Like the horse and buggy, adding machine and nickelodeon, that accessible and distinctly American art form known as vaudeville has faded into obsolescence. Yet from the 1890s through the early 1930s, this immensely popular, ever-changing amalgam of animal acts, comics, jugglers, singers, dancers, acrobats and magicians appeared in close to a thousand theaters both dinky and lavish, providing audiences across the country with an inexpensive and clean-cut brand of entertainment. Twice daily, every day but Sunday, vaudeville patrons were treated to continuous doses of acts like "600 Pounds of Harmony -- Baldwin, Austin and Gaines," "Milton Berle, The Wayward Youth" or "Feathered Thespians featuring Jean, the only trained eagle in vaudeville."
Yet, sadly, we'll never know precisely how these performers looked or sounded. No film or videotape survives, and, unlike musical comedies and plays, the form defies revival. Shards of the vaudeville legacy can be found in old radio skits featuring ex-vaudevillians such as Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, in television variety shows like "The Hollywood Palace" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," and, to a lesser extent, in certain contemporary sitcoms. But how can one really get a handle on the genuine article?
Charles W. Stein, a film professor at D'Youville College and ardent vaudeville buff, has come up with a fetching solution. As editor of "American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries," he has assembled a fascinating collection of personal reminiscences, journalistic descriptions, playbills, photographs, critical essays and other musings, the vast majority of them written during vaudeville's heyday. Presented chronologically, laced with Stein's succinct and uninflated commentary, the book succeeds in evoking the specific delights, eccentricities and problems connected with the art and its adherents, not to mention a far more naive and less jaded America.
Many voices run through the pages of this book. Writing in 1898, promoter B.F. Keith, the founder of modern vaudeville, defends his "fixed policy of cleanliness and order":
"While a certain proportion of the male sex may favor stage performances of a risque' order, none of them would care to bring the female members of their families to witness an entertainment of that description, and I think that a majority of men who do visit playhouses where that sort of entertainment is provided have a feeling of shame when they get outside and the glamor is removed."
That statement is countered by an anonymous author who rails against Al Jolson and the Apache dance -- which he describes as "candidly sensual, loathsome, bestial" -- and ends by declaring, "Censorship has an unpleasant sound, but, if it was ever needed, the vaudeville stage stands in need of it today."
Stein includes essays on everything from the White Rats (the first attempt at a vaudeville performers' union) to "Children of the Stage," to "The Wow Finish." The most immediate and touching section of "American Vaudeville," however, is that in which such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Will Rogers, Fanny Brice and W.C. Fields wax nostalgic or comic about their days playing the circuit.
Here's Harpo on the Four Marx Brothers' early experiences: "If an audience didn't like us we had no trouble finding out. We were pelted with sticks, bricks, spitballs, cigar butts, peach pits and chewed-out stalks of sugar cane. We took all this without flinching -- until Minnie their mother gave us the high-sign that she'd collected our share of the receipts. Then we started throwing the stuff back at the audience, and ran like hell for the railroad station the second the curtain came down."
In this age of Betamaxes, Dolby stereo and Transformers, it's hard to imagine a popular entertainment as simple and immediate as vaudeville. "The vaudeville theatre," wrote actor and playwright Edwin Milton Royle in 1899, "belongs to the era of the department store and the short story. It may be a kind of lunch-counter art, but then art is so vague and lunch is so real." "American Vaudeville" presents its subject in an appropriately down-to-earth fashion and, in so doing, brings this vanished world back to life for the reader.