“Contrary to popular belief, Vaudeville was not wiped out by silent films. Many managers featured “flickers” at the end of their bills, finding them cheaper than the live closing acts that audiences walked out on anyway. Top screen stars made lucrative personal appearance tours on the big time circuits. So what killed vaudeville? The most truthful answer is that the public’s tastes changed and vaudeville’s managers (and most of its performers) failed to adjust to those changes.”
Read the rest of John Kenrick’s essay.
John Kenrick, an authority on vaudeville, reminds us that many phrases in our language originated on vaudeville stages. Here are six of them.
- Performers anxious to protect expensive costumes had bright red carpets laid between their dressing rooms and the stage. (This color made it easy to see if the carpeting was clean.) Only top headliners could insist on the red carpet treatment.
- Vaudeville slang referred to unsophisticated comedy as being “stuck in the corn,” soon shortened to
- Whenever a performer got a sensational response, the next act had to work twice as hard to capture audience attention. So it was a great compliment when you were called a tough act to follow.
- Vaudeville performers were the first to refer to winning over an audience as knocking them dead,laying them in the aisles or slaying them – still popular terms for successful performers in any field.
Explore John Kenrick’s website, Musicals 101, for interesting background stories of the American theatre.
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.
One of Vaudeville’s biggest syndicates was Klaw & Erlanger, led by Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger.
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
Learn more about Sophie Tucker.
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.)”
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.
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
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.
A 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.