vaudeville: american culture is performance

Vaudeville has been dead for over ninety years.The wandering minstrel had been replaced by the electronic age.  The acrobats, the animal acts, the dancers, the singers, and the old-time comedians have all taken their bows and turned stage left into the mists of time.Yet, Vaudeville, as Nathanael West remarked, reinforced the contention that in America, violence is idiomatic, and represented “the joke of suffering”. There is something in Vaudeville that goes to the heart of a contentious American condition, the emptiness in the land of plenty, and what Beckett termed “the useless predicament of existence.” Perhaps Beckett’s gloomy pessimism of no way out for humanity is too extreme, but the poignancy and emptiness of Kerouac’s On the Road and Bogdanovich’s Last Picture Show captures the isolation and marginality that defines this ambiguous other in the American context.

---Chicago is about a no-name dame in the 1920s whose dreams of becoming a Vaudeville star get fast-tracked when she bumps off the loverboy who tried to leave her high and dry, then gets sent to the big house with one of her idols and has her naive, devoted husband to hire an A-list lawyer who’ll keep her from the gallows and make her the Windy City’s favorite front page sympathy case while he’s at it.---Read More:

Vaudeville, was  mass entertainment,that developed out of the culture of incorporation and appropriation which characterized American life after the Civil War. The growth of vaudeville intialized the beginning of popular entertainment as big, large scale service business entertainment, dependent on the organizational efforts of a growing number of white-collar workers and the increased , spending power, and changing tastes of an audience more preoccupied with leisure. Business  showmen utilized improved transportation and communication technologies, creating and controlling vast networks of theatre circuits standardizing, professionalizing, and institutionalizing American popular entertainment. Its easy to see the transition to today’s concert circuit , the entertainment complex, and the cult of celebrity,of which the early minstrel shows were its origins.

Bert Gordon. ---Occasionally, as West’s novels force us to contemplate, the victim’s suffering went beyond theatrical make-believe. Barney Ferguson, a stooge in the Irish team of Ferguson and Mack which appeared on Tony Pastor’s first variety bill, eventually went totally deaf from his continuous beatings on stage and was forced to play small-time stands for the remainder of his life.8 Vaudeville as West understood it thus reinforced his contention that "in America violence is idiomatic."9 If the ritualized mayhem in vaudeville partly reflected the natural antipathy between performer and audience, it also became an inevitable consequence of the concision and intensity required of every act. Few turns on any variety bill lasted longer than twenty minutes, and a performer was generally made or broken by his opening.10 Moreover, vaudeville’s comic instinctively understood that the faster events are made to occur, the funnier they appear, and the closer the audience’s approach to hysteria. Faced with the necessity of provoking immediate and raucous approval, nearly all of vaudeville’s stars relied on either eccentric behavior (acrobats and energetic comedy acts like the Marx Brothers), extravagant costumes (the impersonators, tramp and blackface comics, and "The Perfect Fool," Ed Wynn), or, at least, a characteristic trademark (straw hat and cane, big cigar, Will Rogers’ lariat) to help win over the crowd. In the popular theatre then as now, any trick—including obscenity or violence—was valid if it kept the audience entertained. With the assimilation of the freak "museums" and travelling minstrel shows, variety managed to conceal the essential repetitiveness of its "standard" acts by offering sensational sights and lavish productions.---Read More: image:

But from the wings of obscurity, for fifty years, 1875-1925- the advent of the talkie movie- vaudeville was the popular entertainment form of the masses. Nomadic tribes of nondescript players roamed the land. The vaudeville actor was part gypsy and part suitcase. With his brash manner, flashy clothes, cape and cane, and accompanied by gaudy womenfolk, the vaudevillian brought happiness and excitement to the communities he visited. He spent his money freely and made friends easily.

Rockwell. 1916. "This trick is very possibly the finale of the magician's act. We can see remnants of previous tricks on the stage. Playing cards are strewn on the floor. He hasn't put away his props yet either. A seemingly endless string of handkerchiefs is hanging out of the top of the top hat. A glass and a pitcher are also visible. We do not know where Rockwell got the idea for this painting. It might have been drawn from Rockwell's childhood memories. Or he might have seen it during a Vaudeville act and recreated it with models. Read More:

In the early days, the exact degree of prosperity the small-timer was enjoying could be determined by taking inventory of the diamonds that adorned his person. If he was doing well, the small-timer wore a large diamond horseshoe in his tie and two or three solitaires or clusters on his fingers. His wife looked as though she had been pelted with ice cubes that had somehow stuck where they landed. The small-timer’s diamonds didn’t have to be of quality. The just had to be big and give the impression of grandeur and majesty. What difference if the eight-karat ring was the color of a menthol cough-drop as long as the stone sparkled in the spotlight during the act? To a small-timer the diamond represented security. Confronted with a financial crisis in a strange community, he merely stepped into the nearest pawnshop and consummated a legitimate and routine business transaction ( Fred Allen )

Rockwell. 1937. ---Vaudeville was dying. The Gaiety Dance Team had no work. Variety, the newspaper in Eddie's pocket, had nothing to offer and so they sit dejected and alone, with empty pocket and purse, pondering their future. Stoltz sums it up for us: "Once again the genius of Rockwell emerges as the faces of the performers tell the entire story."--- Read More:

Big time vaudeville became synonymous with “two-a-day” performances. However, the reality for most was three, four or more compressed shows per day that were played out in a range of venues from the half-decent and functional to wretched dives. Performers played to make it into the big-time to escape the meanness and numbingly dull repetition of small-time vaudeville more than for the recognition and superior wages.

---It was a different time. Even though it had its upper crust fans, vaudeville was a working class form of entertainment. The general public was neither as educated nor enlightened as we are today. Plus, 'Negroes' were not the only ones getting razzed. Every ethnic group was mocked. Jewish comedians dressed up as ignorant Germans. Catholics portrayed money grubbing Jews. White gentlemen in tuxedos sang tunes in cheesy Japanese accents while real Japanese crooned cowboy songs. The Irish. The Italians. The American Indians. The East Indians. The Chinese. Everyone ridiculed every ethnic group and religion other than their own. No one was safe. Much of that has been forgotten because today we do not look at strange beards & European clothing and think, "That comedian is portraying a German immigrant." The public does not relate to those stock characters anymore. But entertainers in blackface? We still recognize those images.---Read More: image:

***A handful of circuses regularly toured the country, dime-museums appealed to the curious, amusement parks, riverboats, and town halls often featured “cleaner” presentations of variety entertainment, while saloons, music-halls, and burlesque houses catered to those with a taste for the risqué.2In the 1840’s, minstrel shows, another type of variety performance, and “the first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture,” grew to enormous popularity and formed as Nick Tosches writes, “the heart of nineteenth-century show business.”3Medicine shows traveled the countryside offering programs of comedy, music, jugglers and other novelties along with their tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs, while Wild West Shows provided romantic vistas of the disappearing frontier complete with trick riding, music, and drama. Vaudeville incorporated these various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America’s growing urban hubs. Read More:



Schlueter:In the first decades of the twentieth century, critics like H.L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks vociferously expounded a profound disenchantment with American art and culture. At a time when American popular entertainments were expanding exponentially, and at a time when European high modernism was in full flower, American culture appeared to these critics to be at best a quagmire of philistinism and at worst an oxymoron. Today there is still general agreement that American arts “came of age” or “arrived” in the 1920s, thanks in part to this flogging criticism, but also because of the powerful influence of European modernism.Read More:


---When variety became vaudeville around the turn of the century, the new managers, led by B. F. Keith and E. F. Albee, built huge, ornate "Palaces" (of which Kahn’s Persian in The Day of the Locust is a descendant) to house their performances. These theatres, seating several thousand and featuring opulent appointments inside and out, radically affected most vaudeville routines, especially the comedy acts. The spaciousness of the buildings necessitated the simplification of verbal humor, eliminating all but the most familiar dialect jokes and current idioms, and eliminated the more subtle aspects of the comic’s art—facial expressions, sleights of hand, double takes, muttered asides—in favor of more musical productions, smutty wisecracks, and shouted gag lines. When action and noise failed to cover insufficient talent, vaudeville usually depended on costuming and masquerade to distract the critical eye. The ornate, artificial design of vaudeville’s new theatres, like the prefabricated environment of West’s Pinyon Canyon (DL), seemed cheaply to veneer the performers as it jaded the audiences. Simple, even transparent disguises had always been a part of variety as far back as the minstrel shows. Many of vaudeville’s early comics, including Bert Williams and Al Jolson, performed in blackface, usually without any attempt at realistic dialect or impersonation. By the twentieth century, however, more convincing and "refined" impersonators like Gilbert Sarony and Julian Eltinge adorned the various Palace stages. Alice Lloyd became the best of the many male impersonators, while the other performers developed quick-change and "protean" acts in which they would play several different characters in a single sketch. Invariably, these routines sought to cover up bad acting with quick changes. In their dependence upon costume, their disregard for acting as an art, and their adaptation to the necessities of novelty, concision, and simple trickery, the impersonators expressed the attitudes and techniques fundamental to vaudeville and, indeed, to all of popular culture, which is perhaps why the crooner in the Cinderella Bar becomes such a compelling symbolic figure in The Day of the Locust.---Read More: image:

Yet, this assessment was not unanimous, and its conclusions should not be taken as foregone. In this dissertation, I present crucial case studies of Constance Rourke (1885-1941) and Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970), two astute but understudied cultural critics who saw the same popular culture denigrated by Brooks or Mencken as vibrant evidence of exactly the modern American culture they were seeking. In their writings of the 1920s and 1930s, Rourke and Seldes argued that our “lively arts” (Seldes’ formulation) of performance – vaudeville, minstrelsy, burlesque, jazz, radio, and film – contained both the roots of our own unique culture as well as the seeds of a burgeoning modernism. In their analysis, Rourke and Seldes stood against easy conceptual categories (especially “highbrow vs. lowbrow”) that did not account for the richness of American culture. Both resisted the tendency to evaluate American art by the standards of European modernism. And by foregrounding matters of race and ethnic identity (even when they dealt imperfectly with them), they showed popular entertainment to be a matter of national significance. Indeed, against the received wisdom that modern American culture depended upon the pervasive spread of European modernism, they argued that American popular performance itself was the necessary foundation for our modern culture. Most importantly, the American culture they defined was inherently theatrical. It craved performance, it was performance. Read More:

"The Circus Barker and Strongman, this Norman Rockwell painting, appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post published on June 3, 1916. This painting was Rockwell's second picture featured on the cover of The Post. The first Rockwell Post cover, Boy With Baby Carriage, appeared on May 20, 1916. Read more:

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