A History of The Musical
Vaudeville- Part IV
by John Kenrick
(The images below are thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
What Killed Vaudeville?
Contrary to popular belief, Vaudeville was not wiped out by silent films. Many managers featured "flickers" at the end of their bills, finding them cheaper than the live closing acts that audiences walked out on anyway. Top screen stars made lucrative personal appearance tours on the big time circuits. So what killed vaudeville? The most truthful answer is that the public's tastes changed and vaudeville's managers (and most of its performers) failed to adjust to those changes.
In the mid-1920s, when everyone knew vaudeville was in danger, E.F. Albee set expensive new production requirements which strained performers and made it harder for most houses to turn a profit.
When fashion-plate comics entertained between numbers instead of a roaring slapstick turn, vaudeville was devitalized. Cycloramas, drapery and gorgeous drops added to the glamour, but not to the comedy. Albee was responsible for much of this. He dressed up vaudeville fit to kill and it committed suicide . . . the customers stopped coming.
- Douglas Gilbert, American Vaudeville: Its Life and Time (New York: Dover Publications, 1963), p. 393.
According to Variety, by the end of 1926 only a dozen "big time" vaudeville houses remained the rest had converted to film use. Some vaudevillians sped the process by filming their acts as sound shorts. When movie theatres could offer top line acts on screen at a nickel a seat, why would anyone pay more to see lesser talents live? In December 1927, no less a star than Julian Eltinge proclaimed in Variety that vaudeville was "shot to pieces," and was no longer able to attract "big names."
The success of sound feature films in the late 1920s sharpened the sense of crisis in vaudeville circles. In 1929, Albee replaced the Orpheum circuit's two performance-a-day format with a crushing five-a-day policy. Designed to restore sagging profit margins, this only succeeded in exhausting performers and depleting the supply of fresh material. At the same time, risqué or "blue" material was allowed in major acts, offending many in vaudeville's family-oriented audience. Mind you, today's theatergoers would consider most of this material harmless. Consider this controversial joke shared by comediennes Cissie Loftus and Marie Dressler
CISSIE: She never married, did she?
MARIE: No, her children wouldn't let her.
Albee hammered another nail into vaudeville's coffin when he partnered with Joseph P. Kennedy's Hollywood film company in 1928 to form Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO) Studios. Kennedy wrangled control of the new organization from Albee, turning the glorious Orpheum circuit into a chain of movie houses. In October of 1929, Variety figured that there were only six full-time vaudeville houses still operating, with as many as three hundred theatres offering a bill of acts between feature films.
The Final Years
By the early 1930s, the one-two punch of talking film and the Great Depression wiped away the last vestiges of vaudeville. Headliner Sophie Tucker noted that by 1931 "the movies had a death grip on vaudeville," and pointed out that audiences were not the same
It was extraordinary how the public had changed. They had become very blasé about entertainment. Whereas American used to arrange to spend an evening in the theatre for a treat, now they seemed to go to the theater just to kill time. With the newspapers and motion-picture magazines telling the public the private lives of stars, a lot of the illusion and glamor (sic) of the stage were gone . . . The theaters were full of children. At the first two shows in the afternoon the house would be full of boys and girls, slumped down in their seats, obviously bored with the acts and only waiting for the picture to come on. Kids and necking couples . . . By the time of the last show, at 9:30 PM, when you had your best audience, you were dead tired. Too tired to care whether they liked you or not.
- Tucker, Some of These Days (No publisher credited, 1945), pp. 261-262.
Tough as things were, Tucker kept on performing. She was headlining at New York's Palace Theater in February 1932 when a fire broke out backstage. To prevent panic, Tucker remained onstage to coax the audience out of the theatre despite the sparks that threatened to ignite her flammable sequined gown. The Palace soon reopened, but by that November it became a full-time movie theatre -- an occasion many point to as the death of big-time vaudeville. The Palace's first feature film was The Kid From Spain -- starring vaudeville veteran Eddie Cantor. Live acts appeared between screenings, but were dropped as of 1935.
With the Palace gone, the remaining circuits evaporated as vaudeville theatres became movie palaces. Although many theatres still presented acts between films, the number of available gigs kept shrinking. This took a brutal toll on thousands of performers. In her frank autobiography, actress and vaudeville veteran June Havoc explains
Show business as I knew it had simply dwindled and vanished before my eyes. The happy island of vaudeville which had been my kindergarten, elementary and junior high school had sunk into the sea and left me treading water. I was an animation of the ancient quote: 'You can take the girl out of vaudeville but can't take the vaudeville out of the girl.' I was a displaced person. I didn't understand it. I only felt it.
- Early Havoc (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), p. 2.
A few vaudeville theaters managed to hold out. New York City's State Theatre (which was located at Broadway and 45th Street) continued to present four-a-day bills until December 23, 1947. The final bill included comedian Jack Carter and Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon. At the closing performance, veteran vaudevillian George Jessel, who eulogized many show biz greats, came on stage and said
"I heard vaudeville is finished here tonight, so I thought Id drop in and tell you folks that talent can never die."
- as quoted by Joe Laurie Jr. in Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace (New York: Henry Colt & Co., 1953), p. 502.
Jessel was wrong. Talent can die -- and all memories of it can die too. For every Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson or George Burns, there are hundreds of forgotten headliners like Olga Petrova, Kitty Doner, Loney Haskell and George Price. Thousands more who trooped across the USA for decades are now just obscure names listed in crumbling programs. Scholars interested in vaudeville research face a daunting task. As vaudeville died, most managers trashed their files, and libraries had no interest in saving materials on old vaude performers. Today, a few archives preserve vaudeville related materials, but no effort has been made to catalog these disparate collections. That is why digging into vaudeville's history is a hit or miss process.
There have been numerous attempts to revive vaudeville a hopeless task, given the changes in American popular culture. But there were some moments of recaptured glory. The Palace revived the two-a-day format in the 1950s, featuring stellar headliners. Judy Garland's four week "comeback" engagement in 1951 was extended by popular demand for fourteen extra weeks, and she was followed by Danny Kaye, Maurice Chevalier and others. But The Palace went back to the movies in 1957, becoming a Broadway house in 1966. The last live echo of vaudeville was Radio City Music Hall, which kept the presentation house format alive until economics forced it to become a concert venue in 1979.
Some lucky vaudeville singers and comics found a new home on radio, where "variety shows" offered something like audio vaudeville. Even silent acts (jugglers, animal acts, etc.) found work on television, where variety shows remained popular for several decades. In the 1960s and 70s, my family watched Carol Burnett on Saturdays, and Ed Sullivan on Sundays. Burnett's Broadway-style reviews had the family-friendly spirit of the big time, while Sullivan's show was a blatant attempt to offer acts in a vaudeville-style format.
It is fair to suggest that vaudeville's legacy lives on through television, where the remote control allows viewers to skim through choices to find entertainment to their liking. The humor of American sitcoms is still influenced by vaudeville, often falling back on routines that would have been familiar to audiences on the Orpheum circuit. And vaudeville contributed any number of phrases that are still in common use. For example
- Performers anxious to protect expensive costumes had bright red carpets laid between their dressing rooms and the stage. (This color made it easy to see if the carpeting was clean.) Only top headliners could insist on the red carpet treatment.
- Vaude slang referred to unsophisticated comedy as being "stuck in the corn," soon shortened to corny.
- Whenever a performer got a sensational response, the next act had to work twice as hard to capture audience attention. So it was a great compliment when you were called a tough act to follow.
- Vaude performers were the first to refer to winning over an audience as knocking them dead, laying them in the aisles or slaying them still popular terms for successful performers in any field.
And whenever someone dances with a hat and cane or shouts "One more time," they are (whether they realize it or not) invoking the legacy of vaudeville. While vaudeville's form is long gone, its spirit is still part of contemporary entertainment.
Another form of variety entertainment has a much tawdrier reputation than vaudeville, but it passed on a rich legacy of comic talent to the musical stage and screen. There was a lot more than bump and grind in . . .