Standing ovations for a UT show about vaudeville

Dazzling exhibit at the Ransom Center contends that the old variety format never really died


Highlights

Variety shows known as vaudeville were the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the country.

Curator Eric Colleary: “Vaudeville never really went away. It’s still all around us if we just paid attention.”

Unless you have lived well into your 10th decade, you don’t remember the heyday of vaudeville.

Nevertheless, no matter your age, you do know vaudeville.

Roughly from the 1850s through the 1920s, family-friendly American stage variety shows — which included highly structured lineups of comics, singers, dancers, serious actors, celebrities, novelty acts and, eventually, short movies — were the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the country.

Then in the late ’20s, moving pictures were enhanced with sound. And the Great Depression contributed to the collapse of a tiered vaudeville touring system, often segregated by race, that popped up in theatrical halls in every city and most modestly sized towns, and classified touring acts from the “small time” to the “big time,” with New York’s Palace Theatre positioned at the pinnacle of the hierarchy.

Its conventions persisted in the careers of entertainers who starred in Hollywood films during the 1930s through the 1950s, and then again on television during its first Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s. Its structure and popular appeal were revived in variety, sketch and talent programs from “The Carol Burnett Show” to “Saturday Night Live” and “America’s Got Talent.”

Even YouTube could be considered a form of variety entertainment in the vaudevillian tradition.

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Emphatically, Broadway musical theater did not abandon the “born in a trunk” spirit of vaudeville. Witness the backstage movies that were among the first hit sound pictures, as well as long-running stage/movie winners, that took on vaudeville and its near stage relations as their central subjects: “Gypsy,” “Sugar Babies,” “Follies,” “Funny Girl,” “42nd Street,” “Show Boat,” “The Band Wagon,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Chicago,” among others.

“You see, vaudeville never really went away,” says Eric Colleary, curator of the dazzling exhibit “Vaudeville!” on view at the Ransom Center through July 15. “It’s still all around us — if we just paid attention.”

Because America

Cut to the chase: “Vaudeville!” includes a working vaudeville stage.

A very small one, but its row of footlights has tempted numerous Ransom-goers to try out their acts since the exhibit opened on the University of Texas campus. The show’s curators provide some short scripts, but you can perform just about anything there, within reason and good taste.

Before testing your star turn, however, it’s best to follow the thematic arrangement of more than 180 items put together by Colleary. One idea is woven into each of six museum spaces: Vaudeville reflected and sometimes amplified the social, cultural, economic and material trends of its time.

You’ll discover in the Ransom artifacts — almost all taken from the center’s expansive performing arts collections — reflections of the country’s complicated relationships with gender, sexuality and especially race, as expressed through a very American type of big business.

“Thousands of performers toured across a vast network of theaters spanning the continent,” Colleary writes for the show’s display texts. “Their performances included immigrant acts, racial stereotypes and frequent appeals to nationalism, which defined a complex and often problematic sense of American identity at the turn of the century.”

Once you’ve entered the tall, main gallery, turn to the left to learn about the origins of vaudeville, whose roots can be traced back to the Romans and whose name is taken from a word that morphed into French for “voice of the town.”

Since colonial days, many Americans, especially those influenced by Puritan traditions, opposed any sort of theater, but especially the kind of bawdy variety entertainment that we remember mainly through high-kicking depictions of saloons in movie Westerns. Applying the classy-sounding term “vaudeville” was one of several ways that producers could reinvent disreputable theater as family entertainment.

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In the show’s “Early Days” section, we see some of vaudeville’s antecedents: French light musical comedies, British music hall, Punch and Judy puppets, and acts of daring we associate with the circus.

We encounter artifacts from minstrel shows, which predated — then melded with — vaudeville and contained the figure of Jim Crow, namesake for the brutal segregation laws after the Civil War.

“Minstrel shows were the most popular form of variety entertainment in America throughout the 19th century,” Colleary writes. “White male actors covered their faces in burnt cork and performed racist comic sketches, exaggerated imitations of African slave dances, and songs romanticizing the South.”

Next we see evidence of another vaudevillian tradition, the “museum” movement as envisioned by pioneers such as Charles Willson Peale and P.T. Barnum. At first, these were serious exhibitions of natural history accompanied by lectures, but showmen like Barnum made them into what became known as “sideshows” at fairs and circuses.

By 1846, his New York museum was attracting more than 400,000 visitors a year. Fires there — very common during that period — forced him back on the road as part of what might be called a circus-vaudeville circuit that continues in different forms today. Since 2017, however, the defunct “Greatest Show on Earth” retired the name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Vaudeville invented

The man credited with giving vaudeville its first big push as “cleaned up” entertainment was Tony Pastor, a theater owner based in New York. His acts were strictly policed to ensure a patina of morality. 

Then as now, the real theatrical money was made on the road. At the height of vaudeville’s success, intense, long-simmering disputes between labor and management mirrored what was going on in the rest of American business. Performers were paid only a portion of a theater’s receipts, if they were paid at all.

“In 1900, B. F. Keith and Edward F. Albee organized all of the major vaudeville producers as the Vaudeville Managers Association,” Colleary writes. “As a unified body, they could end bidding wars for popular acts, lower wages, and have better control over the growing network of vaudeville theaters known as ‘the circuit.’”

Other regional cartels grew up alongside the Keith-Albee Circuit, including the Interstate, which controlled Austin’s Paramount Theatre along with other local houses from a base in Dallas. Players tried to unionize without much luck, although one group known as the White Rats struck against Keith-Albee in 1901.

Despite segregation, talent was still paramount to the profit-hungry managers.

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“For much of vaudeville’s history, acts were racially integrated even when the audiences weren’t,” Colleary writes. “Performers like the celebrated tap dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson toured with white actors like the comedienne and singer Sophie Tucker for white audiences. African-American audience members were routinely banned or relegated to upper balcony seating.”

A major black circuit was organized under the name Theatre Owners Booking Association. Conditions were inferior to the big cartels, but ageless stars such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Ethel Waters, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, Josephine Baker, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr. and Count Basie got their starts on this circuit.

The vaudevillian’s lot was not glamorous — 48-weeks-a-year tours, fleabag hotels and constant efforts to freshen acts and obtain bookings, as we learn in the next section, “Life on the Circuit.” Guidebooks and trade papers helped managers book acts and performers to develop skills such as stage magic, ventriloquism and juggling. 

In the show’s “Setting the Stage” section, we are reminded of the typical vaudeville program, organized around the audience’s attention span. We also are introduced to “magic lantern shows,” a precursor to movies with often-patriotic subjects, as well as early moving picture technology. This is where we see a picture of the 1909 Yale Theatre on Congress Avenue, one of the earliest places in Austin to see primitive nickelodeon shorts.

“The earliest of these films from the Edison kinetoscope were printed on a series of paper cards and placed on a spindle like a Rolodex,” Colleary writes. “A person would watch the films through a viewer while turning a crank to make the image move.”

What became of vaudeville

While movies for the most part co-opted live variety shows, several of vaudeville’s constituent elements survived. Its immigrant acts, which parodied the Irish, Jews, Italians, Slavs, Germans, Asians, Latinos and others, found their way into later movie culture. Now recognized as highly offensive, they also served as symbols of “belonging” to America’s sharp-elbowed social ecology, according to some scholars.

Minstrel shows and blackface, strongly condemned by African-American media, continued in films at least through the 1940s and in some cases into the 1960s. Yet some African-American performers turned this racist practice on its head.

“Bert Williams took minstrel traditions and infused them with irony, exaggerating his gestures and dances in such a way as to make fun of the white performers in blackface,” Colleary writes about the star who performed in the extravagant “Ziegfeld Follies.” “Williams performed his most famous song, ‘Nobody,’ as his comic character, but sang it with such emotion that audiences empathized with his character. Fellow vaudeville performer W. C. Fields called Williams ‘the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.’”

In the “Let Me Entertain You” section, Colleary emphasized the extreme variety of acts, including, despite child welfare advocates, countless youth acts. Cross-dressing was a common theme, sometimes for comedic or sentimental effect at other times, as in the case of Round Rock native and aerialist Vander Clyde, known as “Barbette,” employed to suggest glamorous allure and mystique.

The Ransom show includes much excellent material about Harry Houdini, the famed vaudeville escape artist, in part because the center owns a huge collection of his papers. Yet the exhibit does not stint on other magicians, such as Howard Thurston, who made large things levitate or disappear, and Ching Ling Foo, who imported traditional Chinese magic tricks to America.

In a brazen act of appropriation, William Ellsworth Robinson saw Foo’s act and starting billing himself as Chung Ling Soo.

“To maintain his persona, Robinson never spoke on stage, and he used an ‘interpreter’ when speaking to journalists,” Colleary writes. “It was not uncommon for performers to steal from other acts, but it was professionally frowned upon and rarely done so as exhaustively as Robinson. He became one of the highest paid magicians in vaudeville until his unexpected death in 1918, when one of his tricks failed and he was shot on stage.”

Show people

Colleary features several family acts, including that of George M. Cohan, memorably portrayed in the movie, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” as well as the Gumm Sisters, one of whom became Judy Garland, whose early movie career consisted of mostly vaudeville-style backstage musicals. And, of course, there were the Marx Brothers, whose timeless comic movies basically recreate their vaudeville acts, though loosely stitched together by a narrative.

He doesn’t ignore the role of sex, detailing the “leg shows,” “muscle shows” and “tableaux vivants,” in which performers could appear nude as long as they didn’t move onstage.

Among the special pleasures of this show are picking out the famous folks who might not be known today for their roles in vaudeville, such as Carrie Nation, Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan and Babe Ruth, while others took their vaudeville personas to the big and little screens, including Mae West, Fannie Bryce, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Milton Berle, Fred Astaire, Pearl Bailey, Billie Burke, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger, Frank Morgan and Bert Lahr, in fact almost all the leads in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The show ends with images of Austin’s own triumphant variety show.

“A new movement called neo-­vaudeville has been quietly emerging over the past several decades, often in direct homage to the vaudeville routines popular at the turn of the 20th century,” Colleary writes. “For example, Esther’s Follies in Austin has been performing variety shows combining comedy, magic, songs and dance for over 40 years, changing their routines on an almost weekly basis to stay fresh and current.”



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