Rick Brown (danwest) Sun 15 Jan 06 07:53
Dang Dutch comedy acts! You would not believe the Amish Stand-Up we have here in Big Valley. Haveing acted in Bus and Truck productions, I have to wonder how aweful travel was for a lot of the circut performers. Trains are not fun!
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Sun 15 Jan 06 10:14
Marian Spitzer's book was one of my sources for the book...rare to get such an inside view of how the vaudeville business worked in book form. The Providence show was a "learning experience. I'm a first time author. In New York, the contacts at all the venues know that I'm also a performer and are set up for the unexpected things I may do at an event -- usually non sequitur style comedy, a ukulele tune, and the like. I didn't think to stress this in Providence and so found myself in a very intimate setting, with all the chairs in a circle...appropriate for reading from a personal memoir or a bit of storytelling, but REAL wrong for me. It's not their fault, they couldnt have known. So I ended up talking about the Four Cohans (which was part of my prepare presentation--they were from Providence) and just kind of informally talking to, and kidding around with the audience. One of the guys who showed up was a mentalist, and another was an older man recalling all the great acts he had seen at local theaters. Such connections have been an unexpected bonus for having written this book! As for train travel, as joyless as it is today, think how awful it was a century ago! But they were used to such discomforts...another way to look at it is that WE are really pampered!
Valdemar Francisco Zialcita (dextly) Sun 15 Jan 06 15:17
Damn, I'm sitting here in Philly, thinking kafclown got that book right out from under my nose, grrr. Travis, I am struck by tone with which you close your book, specifically by the bleakness of your view of contemporary society, presented as a backdrop for the boundless virtues and horizons of vaudeville to come. It feels right, like a good ballyhoo, but it also leads me to wonder if you really feel so grim about the cultural landscape around us. I am also curious about how you feel about the fringe festival movement, particularly in the US. Are you seeing fringe festivals (variety shows on a larger scale?) as a positive development for vaudeville performers? (Disclaimer: I am inferring that there is such a movement afoot here, given how recently the New York and Philly Fringes began, plus the fact that DC is about to join in.)
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Sun 15 Jan 06 18:15
San Francisco has a fringe, too.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Sun 15 Jan 06 19:07
Wally, I thought you moved back to Chicago! I was superpacked for time at the conference, but would have loved to have dinner with you or something. Ah well, next time! Didn't know about the DC Fringe-- have to check it out. <http://www.capfringe.org/> Oops, No longer accepting applications. The mentalist was no doubt Rory Raven, a friend of mine. Regarding Fringes, I'll be interested to hear Trav's answer. For me, I'm not sure I'd classify Fringe festivals as variety shows on a large scale. They are festivals, but they provide a limited opportunity (4 or 5 shows) to do your work, but it has to be a complete show. To my mind the thing about vaudeville is that you could perfect your 10 minutes, and do your 10 minutes for a very long time. Fringe Festivals offer variety to the customers, but they are all discreet shows, not discreet acts. You have to pay separately for each show, generally. The Spitzer book mentions Joe Jackson. I met Joe Jackson Jr., who continued doing the same 20 minute "tramp clown stealing the bicycle" act that his dad did-- when I met him, he and his dad had been performed the same 20 minute act for over 107 years combined. After Vaudeville, Joe Jr. moved to the Ice Capades, and to circuses in Europe. That was a tight 20 minutes!
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Mon 16 Jan 06 08:09
You'll think I'm nuts, but I came up with a formulation as I was writing this book, one that's too jarring for a book on vaudeville. The formulation is this: "The end of ALL theater is orgiastic sex and ritual murder". I mean this as a historical formulation...meaning that, given enough time, any spectacle culture will inevitably degenerate to bestial extremes...lust and bloodlust. Unfortunately, we only have one true historical example, although it is my guess that the cycle had happened countless times in prehistory. I see many indications in the present age, that we are trending in that direction. I think we are becoming a cruel and callous people, and as evidence (besides the obvious aesthetic evidence) offer up the manner in which our democratically elected leaders conduct our foreign and domestic affairs. I am a fatalist. I think there is really nothing to be done about it but to try to swim against the tide. keep your head down and try and stay out of the shit storm. As for the Fringe moment, I think it is very encouraging---there's tons of creative ferment out there...and it does feel related to the proliferation of vaudeville.
David Leopold (dleopold1) Mon 16 Jan 06 09:38
Also anyone interested in vaudeville might want to check out the New York Public Library for the Performing Art's exhibition, VAUDEVILLE NATION now on at Lincoln Center. Information on the show can be found at http://www.nypl.org/research/calendar/exhib/lpa/lpaexhibdesc.cfm?id=404 An online exhibition can be seen at http://www.nypl.org/research/lpa/vaudeville/ Al Hirschfeld once told me that vaudevillians spent their whole life working up 12 minutes of material. He felt that those who were lucky enough to make it to TV were done for because once they did their act once they had nothing left. He loved it of course, and was a "vaudeville bum" often cutting school to go to the Palace. He loved Houdini and saw all of his performances. He was eventually invited backstage by the magician who showed him a couple of tricks. On the same bill at that time was Buster Keaton and his family's act. As a Keaton fan I was anxious to know about it, but Hirschfeld, who had tremendous recall, especially for performances, only had eyes for Houdini's act, and didn't remember a thing about it. One would think vaudeville would be perfect for today's audiences who have short attention spans. Maybe revues, with the quick succession of songs, skits, and showgirls, would be better for audiences today. It seems to me that in order to have something akin to vaudeville you still need the theaters to play in, and this country has allowed its performing place infrastructure to disappear. Now if something could be done on the regional theater circuit, then you might have something. Travis, where are the best places to see any, if any can be seen, vaudeville style entertainment today?
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Mon 16 Jan 06 11:56
I'd have to say the venues and the companies that have done or are doing vaudeville or vaudeville style projects are too numerous to mention -- I've come across scores of them in the last couple of decades. At the moment, you have a pretty fair chance of catching vaudevillians in the act at Coney Island USA (season permitting), Galapagos, the Slipper Room, Bowery Poetry Club, the Supper Club, Mo Pitkins, etc etc. Theater for the New City, where I work books a vaudeville show of some description at least every few months, and this is true of dozens of other off-off-Broadway theaters, as well. This is just in NYC--most of the major cities have a similar scene.
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Mon 16 Jan 06 12:44
How uncharacteristically remiss of me, Mr. Leopold, to have forgotten to mention that I myself am fronting my own vaud unit -- we'll be performing at the Makor branch of the 92nd Street Y tomorrow night (January 17). Your books on Irving Berlin and Hirschfeld look like must-reads, by the way, and I promise to check them out!
David Leopold (dleopold1) Mon 16 Jan 06 13:35
Thanks for the information on venues in NYC. I've been to some and will check out others. I'm not in town again until Wednesday so I will miss your act, but hope to catch it soon. Do you have a website or someplace where one can check out the schedule? And is there any place on the Web which might list vaudeville performances in other cities? And thanks for the plug for my Irving Berlin book (which I will host a discussion on here starting next week) and my Hirschfeld's Hollywood book. Although from those two titles, one would think I only work on centenarians. Fortunately my portfolio is a bit bigger. Did you have a chance to see the NYPL exhibitions? I would be curious of your impressions. And while on the subject of reviews, do you have any thoughts onthe PBS documentary a few years back on vaudeville? Working on Berlin, I found a treasure trove of material on vaudeville, only some of which I used in my book and companion exhibitions. Frank Tinney, the great blackface comic from vaudeville, was in two Berlin shows: WATCH YOUR STEP (1914) and a MUSIC BOX REVUE of 1923. I loved Joe Laurie's description of Tinney who had the quality of a mischievous kid when he was telling a joke. After performing in England, Tinney had to submit his earnings to the tax authorities. He was questioned his expense of over $700 for the burnt cork he used to black up. He responded "I only use corks of the best champagne." I have found that as I go out to do interviews for my book, the one thing that seems to always get people worked up is when one talks of blackface and the ethnic comedy songs. In this era of pc, these things make people mighty uncomfortable, despite the fact that the songs were a sign of acceptance and blackface was akin to commedia. Have you found that in your work? What do you tell people?
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Mon 16 Jan 06 22:55
What's always struck me about vaudeville is that, while it often does involve a performer with mastery of a certain physical skill, it is rooted in the relationship the performer has with the audience. Some of the most intensely wonderful vaudeville performers I've seen can hold an audience transfixed for a very long time without really.doing.anything. Their 'not doing anything' builds and builds and intensifies the enjoyment. Think George Burns maybe, standing with his cigar and mugging and bit. Think Jack Benny. There are contemporary performers who can do that. Reverend Chumleigh comes to mind as one of the best. Oh yeah sure he can walk a slack rope or do various illusions, but it's the patter There are quite a few festivals in the U.S. and Canada where it's possible to see some of the best vaudeville being created and performed today.
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Mon 16 Jan 06 23:32
There are quite a few festivals around the country and the world where it's possible to see concentrations of excellent contemporary vaudeville performances. Some of them are summer festivals in the U.S. and Canada, such as the Oregon Country Fair (near Eugene, OR, 3 stages with 3 days of nothing but vaudeville from 11 a.m. to 7 pm), Edmonton Children's Festival, Winnipeg, Bumbershoot in Seattle, even some of the theaters in Branson, MO, are featuring excellent vaudeville acts. One of the strongest concentrations of vaudeville acts is at the annual Moisture Festival in Seattle. This will be the 3rd year, March 21 - April 9, with shows almost every night. Their promo calls it comedy/variety, but that's mostly a marketing issue in that a general audience these days wouldn't know what to expect from something called vaudeville. See http://www.moisturefestival.com/ There's a fine almost indistinguishable line between a lot of contemporary circus and vaudeville, such as with the Bindlestiffs. Circus Contraption and Cirque de Flambe fall into that category. They're both out of Seattle but they tour, too. Little pockets of vaudeville performance pop up all the time in smaller venues. Here in S.F. there used to be weekly shows at the Odeon bar until it changed management a few months ago. It'll pop up again somewhere else.
Rick Brown (danwest) Tue 17 Jan 06 06:54
What kind of living could the run-of the-mill working (not big name) performer make?
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Tue 17 Jan 06 07:58
A great source of vaudeville anecdotes: show biz autobiographies of people who found success in the first years of TV. A huge number of them started there, and they have tales to tell. For whatever reason, when I was a kid I got on a jag of reading such books for a year or so.
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Tue 17 Jan 06 08:05
Here's a whole bunch of responses to a whole bunch of things: * I once got to meet Al Hirschfeld -- he was close to 100 then and had just written a book. he was completely lucid and funny. I was charmed and amazed. * I reviewed the NYPL exhibition for the NY Sun. I liked it for the most part. The exhibition seems collections-driven, which is cool because NYPL has such incredible materials. I did find it somewhat narrative-poor...I think the curator is looking to make her own points, and intentionally avoiding the contributions of particular individuals in favor of more of a "social history". Key figures like Keith, Pastor, Proctor, and many others deserving of major mention get scant attention at all...whereas architectural drawings of post-vaudevillian picture houses take up lots of space. It's quibbling on my part, really. It's not the exhibition I would do, but it's a wonderful exhibition. * Making vaudeville all about the sins of blackface is to me equivalent to saying the history of humanity is the history of enslavement of the mistreatment of minorities. The mistreatment of humanities is one part of the human story: a cruel, tragic indefensible part. But it is not the whole story. Thus also with vaudeville and blackface. In my book I call blackface "heinous", I compare it to Nazisim...I probably stress how egregious minstrelsy and coon songs were 50 times. I have been singled out in most other reviews for my sympathetic treatment of the career of Bert Williams, America's first African American star., Yet a reviewer in Newsday ignored everything else in my book, and claimed that my book's message was the blackface was just okay. Vaudeville was an amazingly complex phenomenon, embracing business history, sexual history, cultural history, theatre history, a dozen different ethnic groups. It existed in a racist society, and in that society, it was considered entertaining for some performers -- black and white -- to exagerate and even misrepresent the characteristics of African Americans (much as they also did with Irish Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans and even "Yankee Americans"). Some people think because this sin is part of the story, it needs to be the whole story. For me, that's another book. There are lots of good books about minstrelsy and blackface. A book about vaudeville is not the same thing, nor should it be. I did have a similar feeling about the American Experience documentary. While that film has lots of really great aspects, it made the mistreatment of blacks 30-50% of the story. To me, that's ANOTHER documentary. I say, it's better off to do an ENTIRE documentary about blacks in vaudeville. But a documentary that purports to be about vaudeville in general is grossly distorting the story to make half of it about the 500-1000 African Americans (at most) who performed or aspired to perform there. And beyond this -- as you say, David, and as I also say in my book, for a lot of white performers, blackface was not all about putting blacks down...but more like a kind of secret wish-fulfillment to BE African American. This continues throughout the decades...from Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger to Eminem. That is also at least a part of the blackface story, if you want to have any kind of nuanced view of it. * I serve on the advisory board of the Bindlestiffs (who I've known and worked with for ten years), and both they and Circus Contraption have mounted shows recently at Theater for the New City, where I work. Circus, burlesque, side show, vaudeville...there's a lot of interest in all these forms, and much bleedover among them. * A performer who is not a star can make NO sort of living at all today. None. This is the main consequence to performers of the absence of the vaudeville industry. There is no tiered system of performer levels. You are either a star...or are you are waiting tables. In fact, many people who are quite well known still can't earn a lving. For example, many stand-up comedians you see on Comedy Central work at comedy clubs for something like sixty dollars a gig. It won't even pay for their drinks that night.
Rick Brown (danwest) Tue 17 Jan 06 09:11
About money. I was actually thinking more about during vaudeville's hay-day. What kind of living could these family acts make? Could they buy a house? Etc...
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 17 Jan 06 09:52
There are a whole lot of older performer's houses out in Maine and "upstate NY" (ie Rhinebeck, Ossining, and Westchester) It was much cheaper to have your family out somewhere else in the hinterlands and on the road. I remember I was driving somewhere with Benny Reehl and he kind of went down a list of pretty famous vaudevillians/mimes/variety performers who had houses in Maine. (Nowadays, Avner the Eccentric, Fred Garbo, and Michael Trautman are three that come to mind immediately, and I'm sure there are tons others. The Bindlestiffs are moving to Hudson NY, because they are being kicked out of their Billyburg digs, which by the way, were not particularly palatial. As for comedians who wait tables-- it's the truth-- it's very difficult to makemoney as a comedian if you live in NY or LA-- that's because so many people are giving it away for free, hoping to get on Conan or Leno, get a sitcom treatment, and become Tim Allen. The working comedians-- those that aren't stars, but work primarily as a comedian-- a lot of them live regionally, where it's much cheaper to live, but they have a circuit of gigs that they do. It's much harder to get famous that way, but it's a living. I wouldn't agree with Travis, though, that you are either a star or you are making NOTHING. There's still a fair amount of play if you are willing to do cruise ships, amusement parks, birthday parties, rotarian gigs, etc. The best paying gigs are industrials-- for corporations. Corporations pay huge money for private shows-- in fact there's a fairly large market for magicians, mentalists, jugglers, and comedians who are developing corporate presentations that revolve around concepts like teamwork and interpersonal communication in order to pay the rent. Most vaudeville/variety performers have an "Educational" show that they do in the schools-- it's the one place if you've got the right show, curriculum based, you can still do okay. (And with budget cuts that's changing too!) I've been resisting it for a while, but may have to give in. (I'd come up with a concept for a show called "Figuring the Angles with Euclid the Geometric Clown -- coming soon to an elementary school near you!) I've got a few other shows I may have to resort to in order to feed my fleas) What is true is that there's no way to build your act on a day by day consistent basis. You've got to book your show (45-50 minutes) and then be pretty good at it to get re-booked. It's very difficult to try out new material, since you've got to be pretty good right away in order to keep getting jobs. Overall. performers make remarkably little, have absolutely no job stability, and have no guarantee of future income. And most of us continue to do it anyway!
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Tue 17 Jan 06 10:16
As for back in the day, though, you could make a living at it, before achieving stardom, through it was a rather precarious one. It was rather like being a free-lancer is today. You're never quite certain WHERE the next dollar is coming from, but if you keep hustling, you'll land jobs (You also better carefully save money to tide you over during the dry spells). The other fact is, if you chose to be a vaudevillian, you had no choice BUT to earn your living at it, because you had to travel...so there was no way you could hold down a "day job". A middle-class level of living was definitely possible for a mid-level vaudevillian though, to answer your question.
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Tue 17 Jan 06 12:40
I have to chime in and agree with Adam that there are quite a few highly skilled vaudeville performers making really good livings today who are not in any way considered stars, and they're not household names either, but they are able to buy homes (as long as they're not in NY or CA), send their kids to school, have decent middle class lives. In addition to the occasional theater shows, they do tons of work on cruise ships, in industrials, for corporate showss, and in places like Branson, MO, which all pay quite well. To kaflclown's list of people, I'll add Charlie Brown, Rhys Thomas, Flying Karamazov Brothers, Tom Noddy (although he works in Germany a lot, I have to admit), Karen Quest, Henrik Bothe, Michael Davis, and all the people who've been working at the various Teatro Zinzanni shows over the past couple of years. Of course as with any freelance occupation, whether it's writing code or dog-grooming or running a PR agency, you really never do know when the next gig or contract will come in, but that's not unique to vaudeville, or even to the performing arts.
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Tue 17 Jan 06 13:20
yeah, I don't work the circus biz so have to confess I don't know much about contemporary gigging. But it turns out Mr. Brown was asking about the heyday
Rick Brown (danwest) Tue 17 Jan 06 13:26
Mr. Brown? Is my dad here?
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 17 Jan 06 18:44
My list was actually artists who live in Maine, off the beaten path (but apparently on the way or near some old vaudeville routings on the east coast, which is what we were originally talking about.) Hey, this conversation is just like a vaudeville-- if you don't like it, it's likely to change in less than 8 minutes, so wait a little. My time working with the Bindlestiffs on Times Square was very vaudevillian-- one hour shows with a clown/juggler, a burlesque act, a magician, and some sideshow stuff. (And the article that was written about the Palace of Variety and my show there in the NY Times was titled "Old-Time Vaudeville Is New Again") Of course one of my favorite stories about what is old or new is that sometime in the late 1980's, there was a San Francisco New Vaudeville Festival, which held a competition for best "New Vaudeville" act. As it turns out, first place was taken by George Karl, an OLD Vaudevillian who had worked routings in the late 50's, and spent most of his time working the variete stages of Europe. George had an amazing hat juggling comedy act that worked at a frenetic pace.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Tue 17 Jan 06 20:27
Something that we've briefly glossed on is that a vaudeville performer TODAY means somebody who has "an act" -- juggler, mentalist, dog trainer, bird specialist ( a few years ago, an old British guy came up with Big Apple Circus doing a bird act which was phenomenal!) But looking through travis's book and the Palace book, I'm struck by how many of the "Acts" were one act plays which I can only assume were 30 minutes long or so-- or were the "plays" really short skits that featured actors? Any idea Travis about how long these plays were?
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Tue 17 Jan 06 23:27
(Sorry for the continuing drift, but there are many stories from those New Vaudeville festivals held at San Francisco State University, first in 1985, I believe. The revered British variety artist George Carl was invited as a special guest there, and his genius was certainly known in advance to the organizers. His wonderful 'getting caught in the mic cord' act can be seen in the film Funny Bones.) Back to the older acts.
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Wed 18 Jan 06 07:33
George Karl's act is legendary! and just my cup of tea! And someone (not ME!)would do well to start a vaudeville festival. The Bindlestiffs have expressed hopes for making something like that happen, but they always have their hands full! (usually with balls, tops, swords, and bullwhips) Adam, I think those plays ranged from 10 minutes to half an hour, probably averaging 15 minutes. I just read that some of Eugene O'neill's first efforts were for the vaudeville stage. Another feature (hard to conceptualize) were so called "tab shows", meaning tabloid musicals. By tabloid they didn't mean scandalous subject matter but a shortened version. Essentially the act would be en entire musical comedy squished into a half hour. The act might be a huge company of two dozen people (the Marx Bros. had such an act at one point). These plays (and also dramatic monologues an poetry readings) were a HUGE part of historic vaudeville, and actually much closer to the kind of vaudeville I personally write and perform.
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