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Posted June 16, 2006
Vaudeville history without sentimentality
We finally have a history of the vaudeville theater without stifling sentimentality or cloying nostalgia. Armond Fields, who with every book extends his role as the foremost chronicler early American entertainers, approaches this subject with the respect it deserves, telling the story with all its wonder and glory, and with all its warts. Women dominated during the glory days of vaudeville. With portraits of some eighty or so women stars of the era, the author gives us insight into what motivated them to break convention and go on the disreputable stage. In numerous cases the writing is so good, one can almost see and hear the acts- the songs, the dances, the jokes. Many forgotten women stars are presented, but so are more familiar names. Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Ethel Waters, Mae West and Marie Dressler became famous in other media later, but there is also to found here the stories of Irene Franklin, Nora Bayes, Elsie Janis, Eva Tanguay, Vesta Victoria, and others who would never reach the same heights after vaudeville died, ca. 1930. While a majority of women stars were of Irish or Jewish heritage, important African-American pioneer entertainers are for the first time in a vaudeville compendium not ignored, Waters, the beautiful Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall. Nor is the book Americacentric- stars came from Canada, England, Australia, Europe. All get their due. So do sister acts, oddiites (Carrie Nation, Helen Keller), and male impersonators. There are surprises. One would not have expected Molly Picon, Ethel Barrymore, and Sarah Bernhardt to be in this book, but they too trod the boards of the vaudeville stage. And with the glory there is pathos. Many of these women died in poverty and obscurity after unhappy personal lives, some were not even mentioned in obituaries of the day. Armond Fields is a treasure to those who are interested in entertainment history. May he continue to rescue the memory of the act, and the persona, of those entertainers who deserve to be remembered.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.