Curtain Call

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is
Tuesday, November 8, 2005


The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

By Trav S.D.

Faber and Faber. 328 pp. $25

Vaudeville as this country once knew and loved it is dead and gone, but Trav S.D. is on a one-man campaign to resurrect it. Travis Stewart, as his parents named him thirty-some years ago, is a man of many talents -- playwright, actor, stand-up comic, musician, director, you name it -- who has devoted himself to bringing vaudeville back to life. He is the presiding guru of the American Vaudeville Theatre, which presents variety shows at various venues around New York City, and now, as the author of "No Applause -- Just Throw Money," he's taking the case for vaudeville to the bookstores.

With me, he's preaching to the choir. Though I'm probably at least three decades older than he is, I am, as he is, too young to have seen a real vaudeville show, live and in person. Instead, beginning in the late 1940s, a decade after vaudeville's demise, I mainlined it through recordings of the many great songs written for the vaudeville stage -- for starters, think George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin -- and through the many great vaudeville stars who turned to radio, television and the movies as those new media not very politely shoved vaudeville aside. Vaudeville was the training ground for an extraordinary group of men and women who ultimately embedded themselves permanently in American legend, the fruits of whose genius can still be savored through recordings and, more and more, remastered films on DVD.

In no particular order, here are just a few of them: W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Eddie Cantor, Henny Youngman, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, George Burns and Gracie Allen, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante and Bert Williams. It is no exaggeration to say that, collectively and individually, they -- along with the jazz musicians who were their contemporaries but rarely performed in vaudeville -- laid the groundwork for American popular culture as we know it today. Trav S.D. puts it somewhat differently but along similar lines:

"The vaudeville business, it turns out, was a phase -- an important chapter in show-business history, but a middle chapter, a way station between Miss Kitty's Saloon and your local Time-Warner-AOL-Disney-ABC-Heinz-Ketchup-Googolplex. Just as the development of the railroad made the 'revolutionary' (for a while) canal system in the United States quickly obsolete, so was vaudeville rendered obsolete by the mass-production technologies of the music, film, and broadcasting industries that it made possible."

The precise origins of the word "vaudeville" are unclear -- the most plausible is that "it comes from voix de ville , meaning 'voice of the city' " -- but there isn't much doubt about the origins of the form itself. Vaudeville evolved from saloons, from variety shows, from dime theaters, from minstrel shows, from burlesque, from opera and legitimate theater, from the circus and the freak show. Trav S.D. argues, convincingly, that it ultimately emerged as a reaction against the earthy, smutty character of some of its predecessors, that it was presented as a clean, family-friendly alternative to the saloon and the honky-tonk.

Trav S.D. also argues that "the indispensable ingredient of vaudeville was not the performers," that "if you want to make show business -- a paying operation that provides a living for the wide variety of professionals involved -- that requires managers," that "when people make reference to vaudeville . . . it is really the business infrastructure they are talking about, the great network of famous circuits that stretched from Canada to America's southernmost precincts and brought the same high-quality professional entertainment to lobstermen in Maine, meatpackers in Chicago, miners in Scranton, ranchers in Texas, and garment workers in New York."

There were many of these showbiz entrepreneurs, but two stand out: Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee. The great chain they assembled, first known as Keith-Albee, then as Keith Orpheum, so pervasively influenced show business that it was immortalized by Rodgers and Hart in a song they wrote for "On Your Toes," one of the best of all Broadway musicals. "Two-a-Day for Keith" both celebrated and lamented the chain: celebrated its central place in American show business, lamented the fierce demands the managers placed on performers.

To put it mildly, Keith and Albee were tough. In "the entire annals of the vaudeville industry, in the thousands of pages written on the subject, in hundreds of accounts and testimonies by as many people, no one ever said a kind word about either one of these New England circus hustlers whose veins ran with ice water. . . . And yet the product they made was vaudeville. How strange. It is as though Santa Claus were secretly Satan." They were mercilessly demanding of performers, marched them through shows that ran from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., paid them as little as they could get away with, subjected them to miserable conditions in the endless travel that was a central fact of life on the circuit.

They were able to get away with all this (and the competition wasn't much better, just less successful) in part because they controlled so many theaters, most notably the Palace on Broadway, but also because the performers often came from the lower reaches of society and were desperate to get ahead. Vaudeville was "the theatrical equivalent of the melting pot. Black, white, Jew, gentile, man, woman, child, Irish, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, cue to cue. The hat rack in the dressing room had top hats, derbies, fedoras, turbans, sombreros, bejeweled headdresses, and Apache war bonnets."

The Jewish presence was especially strong. Swarming into the Lower East Side from Central and Eastern Europe (an Eddie Cantor joke: "Doctor: On what side are you Jewish? Eddie: On the East Side"), they soon became "by far the largest ethnic group in vaudeville, overwhelmingly comprising the lion's share of comedians and singers (i.e., the biggest stars)." Among them were the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), Ed Wynn (Isaiah Edwin Leopold), George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum) and Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky). Along with their Jewish American contemporaries who wrote the music they sang -- Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers -- they left an impression on popular culture so deep and broad as to defy measurement.

They live on in many ways, but the medium that brought them to prominence is gone. Vaudeville was a product of its time, and it vanished with its time. It can be re-created now, as Trav S.D. and others do, and their efforts are both honorable and appealing, but "Two-a-Day for Keith," once a fact of American showbiz life, is now only a song in "On Your Toes." Thanks for the memories.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company