The Manhattan Project--2016 A to Z Theme

Always a work in progress--welcome to my blog...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Vaudeville Victim




           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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         Have you voted for Alex J Cavanaugh's book trailer yet?  Alex is one of the A to Z co-hosts. The trailer for his book CassaStar is part of the You Gotta Read Reviews Book Video Contest.  Make sure you click on over and vote for his trailer.   Voting will close 11:59 PM Central April 26--that's tonight if you are reading this today!  Show your support for our gracious A to Z co-host Alex J. Cavanaugh and if you've never visited his blog now is a good time to do so.


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If you haven't heard yet, there will be an A to Z Challenge Reflections Mega Post on Monday May 2nd.  Read more about this post here.
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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?




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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:











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49 comments:

  1. I'm guessing that vaudeville is the same as the Music Halls in the UK. They too died a death in the 1950s. There were still the Working Men's Clubs for about another decade but they weren't interested in jugglers. It was mainly stand-up comedians who performed in them and then only if they could cope with the heckling. By the 1970s it was all over and most of our lovely, red-velveted theatres closed and were pulled down. A sad time for live entertainment in general.

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  2. until just now i had never heard of vaudeville so thank you for introducing me to something knew and teaching me about the history of it

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  3. Wonderful slice of history Lee. Thanks for sharing the personal story in the context of the larger. Where I live in Brighton, U.K. there is a kind of vaudeville revival. A lot of deejay parties are incorporating some modern vaudeville type acts, the most popular being pole dancing. There are also a lot cabaret events that present a whole gamut of acts from performance poets to pole dancers (of course), drag queens (big gay community here), poi and fire dancing, hoola hoop, etc. There are musicians who perform on stilts, and cheesy female music acts...all of this in the context of a deejay party. Thanks Lee, for taking the time to visit my blog and comment. :-) Good to know some of those hits are actually readers :-)

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  4. Thanks for the shout-out, Lee! And wow, you guys almost made the Ed Sullivan Show? That's impressive no matter what era.

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  5. So cool, such a rich family history. I would have loved to see some vaudeville in person, I love live entertainment:-) Stop in & read V is for Verification

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  6. Great post on Vaudeville. I agree with Alex, almost on Ed Sullivan, that's impressive.

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  7. Yours must have been an interesing family to grow up in. Lots of story ideas.

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  8. Great post and that's a precious vid. I've always been a fan of W. C. F. He and Mae West ad libbed their movies. No censorship on movies then. He was funny and talented.

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  9. This is such an interesting post! Thanks for sharing memories about your family's participation in Vaudeville!

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  10. Enjoyed all about vauderville, you had a very entertaining life and one you loved. Thanks for sharing.
    Yvonne.

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  11. Great retrospective, Arlee. It's a tragedy that vaudeville is gone. One of my favorite memories of 4-H was a countywide variety show that featured all of the different clubs. We had to come up with a unique act and perform it in front of hundreds of people. I was shaking in my boots the night of the performance, but it was such a powerful feeling to get up in front of all those people and try to make them laugh.

    It's so sad that most things are "canned" now...

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  12. I've heard of vaudeville & from what I can gather it was comprised of a variety of talented people w/ unique specialties. The only place for acrobats these days is in Cirque du Soleil. Do any other circuses still exist? It's too bad that there isn't more vaudeville or modern equivalent of it because from what I've seen in old movies, these people were truly talented.

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  13. I only just heard of Vaudeville this morning by virtue of following another dying form of entertainment with great interest. Soap operas are dying out, too, and I'm really paying close attention to how fans of the genre are being treated with disrespect by the company which has been providing the soaps. Don't anger the fans.

    Thanks for enlightening me more on what Vaudeville was, Arlee!

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  14. Rosalind -- Yes vaudeville and the music halls were essentially the same thing and probably had some of the same performers. The same thing happened in the U.S. with the remaining vaudeville theaters becoming burlesque houses, then girlie shows, and eventually porno theaters. Video killed most of those and the live shows went to topless bars and I don't know if you could even consider those "shows". It's all kind of a sad history.

    becca -- I not overly surprised that newer generations are not familiar with vaudeville. But just about anyone who grew up in the 50s have probably heard of it since early TV was so influenced by it.

    Alison -- There are similar vaudeville revivals in the U.S. now presented as campy outre entertainment. Occasionally there are also revival type shows in places like Las Vegas. Now on television the vaudeville influence is mostly seen in some of the talent competition shows, but the real professional variety shows that don't involve a competition are almost unheard of.

    Alex -- Almost is kind of cool and I'm sure we would have made it if the show hadn't gone off the air so suddenly.

    Up -- Live variety shows are fun, but they are such a rarity now.

    Teresa -- Thanks, it would have been prestigious to have been able to say we made The Sullivan Show--just like Bye, Bye, Birdie.

    MybabyJohn -- There are lots of interesting stories. I wish my father were still around to tell me more of them.

    Manzanita -- The ad libbing back in the early movies came from the Vaudeville tradition. Other artists who had their roots in the old stage shows were the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.

    Jess -- Thanks for stopping by.

    Yvonne -- I did love the life. I took after my father.

    Walk -- It is a shame. Lots of school and civic groups used to put on these types of "follies" shows. A few still do I suppose, but the nature of the entertainment has probably changed in many ways.

    Lee

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  15. Lisa -- Today's entertainment relies so much on technology and effects. Soleil has many talented performers but the show relies on production value as much as it does talent. The other day I was reading a statistic about circuses that said in the U.S. there are a few hundred (maybe even less than 200) that are still in business. In Europe there are over 1000 circuses--the Europeans apparently value the tradition more. There are still circuses, but even they are changing vastly from what they used to be. Maybe Water for Elephants will create a resurgence of interest in the Circus.

    Jeffrey -- Soaps are same as Vaudeville--victims of the changing taste in entertainment. There are not as many housewives anymore to watch the serialized dramas. And the reality talk shows are much more engaging and drama filled than the soaps--and probably much cheaper to produce. What will be next?

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  16. As people hanker more and more for a simpler life, perhaps vaudeville will make a comeback. Thank you for the W.C. Fields clip - what a talented man he was.

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  17. I'm impressed that you auditioned for the Ed Sullivan Show! When I think of vaudeville I think of people like Red Skelton and Jimmy Durante.

    Gertrude and Heathcliff, ha-chachachacha.

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  18. What a great story. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  19. Evey post you do featuring your father is so interesting. This time I learned that he played basketball for WVU, which was right in my backyard growing up.

    I'm a big fan of the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show as well as Jack Benny.

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  20. I always thought the idea of Vaudeville was pretty cool. Maybe there will be a revival?

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  21. jabblog -- With all the technology I doubt whether future generations will turn back to that old age of entertainment, but who know?

    Bish -- They were both greats who emerged from the vaudeville tradition. Early TV was an extension of Vaudeville since many of the old entertainers turned to the new medium.

    Carol -- Thank you for stopping by.

    Brianna -- My father came from Clarksburg and my mother was from Morgantown. My dad played with the Mountaineers in the late 40s and was quite a hit with the fans.
    I used to watch Jack Benny faithfully--he was one of my favorites.

    Holly -- I don't know about the vaudeville touring theater circuit, but I'd like to see more vaudeville style entertainment on television and maybe see a few movies come out about the era.

    Lee

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  22. Hi Lee .. the BBC recently did a couple of programmes on Music Halls .. unfortunately I didn't watch ..

    .. but a friend who writes plays and acts is at present about to present a play based on the history of music halls .. their theatre group is pretty successful - this is their website .. and the play is there .. details on the background, and on performance reviews .. looks very interesting .. and if they come to this part of the world I shall go and see it ..

    I wrote about Hanging Hooke - the English Leonardo .. and Siobhan came and gave me some extra copy ..

    She's also written a play about Elizabeth Pepys ..

    Hope you enjoy the link ... so interesting to read your post, based on the background I had from Siobhan ..

    Your family sounds amazing ..

    Cheers Hilary
    http://www.takethespace.co.uk/index.php/dv-outline

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  23. >>> . . . Rock and roll had arrived and was here to stay.

    Nah.
    'Rock And Roll' is just a passing fad. It won't last, you wait and see.

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

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  24. Nice tribute to another age. And great clip of WC Fields, never seen that before.

    cheer,
    mood
    Moody Writing

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  25. The death of vaudeville was a sad thing. I would have loved to go to the theater and watch it. Thanks for the history lesson. As for the W.C. Fields clip, I thought it was a joke. You're right! He's surprisingly good!

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  26. Oh I definitely remember hearing about Vaudeville. I wasn't born yet but still remember. Your father lead an interesting life Arlee and I had no idea that W.C. Fields was a juggler before acting!
    Love Di ♥

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  27. My V post is up ... all about vacations.

    http://mom2nick.typepad.com/heres_whats_new/2011/04/v-is-for-vacations-.html

    Thanks for looking.

    Laura T.

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  28. Hey Lee! Great post! I am so impressed that you guys almost made it to the Ed Sullivan show!! That's so cool..I am aware of vaudeville, mostly due to studying some of my favourite performers who started in vaudeville, like the Marx Brothers,Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin was in the music halls in London before coming to America to do films..it was a different era wasn't it? I think it would be great to do a revival in community theatre one night..like a 'return to vaudeville' evening..that would probably go over well..

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  29. The three stooges got their start in vaudeville as did so mant actors and actresses. The original Thre Stoges consisted of Moe, Larry, and Shemp. Shemp left to go on his own and they brought in Curly. When he died, Shemp came back as he was familiar with the routine.

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  30. Sad for vaudeville but happy to say that my parents raised me with things they grew up on and I'm forever thankful for that!

    Thanks for another fab history lesson, Lee. Heading over to vote for Mr. Cavanaugh :)

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  31. Hey, Lee.

    There is truly one of the most amazing movies of Vaudeville. How could anyone not remember Gypsy Rose Lee. Rosalind Russell, the epitome of the most ruthless stage mom.

    And of the beautiful Natalie Wood as Gypsy....

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  32. Interesting post on Vaudeville! I had no idea it existed in the era of TV. Exciting you almost made it to Ed Sullivan!

    Thanks for A to Z!

    Monti

    NotesAlongTheWay

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  33. Hilary -- Thanks for the link--I will check it out.

    McCarthy -- R & R may last longer than the heyday of vaudeville did and I guess overall it's been a bigger money enterprise. I imagine something else will replace Rock and Roll, but I'm almost scared to see what will come next.

    Moody --- Fields made some wonder films. He had an interesting style of humor that he honed in Vaudeville.

    Maurice -- Actually in his prime I'm sure that Fields was even better than in this clip. Age, lack of practice, and drink probably had taken a toll on some of his skills by that time.

    Diana -- Yes indeed! Fields was famous as a juggler and toured the world performing as such before he became known in the movies.

    Laura -- Thanks for stopping by.

    Eve -- Many early movie stars polished their performance skills in American vaudeville and British music halls. Vaudeville revivals would be fun.

    Stephen Tremp -- I enjoyed the TV movie a while back that depicted the vaudeville start of the Three Stooges. They were a classic example of the cornball comedy of the Vaudeville style.

    San -- Many kids don't appreciate it until later when they are adults, but parents often have some great stories and interesting perspectives of history.

    Lee

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  34. Michael -- Gypsy is a great look at the vaudeville era and the transition into burlesque. There are many other great vaudeville film as well including Yankee Doodle Dandy which was the story of George M. Cohen. Many of the movies prior to the mid-50s had to do with vaudeville.

    Monti -- When TV came into being it was such a new entertainment form that it drew upon the old until it became a unique entertainment form of its own.

    Lee

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  35. I suppose vauderville lives on in people's memories and the films that include it. Good V post :O)

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  36. Too bad about the Ed Sullivan show, that would have been lots of fun! This was a very interesting read, I think it's a shame there aren't still vaudeville acts...there is some true talent there!

    Blessings to you!
    Trudy

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  37. Hey there Lee. I think most of the western world went through the same traumas as you outline in para. 1. Was a low time in our history and it is amazing how we have 'risen from the ashes' so to speak.

    Denise<3

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  38. The alphabet has gone by FAST!!!

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  39. Fun post for V! Vaudeville!

    I stopped by via the A to Z Challenge for April, and I invite you to visit my blogs at The Mane Point (Horses), Nickers and Ink (Poetry), Practically at Home (Home and Helpful How-to’s) and the Meme Express (Daily Blog Prompts).

    My A to Z Challenge is complete! Please pop in!

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  40. Madeleine -- Unfortunately I don't think it is remembered all that much except from a historical perspective.

    Trudy -- There still are vaudeville style acts out there just not as many venues in which to play. A performer can still make a living if they go about it right.

    Denise - You're right it was a world wide awakening and we all shared in the changes--not always for the better perhaps.

    Fifi-- Not just the alphabet. Heck, my life is going by too fast!

    Linda -- Thank you for stopping. I'll check out your blogs.

    Lee

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  41. It all sounds like a fun experience. I wonder why both the motion pictures and the shows didn't work together. Like, the theaters should have just kept the shows as a part of the movie showings somehow.

    I probably would have been a fan of vaudeville back in the day when it was flourishing as you described.

    I hope that the movies on it become more popular so that people can at least learn more about it. Of all the performance entertainment genres listed, acrobats would be my most favorite.

    It's great that your family was able to continue doing shows and gain interest in those TV show producers.

    With change comes adaptation, I guess. I hope the the legacy of vaudeville continues to be covered in multiple forms of media such as fine art, movies, photos, etc.

    Also,

    I went on over that that Blog and voted for Alex's book as you suggested.

    It's odd that my topic of the day was Victims as well but only similar by term and not subject matter, as my post is a bit of a long rant from a disagreement that I had with someone about a particular situation that turned into celebrity judgements and community issues.

    The Madlab Post

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  42. I have a fondness for the vaudeville era and many of the Hollywood stars who had their start on the stage. (=

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  43. I have never heard of vaudeville but will definitely check out the blog. I am new to your site as I stumbled upon it today. Look foward to reading more. Some friends and I just began the A to Z challange, better late than never.
    My blog is shandaoakley.blogspot.com

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  44. Nicole -- The simple answer to your question about why movies and vaudeville shows couldn't co-exist: Economics. Theaters could make more money showing movies. Some theaters continued to do both. I recall going to Radio City Music Hall in New York City in the late 60s and seeing a mix of shows and movies. Now they just have special shows--I don't think they even do the movies anymore. I'd like to see more movies about the vaudeville era but I don't know if younger audiences would care enough about them.

    Jo -- I am sentimental about the era as well.

    Lee

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  45. Shanda -- Glad that you found Tossing It Out and hope you will come back.

    Lee

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  46. Hi, I'm new to your blog. I've seen the A to Z challenge badges in some blogs I follow and I got curious. What a great and fun idea! I know I'm too late to join since I only started blogging this month, but I'll definitely keep a lookout for any other challenges you might have. I'm glad to have found this place ;)

    I hang out at my humble abode: http://readywritego.blogspot.com. I am a total amateur blogger but enjoying the learning process, plus getting to meet amazing people from the blogosphere.

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  47. Several things pop into my head...let me see if I can get them all down.

    1- How do you come up with these amazing ideas for posts? Vaudeville? Seriously? ... Oh wait, that's right, you had advanced notice to come up with ideas, so never mind.

    2-I have not much exposure to vaudeville (and I'm sure I'm misspelling it as well). Though, I do love the movie 'The Prestige', which I believe features vaudeville type of entertainment? Am I correct?

    3-Can you give me a hint on what to do for Z? That worries me... lol

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  48. Your life is so interesting. And almost Ed Sullivan - wow. Thanks for hosting the challenge.

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  49. It had to be so exciting growing up in your house, and constantly brushing up against other vaudeville entertainers. It's a shame that you never made it on Ed Sullivan. I remember my parents going to the Catskills to see vaudeville acts. By the time we came along, it was on it's way out. Very sad. BTW, I also enjoyed your 5 W's post, but couldn't get into the comments for some reason. Julie

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Lee