Celebrate the 4th with this video of actor James Cagney performing “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a musical biography of George M. Cohan, called “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” Cohan performed as a child in vaudeville with his parents and sister, The Four Cohans. He went on to write, compose, produce, and appear in more than three dozen Broadway musicals.
Photo of present-day Cowles and Shubert Theater in Minneapolis, MN. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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!
While 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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)”
From 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 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.”