primarily industrial and that black students in the South learn to accept white supremacy. Du Bois emphasized the necessity for higher education in order to develop the leadership capacity among the most able 10 percent of black Americans, whom he dubbed “The Talented Tenth.”

Du Bois was a co-founder of the Niagara Movement, which addressed inequality, and the NAACP, which is still active today.

This “mini biography” from Biography.com elucidates several of the remarkable accomplishments from DuBois’ life.



Vaudeville in the South

Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters

Kate Tuttle wrote these words for Boston.com: “The early 1920s black vaudeville scene was dominated by the Theatre Owners Booking Association, familiarly known as TOBA. TOBA acts toured the segregated South, where performers slept at local people’s homes and took their meals at the back doors of restaurants. Wherever they went, they performed for black audiences, a memory that [Ethel] Waters “would always cherish’’ for “the way they sent those enthusiastic messages of approval and adulation through their wild applause, their laughter, their screams and shouts of joy. No white audience could ever show that kind of enthusiasm.’’ The first time Waters sang for a white audience, she later wrote, she thought she was “a dead duck’’ because “no one tried to tear the house down. They merely clapped their hands.’’ Although white audiences loved her, their praise often came with predictable prejudices. One reviewer who called Waters “the most remarkable woman of her race that I have seen in the theater,’’ pointed out that she “neither moaned, groaned nor raved her ‘Georgia Blues’; she only sighed with satanic rhythm.’’ (Kate Tuttle, Boston.com, reviewing the biography Heat Wave: the Life and Career of Ethel Waters by Donald Bogle.)

To learn more about Ethel Waters, read her 1951 memoir, His Eye Is On the Sparrow.



Another Cultural Experience

Turkish Dance, Ella Lola
Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1898

The film features Ella Lola, a popular performer on the vaudeville stage, performing her rendition of a “belly dance.” This type of performance was not uncommon and points to vaudeville’s roots in earlier forms of burlesque. Ms. Lola’s routine, although bordering on risqué, far from violates any accepted standards of decency. Presentations of dance, or other ‘dumb’ acts [such as animal acts and acrobats], generally opened or closed performances to give audiences time to filter in and out of the theatre.

—University of Virginia, American Studies Department, Vaudeville website



The Birth of Vaudeville

Tony Pastor

Tony Pastor, from The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

“In the early 1880’s, Tony Pastor, a former ringmaster with the circus turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature “polite” variety programs in several of his New York theatres. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theaters, eliminated questionable material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor’s experiment proved successful and other managers soon followed suit.”

Gifts of coal? And ham?

Read more about the beginnings of Vaudeville from the University of Virginia, American Studies department, from which this is quoted.



One of Vaudeville’s Biggest Stars

Fanny BriceA truly fascinating woman, Fania Borach, whom we know as Fanny Brice, worked hard to turn her talents into stardom. Born in 1891, she performed on the burlesque stage, vaudeville, stage, film, musical revues (nine Ziegfield Follies), and, most famously, radio. She is perhaps best known for her radio character Baby Snooks, but she honed her comedic skills as a vaudeville performer. She was a female comedian in a profession usually reserved for men. You may know her as the woman who inspired the movie Funny Girl. Read about her life on the Jewish Women’s Archive.