The Ransom Center's "Vaudeville!"
This exhibition reveals how the history of that entertainment form is really the history of the U.S.
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., June 8, 2018
Suppression by religious extremists. Censorship. Racism. Ridicule of immigrants. Deceptive advertising. Syndicate control. Exploitation of labor. Union organizing. Cult of celebrity. New technology that kills off older forms of entertainment.
These days, a list like that might lead you to think of our music industry or Hollywood or radio, since we know that all those things figured into the twisted histories of those entertainment fields. But before those lines were even a gleam in show business' eye, every item on that list was being woven into the centurylong story of vaudeville.
If all vaudeville is to you is the thing your great-great-grandparents did for fun while they waited for nickelodeons and Victrolas to be invented, then the exhibit "Vaudeville!," on view through July 15 at the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center, is your chance to learn how this onstage variety show became a dominant form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and also how its development reflected the development of this country.
Like everything in our land of the free and home of the brave, vaudeville came from somewhere else – the name possibly a corruption of the French "voix de ville" ("voice of the city") or "Vau de Vire" (a valley renowned for lusty drinking songs), the variety act format pulling from sources as varied as Italy's commedia dell'arte troupes, France's troubadours, and England's Punch and Judy puppet shows. And like every new arrival on these shores, it was eyed with suspicion by those who got here earlier. Starch-collared Puritanical precepts, like the one that branded actors as liars (because they pretend to be people they aren't), meant most forms of entertainment got the fisheye in those days. (Curator Eric Colleary includes a 1783 letter from the Philadelphia Committee of Citizens protesting "theatre for the exhibition of stage plays and other pernicious amusements of the like kind.") It took the nation's first great huckster, P.T. Barnum, to figure out a workaround for this attitude: He bought a museum, added to its displayed natural wonders a few unnatural wonders – sideshow hoaxes such as the "Feegee" mermaid – and promoted the performances presented inside as "lectures." It's not immoral, you see, it's educational.
Of course, in the Land of Opportunity, other early 19th century entrepreneurs had worked out a less crafty method for making theatre palatable: appealing to Americans' love of drink. Saloon theatres had bars right in the auditorium, so patrons didn't have to worry about going dry before intermission. Refills were within reach at any time. That environment wasn't the most family-friendly, so, seeing a niche in the market to be filled, Tony Pastor, a singer, songwriter, and onetime employee of Barnum's, booted the saloons from his theatres and lewd material from the stage, began marketing his variety shows as suitable for women and children as well as men, and even offered door prizes (coal, ham, dishes, sewing machines). This cleaned-up product was seen as distinct from "variety" and called "vaudeville."
The result was successful enough that, in the American spirit of commerce, it bred imitators. The 1880s and 1890s saw vaudeville houses sprout nationwide – many of them controlled by a small band of owners establishing "circuits" on which acts could tour regionally and nationally. An interactive map lets visitors see how extensive these circuits were – some with dozens of theatres – and how they dominated vaudeville's booking system. Of course, this being the Gilded Age, rather than let competition decide the winners in the marketplace, the big theatre owners formed the Vaudeville Managers Association to collectively control business costs. It didn't take long for vaudeville performers to respond to this monopolistic squeeze. Within a year, they'd formed a union, the White Rats, and when initial negotiations with the VMA failed, the Rats went on strike, with acts not showing up or canceling at the last minute, blaming illness or laryngitis. Printed copies of newspaper stories covering the strike are among the most entertaining reading in the exhibit. In it, for instance, you find a quote from VMA member and vaudeville theatre magnate B.F. Keith, whose reaction to the strike sounds like a line from a current NFL owner: "All this trouble is caused by agitators, irresponsible persons who are not able to get good work to do themselves." The monthlong walkout didn't win the White Rats much, but they continued to protest the treatment of performers by bookers.
Space devoted to labor relations shows how the business of show evolved for vaudevillians. Contracts reveal what they were required to supply (e.g., their own PR photos) and what conduct they had to abide by (the comedy term "blue material" came from the blue envelopes performers were given with whatever words or bits in their act management deemed vulgar, salacious, or offensive and had to be cut). This was in many ways the same tension between management and labor that was playing out in the nation's textile factories, steel mills, and docks at the 20th century's turn. The difference with vaudeville is that its workers weren't just angling for safe conditions and fair wages; they also wanted to "play the Palace," i.e., work their way up the showbiz ladder to the top theatres, where they'd win fortune and fame. Vaudeville could be more than a gig; it could be a vehicle to stardom.
That was true for even those Americans in society's bottom drawer: immigrants and African-Americans. In that freaky love-hate way that white Americans treat the Other, they could shun, mistreat, and tyrannize these groups in life and yet be fascinated by them onstage and support their success on it. "Vaudeville!" notes the debt the form owes to minstrel shows, which ascended to popularity in the 1830s and 1840s and began featuring black performers in the 1850s, and recognizes the groundbreaking career of Bert Williams, the first African-American to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies and one of its greatest stars. (A silent film shown here of a Williams routine in which he plays cards with himself shows him the master of comedic expression, gesture, and timing he was reputed to be.) Williams and artists like him weren't simply playing caricatures of blacks for white audiences to laugh at; they would also subvert stereotypes and break barriers. The same was true of immigrant performers who used broad ethnic characters and humor to win laughter from the majority culture; they also laid a foundation for immigrant cultures to be accepted as American. Pre-eminent among these acts was Weber and Fields, famed for playing malaprop-spewing German immigrants, but who were themselves Polish-Jewish immigrants. Whatever prejudice they endured offstage didn't hinder their success onstage.
Most of vaudeville's brightest stars aren't well remembered today, unless they made the leap to film, radio, or TV. That point hits home at a gallery of stars near the end of the exhibit – most of the recognizable figures are those we associate with Hollywood: W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Milton Berle, Abbott and Costello, Sammy Davis Jr. – and several of the images are from their post-vaudeville careers. It's emblematic of the ever-changing landscape of American entertainment: One form thrives for a time, then is replaced by a new form – vaudeville by movies, movies by TV, TV by streaming, and so on. That, too, is part of the American story of vaudeville.
But at the end of the exhibit, Colleary argues that vaudeville didn't die in the Thirties, even if it had, to quote comic Billy Egan writing to David O. Selznick, "folded like a punctured pelican." As the "Faces of Vaudeville" photos of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, and Bert Lahr testify, vaudeville lived on in their work in The Wizard of Oz. It lives on at Esther's Follies, also referenced in the exhibit. And it lives on in every TV variety show and reality competition. No doubt as long as the American experiment continues, the nation will have a place for vaudeville.
“Vaudeville!” is on view through July 15 at the Ransom Center, 21st & Guadalupe, on the UT campus. For more information, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.