No Applause--Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousby S.D., Trav S. D.
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/b>
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.
- Faber and Faber
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.36(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.15(d)
Read an Excerpt
No Applause--Just Throw MoneyThe Book That Made Vaudeville Famous
By S.D., Trav
Faber & FaberCopyright © 2005 S.D., Trav
All right reserved.
"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.
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.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Um, hi, I'm Holly Spark!