It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Wed 18 Jan 06 09:39
While it would be GREAT to start a vaudeville festivval, I'm not sure that someone would do WELL to start one-- in fact it's the fastest way I know to make a small fortune (out of a large one!) The problem is money-- as I said way up there in the beginning-- vaudeville is a popular theatre that is not really theatre, and not really popular-- people like it, but it's hard to get a lot of people to come out and pay folding money for it in this day and age. Why, I don't know. I could probably make a lot more if I knew the answer. People will fill a hat on the street, people will buy tickets to Mexican mud wrestlers, but a vaudeville show, in a theatre-- it's a hard sell. Unless you've got Billy Crystal in it, or somebody famous-- but generic vaudeville I don't know-- you really have to sell it in the right way-- and I don't think that "Vaudeville" is the way to go. Just For Laughs Comedy Festival does pretty well in Montreal, but it's about comedy first and foremost-- and they are pretty modern when it comes down to it. And they use a load of celebrities.
Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 18 Jan 06 10:10
How about "endangered theater" or "ancient old-growth comedy"?
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Wed 18 Jan 06 12:43
Yeah, but Adam who PRESENTS generic vaudeville shows? Who would go see something called simply "Vaudeville Show"? Nobody but amateur groups does that, as far as I know. People buy tickets to go see their favorite performers. Certainly solo vaudeville artists and acts sell large number of tickets...and dont shows like Lazer Vaudeville do extremely well? To fudge a little, the Bindlestiffs, Coney Island, Circus Amok, Circus Contraption have sold thousands and thousands and thousands of tickets -- the only reason they all live hand to mouth has to do with undercapitalization. With the right backing -- proper ad and marketing budgets, a sophisticated (and aggressive) sales division, etc. any of them (or any vaudeville show) could be made to pay off, I am convinced of it. It's not a question of lack of audience or press interest. It's a question of capital and organization. Big Apple Circus has grown into a multi-million dollar organization from a handful of acrobats because early on they got a well-heeled board of directors involved. With the right amount of backing, you can reach out to your public. Without it, you are performing the labor of Sisyphus!
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 18 Jan 06 15:34
About the one-act plays and such: "The Sunshine Boys" is about a duo that performed just these sorts of skits in vaudeville, n'est pas? The play, at least, gives the impression these skits were little more than extended character-based jokes, maybe 10 minutes or so long each.
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Thu 19 Jan 06 05:05
Oh, yeah! The act presented in "the Sunshine Boys" is very much based on a team called Smith and Dale. And yeah, they were sketch comedians who built their sketches on joke after joke after joke. In there case, there would be a basic set of some time, and they would employ walk-ons for supernumery roles, such as "the nurse", if it's the "doctor sketch". But there were also sketches that were far more realistic...far less what we think of as "vaudevillian". It would be sort of like having a pocket version of a TV movie of the week about alcoholism snuck in between dancers and a magician.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Thu 19 Jan 06 05:08
I don't disagree that many groups (and solo acts) are undercapitalized, including myself. (Or as I often say, when people ask me what I think about Cirque du Soleil, "Well, if I had a forty million dollar budget, I'd have a great looking set, the best acrobats money could buy, and a whole lot of tv ads too!") But, IMO, it's not just capitalization that is stopping those acts you mentioned from becoming the next Cirque du Soleil. There's a lot going on with those companies. And becoming Big Apple or Cirque or Puppetry of the Penis or BlueMan Group is not only about capitalization. It's also about savvy marketing, dumb luck, having the right show at the right time, and yes, spending lots of money at the same time that you have the right show. What I was saying above is that if somebody wanted to have a Vaudeville Festival, IMO, they should call it something else. Mike Rosman, who along with the Laughter Arts Foundation would put on MotionFest every year. (workshops on performing for variety and physical theatre artists) had to stop putting on the festival. It wasn't because it lost money, but it was just too hard to break even. It broke even because the physical artists who came to the classes paid enough to make it work-- the show at the end of it for the public was well attended-- but would never have been able to pay for the performance alone. My point being is that the classes paid for the show, not the show for the classes. And that money came out of a small universe of people (performers who travelled from all around the country to study with guys like Geoff Hoyle, Bob Berky, Avner the Eccentric, and Dominique Jando. Having a vaudeville festival is a great idea-- calling it a vaudeville festival is perhaps not such a great idea. (I wish it were otherwise, and of course I may be wrong) It reminds me a little of the mid-90's, when clowns and act-ers (those with acts!) started becoming performance artists, because that was the buzz word. Okay-- enough rant for now.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Thu 19 Jan 06 05:19
Slipped== Travis, speaking of mini-dramas in the middle of the show, what do you know about the Chitlin' Circuit? There was an article a few years ago about gospel rap musical melodramas that play primarily black cities, and make great sums of money. Was there something like that back in the day?
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Thu 19 Jan 06 06:43
Adam, you're making the same mistake EVERYBODY makes. Vaudeville does not equal circus arts. If what you're saying is that ticket buyers will not line up to watch an entire festival of physical artists, with that I quite agree. But in my book, that's about 10% of vaudeville. The rest is (or should be, as it once was) stand up comedy, sketch comedy, singers, dancers, etc. NOT including that in the vaudeville package is depriving the product of its most commercial element. Vaudeville is show business, no more, no less. So if somebody had a vaudeville festival and its all circus clowns and acrobats, they had better have a million dollar budget to compensate for the fact they have booked people who appeal chiefly to afficianadoes. Also: in my dealings with the public and the press, I have found that vaudeville is not a dirty word, but a magic one. Journalists and radio announcers across the nation get completely excited about the subject--they are drawn to it like flies to honey, and so are thousands of book buyers! In the words of the vaudevillian -- the public is never wrong; to fetch 'em is a question of salesmanship. As for the black circuits--yes, there were several all-black circuits to compensate for the more limited (and restricted) major circuits, which didnt admit or hire blacks in the South, and hired blacks in the North on a sort of grudging, quota basis (at first--though towards the end, some African Americans were among vaudeville's biggest stars--Ethel Waters, for example). The black circuits crept up in the 1920s, late in vaudeville's history, at about the same time blacks first moved north in large numbers. Nearly any African American act you can think of from that era performed on these circuits
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Thu 19 Jan 06 07:44
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.' ---------------------------- Travis, I'm not sure that we aren't arguing for the same thing. Although my particular interest is circus/clown stuff, I'd love to see a show which features a wide variety including song and dance, mini-melodramas, hypnotists, dog-trainers, an electrical display, martial arts demonstrations, puppet shows, and just about anything else. But for me the words "Vaudeville Festival" (as there was in Gardner Maine back in the late 80's, early 90's) does conjure up an image of a festival that is heavy on physical acts (tapdancing, juggling, magic, clowns) and light on the other stuff.. Perhaps its conditioning. Perhaps its my own position (such as it is) within the sphere of performances. But I think it's also the current zeitgeist of the word. Googling "vaudeville festival" gets me to the Hawaian Juggling Association, which has put on a juggling "Vaudeville Festival" for the last 18 years-- mostly afficionados (although they do have variety acts-- I know the tap dancer Brian Jones has performed there a number of years.) As you say in your book-- it's the "New Vaudeville" moniker that may be the cause of it. "Taking an entire bill of New Vaudeville acts and calling it vaudeville would be sort of like presenting a show of percussionists and calling it New Wave Symphony Orchestra." (p. 284) I agree, (Although I might argue that we are accordionists!) But for whatever reason, when you mention to your postman that you are going to see two vaudevillians perform today-- it's much more likely that they think you are going to see a couple of guys doing physical comedy like Irwin and Shiner than a song and dance team like (HMMMM... I can't think of a current song and dance team! Lane and Broderick?)
David Leopold (dleopold1) Thu 19 Jan 06 08:06
I've been away a few days, and missed the chance to add to some of these great discussions. on the NYPL Vaudeville exhibition - I agree that the show is collection driven and lacking narrative focus. That has as much to do with the design of the show as with its contents. a recurring problem at that venue. But some of the material should be seen, especially the posters, the drawings of entire vaudeville billings (with ratings!) and of course the chance to hear some of the vaudeville classic committed to disc at the time. on blackface. John Strausbuagh's has a book coming out in may called BLACK LIKE YOU about blackface that is sure to be provcative (and good). I agree, to talk about only blackface of the mistreatment of African Americans in vaudeville is missing most of the story, but audiences don't get aggittated about how Joe Cook demonstrated how he was not going to play a banjo like five Hawaiians, but somehow they feel the need to get worked about blackface. Go figure. on earning a living. any live performer will tell you that earning a decent pay is a sweat, but then the folks who work at Walmart feel the same. On a whole this country is woeful about its support of the arts - the performing or any other kind, so vaudevillians should not take it personally. I agree with Travis that good marketing and captilization are important, but a four leaf clover or at least one wish from a genie is also very helpful. on plays in vaudeville. The great Sarah Bernhardt ended her career playing slimmed down versions of her great stage successes on the vaudeville circuit. Ethel Barrymore also played condensed version of her plays in vaudeville. Shakepearean actors did the same. They did not call it variety for nothing. the plays lasted anywhere form 125 to 30 minutes, and were nothing more than a serious of highlights of the shows. some plays were written specifically for the vaude stage, but I don't think many of these pieces survive or would be worthwhile reviving today. the black circuit had another name TOBA - "tough on black asses," and remanents of this circuit survive today, where plays by and for black audiences can do fairly well. Newark has a theater. I am sure Detroit and other cities with a signficant black population have similar theaters. I agree with Travis and Adam. Vaudeville's name is exciting for the press, but not so exciting for an audience. I think some audiences fear it will be a musty relic rather than lots of fun. I do think it needs the wide range of performers (physical, comic, musical, and even short plays) to create a world that people will come back to. Audiences also need a steady diet and places they can go to see it to build an allegiance to it.
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Thu 19 Jan 06 08:50
Well, yes, re-reading it, Adam, you and I have largely been arguing the same point. And we're not even drunk! I thought of a top-flight dance act--Savion Glover (or any of his acolytes). That'd put some butts in seats!
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Thu 19 Jan 06 09:01
>And we're not even drunk Speak for yourself! :o) Found an interesting online exhibition of Black Vaudeville <http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/douglass/index.php>
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 19 Jan 06 10:02
I agree with Adam about the word "vaudeville." For the majority of the public it evokes a very particular kind of show. Perhaps this association is incorrect, or at least doesn't encompass the full range of old-time vaudeville, but I think you've got to adjust a marketing campaign to the public's bias to be successful.
Travis Stewart (travis-stewart) Thu 19 Jan 06 10:48
Maybe "variety" is safer.
lilac-deprived westerner (nanlev) Thu 19 Jan 06 23:29
There is a vaudeville festival now entering its third year, the Moisture Festival in Seattle. (not a lot of data up on their web site for this year beyond the dates) www.moisturefestival.com They started out with a long weekend in 2004, progressed to about 10 days in 2005, and are going for 3 weeks this spring. And yes, they're calling it a 'comedy/variete festival', not using the word vaudeville, but I think that's because most people really do not know what that is. I would ask - does that matter ? There's a lot of precedent in Europe for using the term variety/variete, and that's where many of those performers are from. Last year's performers included Avner the Eccentric, Hacki Ginda (extraordinary East German clown, former prize winner at Monte Carlo), Tom Noddy, a few former Karamazovs, members of the physical theater troupe UMO, Frank Olivier, and a long string of funny/musical/physical/eccentric performers. The History page on their site gives an interesting perspective on their view of the history of vaudeville and variety arts. One of <dleopold1>'s points seems critical: "Audiences also need a steady diet and places they can go to see it to build an allegiance to it." Amen.
lizp (yodayodayoda) Fri 20 Jan 06 05:58
Bonjour! (Thought I'd get in on the "variete" angle...) Well, welcome to me! My first posting on The Well, and I just finished reading the pulsating repartee between you and your childhood bud. Yes! That's what buds are for... I would like to respond to the question that I believe noone actually asked (an unfortunate sequela of working in the bizarre and fairly narcissistc field I do): Why don't we as a "culture" (and I use the term very generously)have much interest in vaudeville and similar live performance experiences? Well,"lizp", let me jutht try to anther that: I believe that non-celluloid entertainment is an actual threat to the new-American psyche! Yes! Too demanding...too immediate...too interactive...too personal. That's audience-wise. Now, mogul-wise: Too hard to package...turn the proverbial profit...manipulate...and otherwise bowdlerize (ooh, a little clang association?) As our ersatz-bud McLuhan warned, "The medium is the message." I would tweak this to reflect the current sad state of "entertainment" in this country today, and I quip: "The mediocre is the message!" (Not bad for first thing in the morning...and not even done with my first cup of coffee.) Thanks for letting me maunder.
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Fri 20 Jan 06 07:35
Whoa, that last post was awesome! I think you hit the nail on the head...the attitudes of both producers and audiences are part of the ever-accelerating national mania for profit and efficiency. We run the risk of being redundant here (this stuff has been written about for decades), but this is a deodorized, alienated culture. We don't want a dialogue with our fellow man, nor do we want to make any effort or any compromise. It is a culture of instant fulfillment of all needs in their most pure state at the lowest cost...and impatience at anything less. To me, the nadir of this tendency is internet pornography...the evolution of a healthy, social amusement experience (cinema) into a dark, solitary, obsessive compulsion. Vaudeville was (and is) about reaching across barriers, not just cultural ones (as in the many ethnicities and cultures that interface on stage), but the barriers that separate us all. The amazing thing about a live audience is that it is UNITED. That seems increasingly hard to swallow for a people who work in cubicles, drive home alone in SUVs, then go pop in a video.
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Fri 20 Jan 06 07:37
The Moisture Festival looks INCREDIBLE! Shame on me for not knowing about it!
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 20 Jan 06 08:00
You gotta love its name.
Carl LaFong (mcdee) Fri 20 Jan 06 08:04
I have never had a bad time at live theatre, ever, even very amateurish local productions. There is something magic about actually being there.
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 20 Jan 06 09:46
"The wire is life" said Karl Wallenda, and I think that is the same for audiences. The shared bond spent in a dark room watching (and participating to some extent) also includes the shared risk that something could go wrong. Some of my best nights in the theater have occurred when the power went out, the actor lost his lines, a cue missed etc. Being part of the live performance when the 4th wall drops and we are all in it together, now that's exciting. I agree the entertainment industry sees live performance as too inefficient to deliver profit or product. And certainly the price for most live performances is an obvious hurdle for many folks. Let's face it, when a person has the choice of paying $10 to see King Kong for three hours or paying ten times that to see actors recreating the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys, no matter how good the latter is (and I haven't seen it, so I have no opinion) it is out of reach for most. Even off-Broadway and regional theater, hell even a lot of cabaret is at a price point that gives people a simple reason not to go. Now the same is true for organized sports, but they pull an audience even though ticket prices have climbed significantly in the last 20 years. But sports does have its own section of the news (print and video) devoted to it, that live performance just doesn't have. Of course children are indoctrinated into the sports world from an early age, while going to the theater is the rare once or twice a year "when they get older." No easy solution for vaudeville or any live performance, but the show must and does go on. Yes, the masses are dumb, cholorformed by media conglomerates, kept ignorant by our education system, etc. But the need to perform, and I think the desire to see performances is as old as anything on earth. Like everything else worthwhile, performance is is constant need of reinvention. Performers (and playwrights and producers) must always remember that connecting with audience is all important. We must continue to find new ways to connect. Having just spent two years with Irving Berlin, it was instructive to see someone who created enduring art while at the same time reaching a wide audience. He said you could not write a popular song, it had to become one. Berlin had great faith in the mob. Their instant acceptance or rejection of a number in vaudeville was a definitive verdict for him, and no amount of critical commentary could persuade him otherwise. His patriotism was rooted in the fact that he listened to the nation, and then wrote it songs. I think he lost his touch only after he became too old to hear. Not necessarily in age, but in ideas. For vaudeville, the name might disappear, and if does, then so be it. Performers won't. They might be further out on the fringes, but this is essentially where vaudeville began. I am not sure how many people today would want to be in a vaudeville audience at the turn of the century. It was a tough crowd. If an audience can be found on the fringes for vaudeville, perhaps the ripple effect will generate a larger audience. The ball seems to be in our court.
Trav S.D. (travis-stewart) Fri 20 Jan 06 11:32
Switching gears in a big way, I nominate Berlin for most significant songwriter in show business history. It was one of the happy discoveries of my vaudeville research. I don't think a lot of people are familiar with the sheer LONGEVITY of his success as a songwriter. he managed to stay in tune with that public longer than anyone else that I know of. His catalog is amazing...people know dozens of his songs, if they dont necessarily know that he wrote them. And he was quite old when he stopped being in touch, and by then (while he had managed to evolve over so many styles over so many decades) the changes were too drastic. The big songwriters of the new era were Dylan and Lennon-McArtney
David Leopold (dleopold1) Fri 20 Jan 06 12:16
I will second that nomination (biased as I am). Few artists have left the mark on American culture that Irving Berlin has. During his extraordinary long and active career from 1907 to 1966, Berlin was at the forefront of every form of mass popular culture: sheet music, the Broadway stage, radio, records (he had twenty-six number-one songs), film, and television. He was an early adaapter to everything from illustrated song slides to animated films Of course, American culture also left its mark on Berlin. He took a variety of ethnic dialects and melodies, the strains of classical music and opera, the roar of the city, the wit of the Algonquin Round Table, the bravado of Broadway, and a larger-than-life Hollywood, and transmuted those elements into his own idiom: songs that speak to and for everyone. In the words of Jerome Kern, Berlin gave these impressions back to the world, simplified, clarified, glorified. For Irving Berlin there really was no business like show business. Early on he learned how to sell a song, and never lost his enthusiasm for it. He understood the commerce that goes hand in hand with creativity, and without any formal training in either music or business, he became a genius at both. Its just a fad, said Berlin in 1958 when asked about the latest trend in popular music: rock and roll. Its rather hard on the ears and the sensibilities, but we have had novelty periods before. They come to an end and melody always wins out. To another reporter he declared, Rock and roll music has lasted longer than I expected. But it will eventually die out, as did ragtime, swing, and other temporary successes. At seventy, Berlin was simply too old to rock and roll. The shift in public taste, and the way music would be made for the next half-century would finally cause him to retire. Not only in popular music with the Beatles and Dylan, but on the Broadway stage with Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, and others. Composers thought of the gestalt of the whole show, not simply how many hits it had. Berlin was dismissive. When they dont have a hit they call them integrated. I believe in hits. Berlin did see his music as an art form, feeling, its just as important to write a hit song as it is to paint a beautiful picture, but he understood that Im not a composer. Im a songwriter. Thats all I ever was. Its all I ever wanted to be. For the songwriter, it was simple: In the final analysis, its the peoplenot thinking as individuals but en masse who make it a hit, and they cant be wrong. You know, sometimes some writers get so expert in their jobs, they get a little too good. They write oblique songs. Theyre embarrassed to say I love you, or to mention mother or to say God Bless America. But the public isnt embarrassed at all. These things are universal. Everybody falls in love. Everybody hates to get up in the morning. Everybody loves America. Now one could quibble the last sentence, but the essence is true. If he was the rare writer who owned his copyrights, he was virtually alone in being among the writers who outlived some of them. For a sharp businessman like Berlin it must have been tough to see his early songs, even Alexanders Ragtime Band move into the public domain. In a sense that is where they have always been. The public embraced his music early on and never let it go. For generations of Americans, Berlin supplied the soundtrack to their lives. His songs are so much a part of American culture that it hardly seems possible they were written by any one person or so recently. Songs like God Bless America, White Christmas, Always, Anything You Can Do, and Puttin on the Ritz are a part of the national consciousness, and most people sing them without any idea who wrote them. I think you could stop just about anybody onthe street and they would be familar with at least five Berlin songs, even they did not know who wrote them. they are folks songs really, and indeed, he inspired one of the great folk songs, Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Travis, you have to come back next week and my topic and repeat your post, so I can rave on like this again.
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 20 Jan 06 12:40
Berlin was right, I think, about "melody always wins out." That's why Lennon-McCartney songs will last as long as Berlin songs.
Low and popular (rik) Fri 20 Jan 06 13:05
Whereas JayZ, not so much.
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