History of The Musical Stage

Vaudeville- Part III

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2003)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Forgotten Headliners

Eva TanguayEva Tanguay, one of vaudeville's all-time greatest stars. Fans called her "The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous."

When a performer's name appeared on the top of the billboard listing each week's acts, they were at the "top of the bill" or a headliner. Headliners got the best dressing rooms and the highest salaries, up to $4000 a week in the big time. It is tough enough to turn on star power for one performance a day – imagine two to five shows a day! While some of the greatest vaudeville stars were short on talent, they had tons of personality and extraordinary stamina. Since many of these longtime audience favorites predated the age of talking film, their names are now forgotten. A short list of celebrated headliners –

Female impersonator Julian EltingeJulian Eltinge was the top female impersonator of the early 20th Century. Here he is seen in the title role of the Broadway musical The Fascinating Widow (1911). He remains the only drag performer to have a Broadway theatre named after him. The Eltinge later became The Empire. Its old facade and lobby are now part of the AMC Multiplex on 42nd Street.

Clean Comedy

Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, George BurnsBing Crosby joins vaudeville veterans Jack Benny and George Burns in a televised tribute to vaude comedy.

The strict decency standards Keith and Albee imposed on all vaudeville acts were hard on comedians. Imagine what it took to create fifty years worth of squeaky clean humor! Any good clean joke was likely to be stolen, and many a comic found other pilfering performers had already done his material in various towns. In years to come, radio and early television would rely on the same comics – and many of the same jokes. The New Vaudeville Joke Book, published in 1907, offered these examples –

SANDERSON: My friend has been elected mayor.
BOWMAN: Honestly?
SANDERSON: What does that matter?

DUMMY: My father killed a hundred men in the war.
VENTRILOQUIST: What was he? A Gunner?
DUMMY: Nope, a cook.

YOUNG MAN: I want to ask for the hand of your daughter in marriage.
OLD MAN: You’re an idiot!
YOUNG MAN: I know it. But I didn’t suppose you’d object to another one in the family.

Much of vaudeville's "clean" humor relied on ethnic stereotypes that would inspire public outrage today. The most popular targets were were Germans (called "Dutch" acts), Jews, Blacks, Italians and the Irish, but most anyone was fair game – even rich WASPs. The various ethnic groups in urban audiences loved to laugh at what they perceived (or chose to perceive) as someone else's foibles.

Vaudeville was an equal opportunity insulter. Joe Laurie Jr.'s affectionate Vaudeville: From Honky Tonks to the Palace (Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1953, p. 427) includes a complete script for the classic "School Act," with characters covering a wide range of then-acceptable comedy stereotypes – a bumbling German teacher contends with such students as "Percy" (sissy), "Tony" (Italian), "Jesse James" (street tough), "Gladys Umpah" (lisping girl), "Skinny Jones" (overweight boy), "Rastus Johnson" (Negro) and "Abey Maloney Goldstein" (a Jewish boy who's added an Irish middle name "for protection").

As times and attitudes changed, such acts were gradually forced from the scene.

Comedy routines burlesquing "micks" and "kikes" and "wops"  were almost as common as "coon" routines in the early years of the (20th) century, signifying a lack of originality, if nothing else. Such practices were so offensive to ethnic communities in Boston and New York that both municipalities passed ordinances banning ethnic epithets on stage.
- Jim Haskins & J.R. Mitgang, Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1988), p. 59.

While ethnic gags were (for a time) acceptable, coarse language and sexual innuendo were not. Keith and Albee even forbade seemingly harmless phrases like "hully gee." Of course, there were always performers willing to test the limits. These bits were censored in vaudeville's golden years –

MAN: She thinks "lettuce" is a proposition!"

WOMAN: Someone is fooling with my knee.
MAN: It's me, and I'm not fooling!

WOMAN: I'm not married.
MAN: Any children?
WOMAN: I told you, I'm not married.
MAN: Answer my question!

WOMAN: He's the father of a baby boy but his wife doesn't know it yet.

Here is a refrain sung on both sides of the Atlantic by British music hall comedienne Marie Lloyd. Gentle as it sounds today, it left some American vaudeville managers steaming in the early 20th Century --

What's that for, eh? Oh, tell me Ma.
If you won't tell me, I'll ask Pa.
But Ma said, "Oh, it's nothing,
Hold your row."
Well, I've asked Johnny Jones see,
So I know now!

Vaudeville audiences were far more likely to hear the latest from Tin Pan Alley, where songwriters knew that vaudeville could turn a song into a hit. Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" became an international sensation after Emma Carus and Al Jolson (among others) included it in their acts. Publishers often included the photos of popular vaudevillians affiliated with a particular tune on sheet music covers to boost sales.

Next: Vaudeville - Part IV