Q & A with Liza K, part 2

Question: Have you talked first hand with people who remember vaudeville?

Ketchum and Airplane

My grandfather (on the right) and a colleague next to his WWI plane, in France. This photo was shot a few years after The Life Fantastic takes place. Grandpa crashed twice but survived to tell the tale.

Answer: Yes. My paternal grandfather, who was born in 1893, told me how much vaudeville meant to him as a young man. Grandpa’s father died when he was very young. He was raised, in part, by his grandparents, and started working—taking court dictation—when, as he said, he was “still in short pants.” Grandpa worked to pay his way through college and then started his own business, so vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford. He would sit up high in a theater’s cheapest seats, often staying for more than one show. He loved the music and the comedy routines. When I was young, he used to sing me the songs he remembered from those days, including some I included in The Life Fantastic—such as “Everybody works but Father—he sits around all day.” My parents were appalled that, when I was four years old, I knew all the words to “There lay Brown, upside down, lapping up the whiskey off the floor. ‘Save the booze!’ the fireman cried, as he came running through the door.” I always wished I could have sat beside Grandpa in those theaters.



You’re Invited!

The Life FantasticPlease join us for a party to celebrate the release of The Life Fantastic: A Novel in Three Acts. The story takes place in 1913, at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment. The book was inspired by a family story: Liza’s great-grandparents eloped and ran away to the vaudeville stage. In keeping with the vaudevillian backdrop of the book, the evening will include theatrical entertainment and music, as well as a reading and time for questions. The book has received kudos from teen readers as well as adults.  

When: Thursday, March 9, 7 PM

Where: Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, MA.  617-491-2220

For more information about the book, see Liza’s website: www.lizaketchum.org

Or follow Liza on Facebook.

The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism … Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color.” (VOYA Magazine)


Q & A with Liza K, part 1

Question: Liza, in The Life Fantastic, you refer to The Gerry Society when Teresa’s age comes into question. What was The Gerry Society?

Commodore Elbridge Gerry, co-founder of the SPCC

Answer: The Gerry Society was founded in 1875 after a woman named Etta Wheeler, who had suffered living with an abusive foster parent, asked why there was a Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPCA)—but nothing similar to protect children? Her question led to the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). One of its founders was named Elbridge Gerry, so the organization was also known as the Gerry Society. Gerry wanted to keep children away from what he called “immoral activities”—such as amusement parks, penny arcades, and live theater. In New York City, children under sixteen were prohibited from performing, and theater owners risked being fined by the Gerry Society if they allowed them onstage. This is why Teresa, in The Life Fantastic, pretends that she is sixteen—and why she and Maeve have to be careful when her younger brother Pascal juggles during Maeve’s performances with her dogs. 

Today’s New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.



Blacks and Vaudeville

Marvin Jones and his son Pietro are two of the characters in The Life Fantastic. An African American father-and-son dance team, they appeared on vaudeville stages across the United States. In spite of challenging color barriers in place throughout the country, they learned the unwritten rules and abided by them so that they could continue to perform.

Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham

Popular comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham is featured in the PBS documentary, “Vaudeville,” in a 19-minute segment on blacks in vaudeville.

Learn more about the challenges presented to black performers on this segment from PBS’ Vaudeville on “Blacks and Vaudeville,” narrated by Ben Vereen. This segment also focuses on successful black performers such as the Nicholas Brothers (whose dance routines are similar to those performed by Pietro and his father), and the comedian Bert Williams, who some called “the Jackie Robinson of show business.”

The full show from PBS American Masters, Vaudeville.



W.E.B. DuBois

The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. DuBoisPietro Jones, one of the main characters in The Life Fantastic, is inspired by the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois’s well-known book, The Souls of Black Folk, is Pietro’s most prized possession. As Pietro travels from one city to the next, he also reads the articles that Du Bois writes for New York’s Amsterdam News and other newspapers.

Do you know about this pivotal sociologist, author, and civil rights activist? He was one of the founding officers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This History Channel video provides a helpful overview of DuBois’ achievements in founding the Niagara Movement and later, the NAACP.



President, Comedian, Immigrant

President Harry S. Truman

President Harry S. Truman (Wikimedia Commons)

Harry Truman grew up in Kansas City, where he never missed a vaudeville show playing at the Orpheum or the Grand Opera House. Sons of German Jewish immigrants who originally settled in New York City, the Marx Brothers moved to Chicago in 1910, so they were frequently onstage in Kansas City, where young Harry Truman saw and loved them.

When Harry Truman became President of the United States in 1945, there were thousands of Europeans displaced after World War II who had no place to go.

Groucho Marx

Groucho Marx (Wikimedia Commons)

Prompted by his strong feelings about these immigrants, Groucho Marx wrote to Truman, encouraging him to make a stronger effort to open America’s borders to re-settle the refugees. In his correspondence with Groucho, Truman concluded, “Your ancestors and mine came to this country to escape just such conditions. There is no place for people to go now unless we can arrange it.” Groucho’s words echo into the present, as refugees still struggle to find a safe haven in America.

Vaudeville left its mark on a President and helped to shape history long after its stages went dark.

Read the full story from The National Archives.



Book Love

A friend asked me to list “five favorite books throughout my life.” What a difficult question! Those titles change from day to day and year to year. But here is my Valentine’s Day card to a few books that changed the way I saw the world, or thought about the written word. (Ask me tomorrow and I might come up with a different list.):

Charlotte's WebCharlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. I first read this book as a child, reread it many times, then shared it with my sons, and now their children. Growing up in the country, I knew barns and animals like those in the story, and I loved hearing my parents’ voices when they read the novel out loud. The story also taught me that words have the power to change a life and a community.

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gardens have always been important in my life. Some of my closest relationships, as a child, were with relatives who gardened. The novel showed me that a child’s relationship with nature could be healing and transformative. I’m now working on a memoir that views my life through gardens and gardeners. There’s a direct connection between the memoir and my reading of that novel.

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I will never forget reading Woolf’s novel for the first time. I was blown away by the structure, the beauty and rhythm of her sentences, the way she used stream of consciousness to enter into her characters’ inner lives. I admired the way she revealed the events of two dramatically different people during the course of a single day. It’s a book I reread every few years.

One Hundred Years of SolitudeOne Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Marcía Márquez. His famous opening sentence pulled me in: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Bendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”—a sentence I often quoted when teaching, to illustrate a strong hook. The novel was my first exposure to magical realism. I loved the characters and its sweep of history and time. I even went through a period where I reread the book every year.

BelovedBeloved, by Toni Morrison. This novel shook me to the core. I was profoundly moved and changed by reading her story, which left me feeling shattered and ashamed of my country’s history, yet grateful that she had offered these complex and indomitable characters to the world. When I reached the last sentence of the novel, I wondered: “How did she do that?” I went right back to the beginning to read it again. I cheered when Morrison won the Nobel Prize years later.

The Race to Save the Lord God BirdThe Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose. Okay, I know this is a sixth book; I’m being disobedient—but non-fiction is extremely important to me, especially as the planet faces extreme challenges from climate change. This is a wonderful story about the man who was determined to find—and save—the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. It shows that non-fiction can be as thrilling and suspenseful as a novel and its characters just as fascinating. This is one non-fiction book where I even read the footnotes.

How about you? What are your five (or six) favorite books?


The Trajectory of a Celebrity

Nora Bayes

Nora Bayes

Not all stars of the vaudeville stage are still remembered today. One of the most well-known singers in the 1910s and 1920s was Nora Bayes. Born in Joliet, Illinois as Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, she was on-stage by the time she was 18. She was a star of the Ziegfield Follies.

If you know the songs “Shine On, Harvest Moon” (probably written by Dave Stamper) or “Over There” (written by George M. Cohan) and you’ve heard the first recordings of those songs, then you’ve heard Nora Bayes singing.

Shine On, Harvest MoonAnother huge hit for her was “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” 

And yet her name has not lived on. An interesting classroom discussion would be to talk over which celebrities today will still be known in one hundred years … and why. Why is Will Rogers still a fairly well-known name today but Nora Bayes isn’t? 

You can listen to Nora Bayes singing here,



Vaudeville Palaces

Bijou Theater, Boston, MA (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The theaters built for vaudeville were incredibly fancy, a little heaven on earth for the communities in which they were built. B.F. Keith’s Bijou Opera House in Boston boasted an illuminated waterfall that flowed underneath a heavy glass stairway.  The theater was the first in the country to be completely illuminated by electricity—which was installed by Thomas Edison himself.

B.F. Keith Theater, RIggs Building, and National Metropolitan Bank opposite the U.S. Treaasury in Washington, DC

The B.F. Keith Theater in Washington, DC, had a six-story-high auditorium with red leather seats, walls covered in red silk, and a stage curtain that was ruby red with gold fringe. The lobby walls were marble. This theater was at first leased to Plimpton B. Chase who produced “Chase’s Polite Vaudeville,” but then a vaudeville impresario, B.F. Keith, added the theater to his other 29 locations on the East Coast. Keith sought to boost audiences by presenting wholesome family entertainment. Will Rogers, Ed Wynn, the Seven Little Foys, Rudy Vallee, and Eddie Cantor all appeared in this theater, performing before high society members including two presidents of the United States.

B.F. Keith Theater lobby, Washington, DC

Read more about Chase’s Theater and the B.F. Keith Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Bijou Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. 



Borrowing: Abbott and Costello

When Teresa observes other performers on stage, she’s thinking about how she can make her own performances better. There was a great deal of “borrowing” from other people’s routines among the vaudeville tours. This comedy sketch, perhaps one of the most famous of all time, was performed by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello from burlesque to vaudeville to radio to movies to television.

Abbott & Costello Who’s On First from annemieke knowles on Vimeo.

The following path, from the Abbott and Costello Wikipedia entry, gives an example of how that borrowing occurred.

“Who’s on First?” is descended from turn-of-the-century burlesque sketches that played on words and names. Examples are “The Baker Scene” (the shop is located on Watt Street) and “Who Dyed” (the owner is named “Who”).

In the 1930 movie Cracked Nuts, comedians Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey examine a map of a mythical kingdom with dialogue like this: “What is next to Which.” “What is the name of the town next to Which?” “Yes.”

In English music halls (England’s equivalent of vaudeville theatres), comedian Will Hay performed a routine in the early 1930s (and possibly earlier) as a schoolmaster interviewing a schoolboy named Howe who came from Ware but now lives in Wye.

By the early 1930s, a “Baseball Routine” had become a standard bit for burlesque comics across the United States. Abbott’s wife recalled him performing the routine with another comedian before teaming with Costello.[1]