Tag Archives: Liza Ketchum

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]  


The Ropin’ Fool, Will Rogers

Will Rogers

Will Rogers (photo: 1936, Clarence Bull, public domain)

Many famous performers of the 20th century—including stars familiar to me when I was growing up—started in vaudeville. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Ma Rainey, Bert Williams, Mickey Rooney, Jack Benny, and scores of others found early success on the vaudeville stage. I listed some of these luminaries in the Author’s Note of my new novel, The Life Fantastic, but after an email exchange with wise reader Vicki Palmquist, I realized I had omitted a performer with one of the most fascinating journeys: the comedian, “Ropin’ Fool,” columnist, and entertainer, Will Rogers. 

Part Cherokee, Will Rogers grew up on a ranch near the Verdigris River in what was then Oklahoma Territory. He was lifted onto a pony as soon as he could walk, and was soon riding all over the ranch and roping cattle. He was incredibly skilled with lariat tricks, but his constant practicing got him expelled from boarding school. Home on the ranch, he perfected his roping routines and was soon performing in Wild West Shows that were popular at the time, calling himself “The Cherokee Kid.” 

Drawn to vaudeville, Rogers brought Teddy, his cow pony, to New York City. After many rejections, he finally attracted attention when he and Teddy roped a crazed steer running loose in Madison Square Garden. The vaudeville theater impresario, Will Hammerstein, hired Rogers to perform on the roof garden of his Victoria Theater during the dead hours of 6-8 pm. Rogers and Teddy rode the elevator up to the roof and came out onstage together. (The pony wore felt boots so he wouldn’t slip on the stage floor.) Vaudeville revues often included a “dumb [silent] act,” which was Rogers’ role on the playbill. Calling himself “The Ropin’ Fool,” his intricate tricks were wildly popular.

One night, he made a mistake and commented on it, earning a laugh from the audience. Soon, he was making jokes as he roped. As his reputation grew, he was hired to perform with the Ziegfield Follies, the city’s most lavish and spectacular theatrical revue. Ziegfield expected Rogers to perform silently while his actresses (billed as “The Most Beautiful Girls in the World”) changed their costumes. But Rogers began to comment on the news as he twirled his lariat—and the audience loved it. He learned that he couldn’t tell the same joke twice, so he read many editions of the local papers, jotting down jokes to use that night. Since Ziegfield expected Rogers to be a silent entertainer, he was furious—until he watched a show and heard the laughter. He then gave Rogers top billing.

Will Rogers’ motto became, “All I know is what I read in the papers.” Eventually, he turned his onstage commentary into a daily column that was carried in 500 papers, six days a week. He wrote his columns on a portable typewriter, composing on trains, in cars—and even on the single-engine plane that carried him to his death in Alaska. His humorous, down home philosophy appealed to millions of Americans and buoyed them up during the Great Depression. When he died, the country went into a deep mourning that many compared to the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination.

Rogers’ trajectory was amazing. The “Ropin’ Fool” became a stand-up comedian, film star, public speaker, and writer; the most-read columnist in America. He assumed—correctly—that most Americans read the daily newspapers, so they would get his jokes. Many of his commentaries on government and politicians are eerily apt for the present time. And he managed to poke fun without vitriol. Rogers claimed, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”

Will Rogers Santa Monica California homeWhen my sons were young, we spent a year in southern California. We often drove out to Will Rogers’ ranch—now a state park—to kick a soccer ball around or take a hike. Inside Rogers’ comfortable ranch house, decorated with mementos from his career, we could see the balcony where Rogers stood and threw his lariat, lassoing house guests as they passed through the living room. As our country suffers through a dangerous, partisan era, I’m reading his commentaries with a wistful longing for his gentle, yet pointed humor.

Will Rogers quote

(Full disclosure: I’m lucky to have the perfect resource on my shelf, a biography of Rogers written by my dad, Richard M. Ketchum: Will Rogers: His Life and Times.  American Heritage Press, 1973.)


The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold

Marvin Jones & Son are a black father-and-son dance team in The Life Fantastic. Marvin is suffering from ill health so his son, Pietro, has to go on stage solo, which means he must invent new dance routines at the last minute. 

A dance team in real life, The Nicholas Brothers appeared on vaudeville stages as suave, accomplished dancers. They were elegant and acrobatic. Many feel that there have never been dancers as good as they were. And still, they had to face racial bigotry as they traveled around the country.

The Nicholas Brothers

(Photograph from the Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox,
and Tilden Foundations)



The Life Fantastic, a vaudeville timeline

Why read this book and discuss vaudeville in your classroom?

In your classroom, you’ll find this interactive, pictorial timeline to be useful for display to enhance your discussions. The Timeline accompanies the PBS American Masters video, Vaudeville (November 1997, directed by Rosemary Garner, Greg Palmer).

Vaudeville, PBS Timeline


The Life Fantastic: Readers’ Theater


Readers’ theater is an ideal way to involve students from middle school through high school with The Life Fantastic.

Maggie Reagan, in Booklist, wrote about The Life Fantastic, “The plot … provides much fodder for discussing race relations and the power of song. The script-style segments that open each part could be useful for engaging students in readers’ theater.”

Here’s a sample of one of those scripts from The Life Fantastic. Based on the book, your students could expand from readers’ theater to a mannequin challenge to short skits in a silent movie or early talkies style.

Download the script for educational use.


The Life Fantastic: Vaudeville on PBS

One of the most complete looks at the vaudeville stage is PBS’ American Masters: Vaudeville. You can watch it in its entirety (two hours) or break it up into segments for your classroom to view. Your students will enjoy doing compare-and-contrast sessions between current entertainment and vaudeville as well as talking about and researching racial diversity, a reflection of the country’s attitudes, prompted by the researched story within The Life Fantastic

You’ll hear from people who have first-hand experience of the vaudeville stage as well as historians who discuss vaudeville’s meaning and importance at a time when America was in the midst of major changes.


The Life Fantastic: What was vaudeville?

B.F. Keith programWith Teresa determined to sing on the vaudeville stage, she was looking for work in what was viewed as a more wholesome environment than the entertainment that had gone before. Vaudeville began in the 1880s and ended in the 1930s with the advent of widely distributed film and radio. The Life Fantastic is set in 1913, so vaudeville was in its heyday. Here’s a short history quoted from Virtual Vaudeville, University of Georgia, sponsored by The National Science Foundation.:

“Vaudeville appealed to a broad cross-spectrum of the public, representing every class and ethnic group. The wealthiest patrons could purchase exclusive box seats or seats in the parterre, while working class spectators could purchase inexpensive seats in the galleries. Vaudeville had something for everyone, and particular acts in the vaudeville lineup appealed differently to different groups in the audience. Irish comics and tenors, for instance, found a ready audience among the “lace curtain” Irish in the audience while WASP mothers out shopping with a child might prefer the circus-like entertainment of an animal act or juggling.

“Variety entertainment emerged gradually throughout the nineteenth century, starting in circus sideshows, concert saloons, burlesque theatres, minstrel shows, and dime museum performances. These early forms of variety theatre had an unsavory reputation associated with rough-house behavior [which] appealed mainly to working class men.

B.F. Keith, vaudeville theatre owner, founder of The Keith Circuit

“Producers such as Tony Pastor in the 1880s and especially B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee in the 1890s gave birth to vaudeville by turning these earlier forms of variety theatre into “respectable” family entertainment. This transformation was not an easy one. For example, Douglas Gilbert, in American Vaudeville (1940), describes the challenge Keith and Albee confronted when they first opened the Bijou Theatre in Philadelphia in the late 1880s:

“[Boys in the gallery] screamed at acts, shouted obscene epithets at girl performers, and otherwise made life hell for actors and more orderly patrons. To curb them, Albee insisted that caps be removed, forbade smoking, and banned all whistling, stamping, spitting on the floor, and crunching of peanuts.” (206)

Teresa chose to go on stage in vaudeville where the audience was more genteel and more likely to appreciate a singer of popular songs.