In the 1950s it was almost as though the United States was waking from a sleep sometimes filled with dreams and other times nightmares. The second half of the 20th century saw the emergence of the victims of the first half. There were the victims of wars, the Great Depression, and political and social change. And then there were the victims of vaudeville. My father was a victim of vaudeville.
My father was born as vaudeville was dying. November 16th of 1932, ten years after my father's birth, the famed Palace Theater in New York switched to a movies only programming schedule. The live vaudeville shows were becoming a thing of the past as the popularity of talking pictures swept the nation.
Some of the vaudeville stars made the successful transition from stage to screen. Bob Hope, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Mae West, and many others did well in the new medium. The biggest group of artists to suffer was the variety acts--the magicians, acrobats, animal acts, and jugglers. The touring vaudeville circuit was no longer the lucrative guarantee for work that it had been prior to talking pictures.
After leaving his stint in the Navy during World War Two and a couple of seasons on the basketball team of West Virginia University, my dad began pursuing a part time career as a juggler. He still had the dreams that many entertainers of that era had: Vaudeville was going to come back bigger than ever.
The shows he worked in the fifties almost seemed like vaudeville. Veteran acts from that past era were booked on shows with newcomers like my dad. Some of the acts were legends in the business. The show line-ups were often much like those one might have seen twenty years earlier, except now the venues were different. Instead of the grand old theaters of the heyday of the vaudeville era, now the shows were in nightclubs and at corporate functions. The working entertainers were still living the dream.
But that dream was dying. Rock and roll had arrived and was here to stay. And then there was the biggest vaudeville threat of them all--television. The vaudeville dreamers no longer dreamed of getting booked on a "circuit" or of playing the Palace Theater. Now it was The Ed Sullivan Show or one of the other television variety shows. The dreams of the vaudevillian dreamer didn't die easily.
My dad never made it to The Ed Sullivan Show--almost but no cigar. We auditioned our act for the show producers and they were very interested. Then the show went off the air. We worked regularly and performed in some big time shows. We made some pretty decent money for a job on the side, but my dad was no idle dreamer. He always kept a good daytime job. His juggling act was something he did because he loved it and he had a vaudeville dream that started in his childhood.
Many people today may have never heard of vaudeville or may not have an idea of what it was. Now vaudeville is mainly only of interest to a few historians or a handful of hobbyists who have an interest in the era. Movies about vaudeville are not especially popular anymore and are only occasionally run on classic movie channels. Vaudeville is dead and so are most of its victims.
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Are you a fan of vaudeville? Do you have any favorite vaudeville inspired movies? What is your favorite genre of performance entertainment?
To close, here is a clip of W.C. Fields from his film The Old Fashioned Way. Many people don't realize that before his movie career Fields was a world renown juggler in vaudeville. He is certainly one of the most famous jugglers of all time. If you have a few minutes, enjoy the clip: