Tag Archives: The Life Fantastic

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.


Join us for a lively discussion!

SCRIBBLERS THREE: How does being in a writer’s group expand and sustain your work? Eileen Christelow, Karen Hesse, and Liza Ketchum, authors for young readers, have been in a critique group for more than thirty years. They will discuss how their writing changed and developed as the group evolved, and will share their most recent books:  Robins! How They Grow Up! (Christelow), My Thumb (Hesse); and The Life Fantastic (Ketchum).

Join the discussion on April 29, 2017, 4:00 pm at the. Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vermont.

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT


Maeve’s Warning

When Thunder ComesIn The Life Fantastic, Maeve warns Teresa to be careful in her friendship with Pietro, an African American vaudeville performer. She tells Teresa that black men and boys in the South “get lynched if they look at a white girl.” Maeve also shares the story about a civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, where a white woman lied about being raped by an African American.  Two black men were arrested, and when they escaped lynching, white residents rioted, causing massive destruction in the black community. The woman’s lie wasn’t discovered until after the riot ended and a number of people were killed. After that, Maeve’s father took part in Ku Klux Klan meetings.

Many people think that the KKK was only active in southern states, but in the novel, Teresa remembers her father talking about the Klan having meetings in Vermont. Do you know the history of the KKK? Are you aware of their continuing presence in America today?

Learn more with these recommended books:

Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate, written by Rick Bowers, National Geographic Society, 2012.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engle, John Parra, and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2012.

Witness, written by Karen Hesse. Scholastic, 2001.

Wreath for Emmett Till, written by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.



Vaudeville, a Whitehall Lecture

Recorded at the Flagler Museum, this one-hour Whitehall Lecture, “Vaudeville: from Small-Time Acts to Ziegfield’s Follies,” is given by Jerry Dickey, presented February 14, 2010. (Skip the introductions and acknowledgements by beginning at 4:20.)

Dr. Jerry Dickey is the Director of the University of Florida School of Theatre + Dance. His research and teaching specializes in the history of early twentieth century theater in the United States.



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.