I’ve been living in vaudeville for some time now. Not the sleazy American dying vaudeville that word might conjure up for you, but the pinkish gaslight gleam of early vaudeville, known as Polite Vaudeville.
I spent eight years, on and off (the last three intensively), researching and thinking and dreaming about that old artform, which grew from Tony Pastor and B.F. Keith’s brain-wave in the 1880s that if they washed the floors and kept the booze and swearing out of their theatres, women and children would come and quadruple the audience. Keith posted rules backstage:
Don’t say ‘slob’ or ‘son-of-a-gun’ or ‘hully gee’ on Mr Keith’s stage unless you want to be cancelled peremptorily. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act, consult the manager, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or suggestive, you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.
His managers policed those rules ferociously. Any artiste who let a Damn slip the lip, or pushed an innuendo a whistle too far, received a blue envelope with a warning to remove the offending material or get the axe. That’s why risqué stuff is still called blue.
Movies, recorded music, radio were all in the future, and there weren’t enough bookshops around; nobody had anything else to do but plunk down their ten cents for a seat at the front. Polite Vaudeville flourished into the fin de siècle and grew through the teens and twenties—for about thirty years vaude was the biggest entertainment industry in the world.
To enter that lost life, I read everything on vaudeville I could get my hands on. One of my favourite books was Curtain Time, by
Ruth Walker Harvey, the daughter of C.P. Walker, a Winnipeg theatre manager who plays a minor role in The Little Shadows. (Ruth herself has a walk-on part in the book, wearing the Persian lamb coat she had as a little girl.) Ruth’s account is that of an observer, a child peeking around the curtain and remembering the pleasure of the backstage. Another great find was John Orrell’s Fallen Empires: Lost Theatres of Edmonton, which details the hair-raising accidents and disasters that were commonplace in the construction boom of the early teens.
But it’s the letters that bring everything home, that give a sense of the daily struggle of living in vaudeville. From an aging actress, E.J. Phillips, in 1894:
In view of my going to Boston, I went to see Palmer about an allowance for extra board. He did not say he would not allow me anything, but thought he could arrange for someone else to play my part in Boston, and I remain here to play with E.S. Willard. Business is bad, and he is ugly in consequence… I had taken a little nap when Hattie appeared at the door saying, “Mama, here is a telegram for you to go back and play at Palmer’s on Monday night.” Well! My feelings may be better imagined than described. Waking up and receiving such news put me in a state of Razzle Dazzle that I could not realize where I was or what I was doing, but it ended in my leaving Hattie a little after 5 and taking 6 PM train back. Leaving poor Hattie crying, and Jack very much astonished… I do not mind any part of the matter, but being brought back from Phila so suddenly, that was a great annoyance, and I have not recovered from it yet.
[letters of E.J. Philips can be found here]
And from Will Rogers (who came to fame as a trick roper on the vaudeville stage, and only began his famous monologues to fill in the gaps when his rope tricks failed):
Now you must take good care of yourself and take your medicine all the time and you will stay well. Well things are pretty dull in my line right now as most of the Theatres are closing up for the Summer and I did not work last week and do not work this week but next week I work again and think I can keep busy from then on and I have a good contract offered me for next year and I think I can work the biggest part of the summer.
Now write me a few lines when you can and when you feel real well and want to take a trip why just bundle up and come on to me and spend a few weeks.
Love to all the folks, your loving son,
c/o White Rats Club, 47th and Broadway NY
The people who lived in vaudeville loved it. Their accounts, however clumsy or bald, describe a world I’ve been happy to inhabit vicariously.
In the last stretch of finishing The Little Shadows I tried to put Vaudeville as city of residence on my Facebook page. Facebook insisted on finishing it as Vaudeville-le-haut, Lorraine, so I left it. Now, instead of Alberta-based sidebar ads for oilrigs and anoraks, I get glamorous French ads for lingerie and perfume, much more in the vaudeville line.