All posts by Liza Ketchum

Growing Up as a Writer, part two

Liza Ketchum

Question
Harvey Swados, your writing instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, sent you out into the world to observe and experience before you wrote. Can you share some of those experiences with us? Do you still work this way when you write?

Answer
When I enrolled in Harvey Swados’s creative writing class, I was a naïve young woman with little worldly experience. I wanted to write, but what would I write about? I knew nothing about Swados, but the class description was intriguing and something told me I needed that course. However, I was a transfer student and arrived to find the class had already filled. I was devastated. So I sat outside the classroom every day until Swados finally gave in and let me enroll.

Harvey Swados

Harvey Swados

Each week, Swados sent us into New York City on assignment. The city was just twenty minutes away by train, but the sites we visited were completely removed from our privileged campus existence. “Carry a notebook,” he told us. “Listen, ask questions, use your senses. And always bring a friend.” Turid Sato, my intrepid Norwegian roommate—who had crossed the Atlantic by freighter, and cross-country skied north of the Arctic circle—was the perfect companion. 

Swados sent us to Night Court, a 24-hour courtroom where men and women were arraigned for shoplifting, assault and battery, and gun possession, under the weary gaze of a judge who’d seen it all. Turid and I visited the New York produce market after midnight and listened to grocers haggle with wholesalers over prices. We went to the Fulton Fish Market, at Manhattan’s tip, at four in the morning. There we watched burly men unload crates of fish and heave them into refrigerated trucks before stomping into the local diner. We followed them in, and ate the best pan-fried fish I have ever tasted. We also brought live lobsters home in paper bags—which caused a commotion on the subway when a loose claw started waving at our seatmate.

On the Line by Harvey SwadosHarvey Swados wrote about the working world. Before he was a published professor of writing, he worked as a metal finisher at a Ford Motor plant. His experiences there led to the publication of his story collection, On the Line. The pieces we wrote for his class were full of gritty sensory detail, realistic dialogue, and interesting characters. While I didn’t become a reporter, as my friend Carter Stith did (for the St. Louis Post Dispatch), this class gave me the confidence to write non-fiction.  And I learned the importance of immersing myself in the places that I wrote about; that no question is too dumb to ask; that most people enjoy talking about themselves, their lives, and their work.  

Out of Left FieldSince that class, I have always included workplaces in my stories and novels, and that includes work done by young characters as well as adults. The work may be incidental to the story—as Brandon’s work in a pizzeria is, in Out of Left Field—or the focus of an entire story, such as Newsgirl, where Amelia disguises herself as a newsboy in order to support her family, or The Life Fantastic, about Teresa’s struggle to become a star onstage. My novels have included a woman geologist and “powder monkey,” a photographer, a ticket seller at Fenway Park, a carpenter, a retired electrician, a newspaper editor who sets his own type, a social worker, a baker, a seamstress, a child who labored as an indentured servant (against his will), a Hollywood screenwriter, a banker, a sheep farmer, and a tattoo artist. (Thanks to Swados, I knew that I would have to spend time in a tattoo parlor, watching and asking questions, in order to create convincing scenes for Blue Coyote.)

In addition to helping to reveal character, writing about a workplace allows the writer to use more interesting nouns and lively verbs, since every type of work has its own vocabulary. Most important: even the most tedious workplace could hold the spark that inspires a good story—and that’s a gift for the writer.

[For more about Harvey Swados]


The Shubert Brothers

Cowles and Shubert Theater

Photo of present-day Cowles and Shubert Theater in Minneapolis, MN. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Shubert Brothers

Photo of J.J. and Lee Shubert (Jacob left, Levi, right, Sam in portrait) Sam died in 1905 in a train accident (Photo credit: Onanadaga Historical Association_

Do you still have the remnants of a Shubert theater where you live? The Shubert Brothers took on the Theatrical Syndicate (Klaw & Erlanger),  accusing them of “bullying tactics.” They set out to wrest power from The Syndicate. From the 1890s until the Depression, the Shuberts owned, operated, managed, or booked close to a thousand houses across the United States. Today, the Shubert Organization still runs 21 theaters (17 of which are on Broadway) and The Shubert Foundation supports not-for-profit theatre and dance companies throughout the United States.

RESOURCES

On PBS, “The Shubert Brothers,” part of a document, “Broadway: The American Musical”

From The Shubert Organization, a thorough history


Join Liza at the Dorset Village Library

What do Charlie Chaplin, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope, Ma Rainey, Mae West, Fred Astaire, and Gingers Rogers have in common with Liza Ketchum’s great-grandparents? They all started out in vaudeville! 

The Life FantasticWhile Liza’s ancestors never became famous, the story of her great-grandparents’ elopement—and its consequences—inspired her most recent book, The Life Fantastic: A Novel in Three Acts. The story takes place in 1913, when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment and Teresa LeClair, a singer with “a voice like a nightingale,” dreams of stardom on Broadway’s “Great White Way.”

Join Liza at the Dorset Village Library as she shares the story behind the novel and its connection to issues that resonate today. All ages welcome!

Dorset Village Library: Rte 30, Dorset, VT: Saturday, July 8 at 3:00 PM

Dorset Village Library


Booking Agencies in Control

As Teresa and Maeve and Pietro set out on a road tour, vaudeville theater owners were trying to fill theaters across the country with good acts to meet demand. They needed talented people.

Klaw & Erlanger, an early syndicate, was responsible for this “stupendous production.” The six-act show premiered in 1899 and played around the world for the next 21 years. Can you imagine the number of actors and animals needed for each show?

How many acts were needed to fill US vaudeville theaters? There were approximately 8 to 15 acts, each 6 to 15 minutes long, in each theater per day. Some theaters had “continuous” shows from mid-morning to 2:00 am! Every small town had some type of theater and larger towns might have three or four. When Teresa walked out on the stage in 1913, there were more than 2,000 acts needed each day around the USA.

There are several good articles online that talk about the various theater owners, booking agencies, and labor unions. Fervent competition, underhanded blacklisting, and an ongoing struggle to control the market defined the experiences Teresa would have had as a singer. From the Theatrical Syndicate of 1896 to the Orpheum Circuit to the Pantages Circuit and the Western Vaudeville Managers Association, big money was involved and pressure was heavy on individual theater managers and performers. So much so that eventually unions were formed to protect the performers.

Resources:

About the Theatrical Syndicate

Vaudeville Managers Association

Theater Owners Booking Association for African American performers

Bob Hope and American Variety,” from the Library of Congress, for specific examples of playbills and a tour map

 If you’re interested in doing in-depth research, you may find the Keith-Albee Vaudeville Theater Collection at the University of Iowa to be useful.


The Building of Vaudeville Syndicates

By 1908, vaudeville was such a big business that it made news in The New York Times when 75 theatres from Chicago to San Francisco agreed to become a part of the Klaw & Erlanger syndicate in quick succession.

Two views of the article about the growth of The Syndicate here and here.

Here’s more about Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger.

Klaw and Erlanger

One of Vaudeville’s biggest syndicates was Klaw & Erlanger, led by Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger.


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.