Chekhov wrote for it. President Wilson relished it. Sarah Bernhardt got paid in gold for it. A vice president-to-be invested in it. Now the Smithsonian Institution wants to bring it back alive.
The Smithsonian admits it won't be the same, but next Saturday and Sunday nights in the small Baird auditorium of the Museum of Natural History "Vaudeville!" opens in the American Musical Theater series.
During his career as a doctor and long before "The Seagull," Anton Chekhoov wrote vaudeville sketches for Russia's frivolous theaters.
During World War I, President Wilson get his few hours of relaxation by slipping over with Mrs. Wilson to Keith's, now a sad shell two blocks from the White House.
At 73, with one leg amputated, Sarah Bernhardt, acting in French, alternated half-hour sketches playing the American two-a-day in 1917 but insisted that when she walked off the stage someone hand her $500 in gold.
Nelson Rockefeller, well before he became vice president, and his family invested in Radio City Music Hall in 1931. Its first bill lasted four hours and got terrible notices, but its pattern of movies and stage shows endured two generations as "the nation's show place."
The name possibly comes from the French, "street songs" or "Voix des Villes," but the pattern goes back to Dionysian revels and still crops up on TV, the stages of Las Vegas and in the still-surviving British "music halls"... where Danny La Rue continues to pack them in from Glasgow to Cardiff.
Originally the American variation was vulgar, even obscene, performed in sleazy beer halls before male audiences sprinkled with doxies. Tony Pastor, a veteran of such places, decided such programs could be cleaned up for the respectable trade, and his 1881 opening of a sparkling new theater proved him right. People flocked to his eight contrasting acts. Soon Frederick F. Proctor, Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee followed as packagers and theater-builders.
These men ruled their burgeoning circuits with iron discipline. A misbehaving performer, angering one chain, was lucky to get into another. From about 1895 for 30 years there were some 2,000 vaudeville houses across the land, employing thousands of performers formers who worked their way up to headline billing, with New York's Keith-Albee Palace their mecca. Bills changed weekly.
Often the performers would know each other from previous engagements. All would take note of newcomers who seemed to have either new material or a fresh style. A cowboy learned to crack jokes while cracking his lariat: Will Rogers. A juggler added a monologue while playing pool: W. C. Fields. A young redhead named Eva Tanguay sang "I Don't Care" and was still singing it 60 years later. There were family acts -- the Cohans; animal acts -- the Hannefords; and the dialect turns of Weber and Fields, Harrigan and Hart. If a Barrymore didn't have a new play, a one-act by Barrie or O'Neill would do for two-a-day. It was a training ground for the young, a gold mine for the old.
That was the pattern for Keith's, eight to 10 acts, each announced by lighted cards at both sides of the stage, which designer Hugh Lester promises to reproduce for the inadequate Baird.
With the rise of films, vaudeville got edged out. Nevertheless, in key cities around the country, a mix of movies and four-a-day vaudeville shows developed -- a pattern that held here until the early '50s. Sam Jack Kaufman led the orchestra at F Street's Capitol with Freddy Clark at the Earle (now the Warner). Kate Smith made her bow in an amateur night at the vanished Metropolitan and Al Jolson had come home as a headliner. Up at the Howard, white audiences as well as black met the young Pearl Bailey, Moms Mabley, the Mills Brothers, Sarah Vaughn.
Four-a-day was a grinding routine, the live bill going on around 1, repeating at 3, 6 and 9 with midnight performances added on Saturdays. Enter before 1 for a quarter, before 5:30 for 35 cents and after that for 65 cents.
Vitality was a must. Mimic Sybil Bowan pepped up with chocolate ice cream sodas from Reeves and, after the last show, tippling types would troop over to the Variety Club on the Willard's second floor.
The basic trick of vaudeville was speed. Get on fast. Get off fast. Because she'd learned her timing as half of "Tim and Irene," Irene Ryan, Granny of TV's "Beverly Hillbillies," won her first Broadway role at 74 in "Pippin," which required she come on, register, sing "No Time at All" and make a fast exit. She left her fortune to the American College Theater Festival. Her college was vaudeville but she wanted better for others.
So, though it's gone, it's here in other guises: small clubs where new performers learn by doing, and TV, where material that once could last years gets gobbled up in a night. And it was a natural for early TV, which introduced Ken Murray and his "Blackouts," still switched on occasionally in Los Angeles, Milton Berle and his rapid-fire hour, Ed Sullivan and his Sunday nights.
From Berle's show comes one of the Smithsonian's veterans, Sid Stone, who started his career in Ninth Street's vanished Gayety and was on the last bill of the Capitol in 1953.
Doing two of old vaudeville's most reliable acts will be Paul Dooley and Joe Silver, performing Bert Wheeler's "May Dog Had Pups" and Smith and Dale's "Dr. Kronkite" routine, a turn suggested in Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys."
Michael Moschen, who's been with the Louis Falco Dance Company, will be the juggler, and Charlotte Fairchild of "Oh, Coward!" will be the soubrette.
As headliner there will be Hal Le Roy, a teen-aged dancing star of vaudeville who went into the "Ziegfeld Follies" and Eddie Dowling's "Thumbs Up," which also featured another vaudeville great, Rose King. That was in 1934 and Hal's still hoofing, lean, lanky and grinning.