No Applause--Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

Overview

A seriously funny look at the roots of American Entertainment

When Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin were born, variety entertainment had been going on for decades in America, and like Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Mae West, and countless others, these performers got their start on the vaudeville stage. From 1881 to 1932, vaudeville was at the heart of show business in the States. Its stars were America's first stars in the modern sense, and it ...
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Overview

A seriously funny look at the roots of American Entertainment

When Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin were born, variety entertainment had been going on for decades in America, and like Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Mae West, and countless others, these performers got their start on the vaudeville stage. From 1881 to 1932, vaudeville was at the heart of show business in the States. Its stars were America's first stars in the modern sense, and it utterly dominated American popular culture. Writer and modern-day vaudevillian Trav S.D. chronicles vaudeville's far-reaching impact in No Applause--Just Throw Money. He explores the many ways in which vaudeville's story is the story of show business in America and documents the rich history and cultural legacy of our country's only purely indigenous theatrical form, including its influence on everything from USO shows to Ed Sullivan to The Muppet Show and The Gong Show. More than a quaint historical curiosity, vaudeville is thriving today, and Trav S.D. pulls back the curtain on the vibrant subculture that exists across the United States--a vast grassroots network of fire-eaters, human blockheads, burlesque performers, and bad comics intent on taking vaudeville into its second century.
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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Late in the nineteenth century, America’s variety theatre—which was notorious for the brawling, drinking, thieving, gambling, stripping, whoring, and cursing that went with it—was supplanted by the comparatively clean-cut vaudeville. “Don’t say ‘slob’ or ‘son of a gun’ or ‘Holy Gee’ on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily,” one manager’s memo read. Trav S.D., himself a performer, describes with infectious relish such acts as a banjo-playing Shakespeare reciter, a one-legged tap dancer, a man who wrote backward, a comic lecturer on human anatomy, a drag trapeze artist, and “The Vagges—World Champion Bag Punchers.” Vaudeville withstood critics from Hitler to Henry Ford, along with innumerable tough crowds (Yale students were reportedly among the worst), to become a big business with a lasting impact; Bob Hope, George Burns, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers all got their start there.
Publishers Weekly
Much has been written about the American institution of vaudeville, but readers would be hard-pressed to find an account as humorous and sharp as writer and performer Trav S.D.'s tasty chronicle. Although critics in the early 20th century lambasted vaudeville as crude, sometimes clever, but generally "trite and empty," the author points out that from 1881 to 1932, vaudeville "was the heart of American show business," so ubiquitous that "if you were beyond the reach of vaudeville, then you were really in the sticks." He comments on the artistic and commercial ties between vaudeville and Hollywood's glamour industry and Broadway; they often shared performers in hit plays and films (though Trav S.D. also reveals how essential managers were to the medium, since "performers, as Jesus said of the poor, are always with us"). There are candid moments about the resistance to hiring black players in a few fascinating segments about minstrelsy and blackface, as Trav S.D. writes of the trials African-American legend Bert Williams endured. Throughout, the author, a humorist, never forgets to get his laugh quota, whether he's talking about audiences (Midwestern crowds were tough: "Do they like me? Hate me? Are they alive? Hello?") or burlesque ("a sort of bush league for broad comedians"). The result is a well-researched, riotous book about a cultural mainstay, "the theatrical embodiment of freedom, tolerance, opportunity, diversity, democracy, and optimism." B&w illus. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this thorough and thoroughly entertaining chronicle of vaudeville, journalist and vaudeville impresario Trav S.D., who heads New York City's American Vaudeville Theatre, traces the origins, historical and social contexts, venues, producers, managers, and, of course, performers of this wonderfully amorphous art form that has continually reinvented itself and has recently enjoyed yet another renewal in interest. The halcyon days of vaudeville spanned a 50-year period, beginning in the early 1880s, which, the author argues, directly influenced, if not spawned, every major conceit of American entertainment. And in the inimitably consistent Faber & Faber modus operandi in which performing arts cognoscenti can delight, the research is extensive, the exegesis both intelligent and accessible, and the writing fresh and cogent. Black-and-white illustrations and an index add to the appeal. One of the year's best historical performing arts texts; a wonderful story wonderfully told. For all performing arts collections.-Barry X. Miller, Austin P.L., TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The history of vaudeville, root and branch, related by a modern-day player. Many of the great names in American entertainment were baptized by fire on the vaudeville stage: a mythic place where shows could run for four hours and where it was kill-or-be-killed. Mae West, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, even the Three Stooges, honed their acts in front of audiences who had no compunction about throwing rotten vegetables if they didn't like what they saw. Trav S.D. presents a dense, cultural history of vaudeville, from its post-Civil War beginnings as a "clean" alternative to contemporary theater (considered inappropriate for women and children) through its glory days in New York to its eventual absorption in the modern media of phonograph records, radio and television. The author, himself a current-day vaudevillian, also outlines the rebirth of the field in alternative circuses, burlesque nightclubs, even on the Muppet Show. This spices up the history with portraits of the muckety-mucks who ran the biz, legendary for their outsized personalities and indifference to the talent. And of course, he profiles the players themselves: singers, comedians, jugglers, dancers, animal acts, double-talkers, contortionists and anyone else who could hold the interest of the great unwashed for three or four minutes. The author gives a fascinating outline of how hard the players had to work; Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, for example, went through 20 or 30 pairs of shoes a year. For fans, an astonishingly rich work of vaudeville itself.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571211920
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 11/16/2005
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Trav S.D. is top banana at the American Vaudeville Theatre. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out New York, and Reason.
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Read an Excerpt

No Applause--Just Throw Money

The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
By S.D., Trav

Faber & Faber

Copyright © 2005 S.D., Trav
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0571211925

Excerpted from No Applause--Just Throw Money by Trav S.D. Copyright © 2005 by Trav S.D. Published in November, 2005 by Faber and Faber, Inc. An affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

THE OVERTURE

"Vaudeville is dead."

By the early days of talking pictures and coast-to-coast radio broad-casts, vaudeville's corpse hadn't even cooled, yet the phrase was already proverbial. But, as Poe observed, burials can be...premature. My contention is that this quintessentially American form of entertainment, which had been ubiquitous for half a century, only seemed to pass away in the early 1930s, yet in reality kept on kicking.

First, it lived on in the aesthetics and attitudes of its most successful veterans, some of whom (George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle) continued to influence American pop culture into the 1980s. Certainly the first decade of talkies (as Henry Jenkins has observed in What Made Pistachio Nuts?) was dominated by the vaudevillian sensibility, as were USO shows in the Second World War, television variety shows from the 1940s through the seventies, and--eternally, it seems--stage shows in Las Vegas. But, second, vaudeville, like aphoenix, appears to be rising from the ashes, with scores, perhaps hundreds, of new variety venues popping up at alternative theaters and nightclubs throughout the nation. For a growing subculture of young people at least, vaudeville is back. So, while vaudeville as an institution may have passed away seventy years ago, its ghost has continued to haunt us thereafter, and has even possessed the souls of the living in order to walk the earth again. Not only do Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy...but in a certain sense Abbot and Costello (and performers like them) are the mummy!

And yet as potent as this resurgence is among performers, I suspect that most people in the mainstream of society remain unaware of the historical importance--let alone the history--of vaudeville. Vaudeville utterly dominated American popular culture during its formative years at the turn of the last century. When Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin were born, vaudeville (in the form of its precursors, variety and music hall) had already been going strong for decades. Some of the most popular twentieth-century vaudevillians were alive until quite recently. One could make the argument that the story of American show business is the story of vaudeville...and yet that story is quite forgotten. (Just how utterly it has been covered by the sands of time is manifested to me in the blank and uncomprehending faces of some of the people to whom I have confided my work as master of ceremonies of my own vaudeville show. The telling and terrifying response--"Vaudeville? What's that?"--has chilled my blood on occasion, making me feel like Charlton Heston encountering the half-buried Statue of Liberty in the final scene of Planet of the Apes. "You fools!" I want to scream. "You blew it up!")

Despite our contemporary amnesia, the fact remains that for approximately fifty years--the period spanning 1881 to 1932--vaudeville was the heart of American show business. Its stars were America's first stars in the modern sense. People all over the country knew their names, read about them in magazines. Children collected their playing cards. If you were beyond the reach of vaudeville, then you were really in the sticks.

An illustration of just how influential vaudeville was in the popular culture may be obtained by tracing the evolution of a single stage and screen property and marking the number of vaudevillians attached to it. Because it was my favorite movie as a child, and the prime mover of the lifelong journey that led me to this book, I choose The Wizard of Oz. Two years after the publication of L. Frank Baum's children's book, the story was turned into a Broadway vehicle starring vaudeville's premier eccentric dance team, Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone (who played the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, respectively). The latter's performance inspired a young Ray Bolger both to become a dancer and to stop at nothing to play the same role someday. A 1925 film version starred one of the silent screen's biggest comedy stars, Larry Semon, a second-generation vaudevillian. (In this drastically rewritten version, Semon plays a farmhand who disguises himself as a scarecrow. The production also features a pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy.) The 1939 MGM version, however, is the mother lode. Every single principal cast member with the exceptions of Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Clara Blandick (Aunt Em) had been in vaudeville: not only the aforementioned Bolger (who played Scarecrow), but also Jack Haley (Tin Man), Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion), Judy Garland (Dorothy), Billie Burke (Glinda), Frank Morgan (the Wizard), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry), and even Singer's Midgets (the Munchkins, of course). Dancer Buddy Ebsen, cast first as the Scarecrow, then as the Tin Man, then released due to illness, was a vaudeville veteran, as was W. C. Fields, orginally up for the part of the Wizard. (A character who, incidentally, seems not a little based on P. T. Barnum and the many medicine-show hustlers L. Frank Baum no doubt encountered during the years he spent living out west. As we shall see, such "humbugs" would play a major role in the genesis of vaudeville.) Producer Mervyn LeRoy had been a singer in vaudeville. Edgar Allan Woolf, an important author of vaudeville playlets, was one of the principal screenwriters, and Harold Arlen, who co-wrote the songs, had played in vaudeville jazz bands. Over the years, many attempts have been made to recapture the magic of that 1939 film in sequels. All have failed miserably and the reason why should be obvious. The "school" that produced those incredible artist is no more.*

The watchword of vaudeville was variety. The opposite of a variety show, you might say, is a "monotony show." Twelve hours of monks chanting the same mantra over and over again--that's monotony. Twelve minutes of monks chanting the same mantra, clad in fabulous silken outfits, accompanied by "mysterious" dry-ice smoke and a very Chinese-sounding gong, preceded by a man who plays the vibes with his toes, and succeeded by a barbershop quartet...that's variety.

In this post-MTV, post-postmodern, attention-deficit-ridden age of electronics-induced schizophrenia, I make bold to suggest that few of us will have a problem with this "fractured" aesthetic. Most of us have not only grown comfortable with the idea of watching a singer-followed-by-a-dancer-followed-by a-stupid-pet-trick but can also somehow manage to digest the inclusion of a car wreck, a baseball game, and a panel of old white men arguing about politics. Would it were ever thus. A hundred years ago, when variety entertainment was enjoying a golden age, some critics made the willfully blind error of deploring it for the very features for which it was so beloved. Typical are the observations of social scientist Michael Marks Davis, who wrote the following in a 1911 treatise. The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City:

The humorous, sentimental, acrobatic and musical "acts" pass in succession like the grinning figures at a shooting gallery. Some are wholly crude, a few are decidedly clever; the majority are trite and empty; and as a whole there is no imagination behind their creation, and still less in the manager's mind to enforce their harmonious combination....Vaudeville...may be described as a succession of acts whose stimulus depends usually upon an artificial rather than a natural, human, and developing interest; these acts having no necessary and as a rule no actual connection.

Davis makes the critical mistake, common for his day, of measuring the variety show against the "dramatic" theater, with its Aristotelian laws of structure and development. But vaudeville (and the other variety arts) never were, and never claimed to be, any such animal. It is its own form, with its own laws. One minute it is a concert; the next a freak show; the next a one-act play; the next a gymnastics display. Because of this, variety is much more like a parade, or a walk through a museum--or, as Marks puts it so disapprovingly, but without much comprehension, a shooting gallery.

*A 1974 animated film called Journey Back to Oz deserves honorable mention, though. With show-biz vets Milton Berle, Herschel Bernardi, Paul Ford, Jack E. Leonard, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Mickey Rooney, and Danny Thomas providing the voices, the producers were at least in the right universe.



Continues...

Excerpted from No Applause--Just Throw Money by S.D., Trav Copyright © 2005 by S.D., Trav. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Overture 1
1 Who Put the "Devil" in Vaudeville? 13
2 Good, Clean Fun 54
3 Birth of an Industry 82
4 Tooth and Nail 113
5 The Palace Years 159
6 Troupers 204
7 The March of Progress 241
8 The Phoenix in Foolscap 270
9 The Chaser 296
Bibliography 297
Acknowledgments 307
Index 311
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