Tag Archives: vaudeville

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 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.

Culturally Diverse

“Vaudeville’s attraction was more than simply a series of entertaining sketches. It was symbolic of the cultural diversity of early twentieth century America. Vaudeville was a fusion of centuries-old cultural traditions, including the English Music Hall, minstrel shows of antebellum America, and Yiddish theater. Though certainly not free from the prejudice of the times, vaudeville was the earliest entertainment form to cross racial and class boundaries. For many, vaudeville was the first exposure to the cultures of people living right down the street.”

American Masters, “About Vaudeville,” October 8, 1999, PBS

While anti-Semitism was common during vaudeville’s heyday, many Jewish performers had starring roles in theater as well as in film and television in later years. Yiddish theater had an enormous influence on the cultural life of Jews throughout America and abroad. In this film clip, Molly Picon, the most famous actress in Yiddish theater, is seen singing “Abi Gezunt (As long as you’re healthy),” from the 1938 film, “Mamele.” Molly Picon, born Margaret Pyekoon in 1898, “performed with Michael Thomashefsky’s Yiddish repertory troupe at the Arch Street Theater (including, at age fifteen, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with alternate performances in Yiddish and English) and in cabaret from 1912 to 1915.” [Jewish Women’s Archive] Like Teresa in The Life Fantastic, Picon started to perform at an early age. She gave her first performance on a stage at age five!

Here are several sites which give a sense of the importance of Yiddish theater to Jews throughout the world and specifically in America.

  • On the occasion of the 100th birthday of the National Yiddish Theater, Folksbiene, this video talks about the history of the theater. Note how Yiddish theater influenced composers on the broader stage, including George Gershwin and the Sherman brothers, composers of Mary Poppins.
  • Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor, created this homage to his grandparents, early and influential actors in the Yiddish theater, The Thomashefskys.
  • These two biographies of the most famous actress and theater owner in Yiddish theater, Molly Picon, one from Masterworks Broadway and the other from the Jewish Women’s Archives

Helen Keller on stage

Helen Keller on vaudeville stage

From Helen Keller Kids Museum Online, American Foundation for the Blind, Braille Bug

Celebrities appeared on the vaudeville stage, even those who weren’t considered performers. It was a place for the community to hear famous speakers and noteworthy people of their day.

Here’s Helen (Keller) in her dressing room in a vaudeville theatre. She is sitting at a makeup table (which does not have a mirror), brushing her cheek with a giant powder puff. Behind her, hanging on the wall, are many elaborate outfits, including a silk robe, a dark evening dress, and a full-length fur coat. Helen has on a sleeveless, patterned dress that goes down to her toes and shiny high-heeled shoes.

View more photos of Helen Keller, and Anne Sullivan, at the Helen Keller Kids Museum Online on the American Federation for the Blind website.