Vaudeville Melodies: Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture, 1870-1929

Vaudeville Melodies: Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture, 1870-1929

by Nicholas Gebhardt


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


If you enjoy popular music and culture today, you have vaudeville to thank. From the 1870s until the 1920s, vaudeville was the dominant context for popular entertainment in the United States, laying the groundwork for the music industry we know today.

In Vaudeville Melodies, Nicholas Gebhardt introduces us to the performers, managers, and audiences who turned disjointed variety show acts into a phenomenally successful business. First introduced in the late nineteenth century, by 1915 vaudeville was being performed across the globe, incorporating thousands of performers from every branch of show business. Its astronomical success relied on a huge network of theatres, each part of a circuit and administered from centralized booking offices. Gebhardt shows us how vaudeville transformed relationships among performers, managers, and audiences, and argues that these changes affected popular music culture in ways we are still seeing today. Drawing on firsthand accounts, Gebhardt explores the practices by which vaudeville performers came to understand what it meant to entertain an audience, the conditions in which they worked, the institutions they relied upon, and the values they imagined were essential to their success.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226448695
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/05/2017
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Nicholas Gebhardt is professor of jazz and popular music studies at Birmingham City University, UK. He is the coeditor of The Cultural Politics of Jazz Collectives and the author of Going For Jazz: Musical Practices and American Ideology, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Vaudeville Melodies

Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture, 1870-1929

By Nicholas Gebhardt

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-44855-8


That's Entertainment

In 1914 Nora Bayes added a new song by Ted Snyder, Bert Kalmar, and Edgar Leslie to her successful "Single Woman" act. "I Work Eight Hours, I Sleep Eight Hours, That Leaves Eight Hours for Love" was a lilting up-tempo waltz that told the story of Danny Maloney, a "real ladies' man" who worked in a store and spent most of his time trying to "date up" the young girls who shopped there. Aware of his reputation, one of Danny's sweethearts asks him how he has the time to fit it all in. As he "hangs up his hat in the hall," he replies:

I work eight hours, I sleep eight hours, that leaves eight
hours for love
Eight long hours with nothing to do
Thing of the fun if I spend them with you
To prove I love ya
I'll sit and hug ya
And if you want an encore
My sleep I'll be sure tonight
Even stop workin'
So I can love you some more.

While the verses of "I Work Eight Hours ..." relied on well-established comic conventions for an Irish character song, as well as other familiar narrative devices, the chorus raised the more complicated issue of the relationship between work and pleasure. Its opening phrase deftly parodied the large number of protest songs that had appeared in support of the American labor movement's long campaign for a shorter working day, which began to gather momentum in the mid-1860s, following the Civil War, and culminated in huge May Day demonstrations in 1886. The most popular of these was "Eight Hours," which was first published in the Labor Standard in July 1878. Based on an 1866 poem written by I. G. Blanchard for the Workingman's Advocate, it was set to music by the Reverend Jesse H. Jones and by the 1880s had become the official song of the eight-hour movement. "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will!" went the chorus, quickly becoming the movement's rallying cry. For Jones and Blanchard, the struggle over the form and contents of the working day held out the promise that workers' free time would remain their own, and that those hours were sufficient in and of themselves.

Although Snyder, Kalmar, and Leslie satirized the demands of the Eight Hour movement to some extent, they also articulated some of the deeper issues at stake in the social struggle over the form and contents of the working day. In particular, they dramatized the problem of what people actually do when they are not at work or at home resting, asking their listeners to think about the significance they attached to their activities during those hours. Moreover, in the second line of the chorus, the conjunction of "eight long hours" (emphasis added) and "with nothing to do" (emphasis added) underlined the extent to which the rationalization and exploitation of labor in this period also required the moralization and organization of leisure. "I Work Eight Hours ..." claimed that productivity in the factory or office depended on workers having access to their own time outside of work. They required this free time to renew themselves, to restore their labor power for the next day's work. The great fear of moral reformers and workers' associations, however, was that if left unregulated and unfilled by meaningful activity, those eight long hours "for what we will" would become ends in themselves. And sure enough, by the end of the song, Danny Maloney offers to give up work for the sake of love.

Dreams of escape and renewal were central themes within vaudeville production, and informed much of the critical commentary that attempted to explain its influence. For example, in an 1893 article for Harper's Magazine, Charles Davis suggested that vaudeville was the "sort of amusement which makes a sleep easier and the next day's work less like work after all." Likewise, in 1899, in an article in Scribner's Magazine, the actor Edwin Royle wrote that vaudeville "appeals to our businessman, tired and worn, who drops in for half an hour on his way home; to the person who has an hour or two before a train goes, or before a business appointment; to the woman who is wearied of shopping; to the children who love animals and acrobats; to the man with his sweetheart or sister; to the individual who wants to be diverted but doesn't want to think or feel." What both of these comments suggest is that if we want to know more about why popular music began to sound so different in the early decades of the twentieth century, then we need a specific kind of historical and critical account of the ways in which vaudeville was related to those "eight long hours with nothing to do." Such an account, in my view, begins with what we might describe as the problem of entertainment. What did it mean to entertain the vaudeville audience?

Answers to this question can be found in two well-known Hollywood backstage musicals from the 1950s, which seem to me to offer a particularly rich perspective on the problem of entertainment. What I take from these films is something along the lines proposed by Stanley Cavell, in an essay on what he calls the thought of movies. For Cavell, movies present us with ways of thinking about "things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about, or anyway cannot help having occur to them ... such things, for example, as whether we can know the world as it is in itself, or whether others really know the nature of one's own experiences, or whether good and bad are relative, or whether we might not now be dreaming that we are awake."Likewise, if we want to discover what entertainment meant for Americans, then a good place to start is with those films that take it as their subject.

In Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain (1952), the issue of the relationship between popular artists and their audiences is raised in the very first scene. Movie star Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) has just arrived with his co-star, Lina Lamont (in a great pastiche by Jean Hagen), at the opening night of their new film, The Royal Rascal, at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. As the couple steps out of the limousine onto the red carpet leading into the theater, gossip columnist Dora Bailey (played by Madge Blake) stops Lockwood and asks him to describe to the assembled audience how it all happened. "The story of your success is an inspiration to young people all over the world," she graciously declares, to which the crowd ecstatically agrees. After a moment of mock humility, in which he appears to have nothing especially interesting to say, Lockwood replies with not one, but rather two, parallel autobiographies. The first one follows what we might think of as a classic narrative of dedicated study and high-artistic achievement:

Well, any story of my career would have to include my lifelong friend, Cosmo Brown [played by Donald O'Connor]. We were kids together, grew up together, worked together. ... I've had one motto I've always lived by: dignity, always dignity. This was instilled in me by Mom and Dad from the very beginning. They sent me to the finest schools, including dancing school — that's where I first met Cosmo — and with him I used to perform for Mom and Dad's society friends. They used to make such a fuss over me. Then, if I was very good, I was allowed to accompany Mom and Dad to the theatre. They brought me up on Shaw, Molière, the finest of the classics. To this was added rigorous musical training at the conservatory of fine arts. Then we rounded out apprenticeship at the most exclusive dramatics academy. At all times, the motto remained: dignity, always dignity. In a few years, Cosmo and I were ready to embark on a dance concert tour. We played the finest symphonic halls in the country. Audiences everywhere adored us. Finally we decided to come to sunny California. We were stranded here. ... I mean ... staying here when the offers from the movie studio started pouring in.

The parallel story unfolds in visual and musical counterpoint to Lockwood's verbal account, and yet this second narrative is present only to us, the movie's audience. For example, when the star proudly announces to the crowd outside the theater that he and Cosmo attended the finest schools, including dancing schools, what we (the movie audience) see is a cutaway image of the two of them as kids, performing for money in a dingy pool hall. His parents' "society friends" are in fact the other players around the pool tables, who throw the boys some spare change for their efforts. Eventually, we see Lockwood's father carting them out of the hall.

Accompanying Lockwood's comments about being exposed to Bernard Shaw, Molière, and the classical theater is an image of the two boys sneaking into a Nickelodeon to see B-grade monster movies. When he describes his rigorous musical training to the adoring crowd, we see him on violin and Cosmo on piano playing with a ragtime band in a beer hall. Their apprenticeship at "the most exclusive dramatics academy" is in reality time spent at amateur nights in vaudeville, where they perform a comic dance routine to the song "Fit as a Fiddle and Ready for Love" (only to be "gonged" off the stage), while his description of touring the "finest symphonic halls" refers not to Steinway Hall in New York, or Symphony Hall in Boston, but to the vaudeville circuits, where they are regularly booed off stage by audiences.

The two performers finally get a job playing music for silent films and, by chance, Lockwood offers to stand in for an injured stunt man. The director likes him, offers him some more stunt work, which he pursues with a crazy single-mindedness that almost kills him. Eventually the head of the studio spots him, tells Lockwood that "he's got something" (possibly a death wish?), and so he lands a leading role. The two stories — one told by voice-over, the other through a series of separate images — converge when we return to the ever-smiling Lockwood, standing in front of the microphone, reciting his motto once again, but this time for both audiences: "Dignity," he announces, "always dignity." From our perspective, the joke seems to be on that other audience, the one inside the film. Nonetheless, by the end it is clear that the joke might also be on us; for nothing we, or they, know about art, entertainment, singing, dancing, love, and life can be taken for granted.

By admitting from the start that when we go to the movies, or hear a song, or listen to someone speak, or go to a Broadway show, or fall in love, we are some way deceived by our senses, the scene raises a number of intersecting issues about our knowledge of the world, our place within it, and our relationships with those around us. Using the familiar conventions of the backstage musical, Kelly and Donen ask us to evaluate the powers of the medium, to consider the particular ways in which we experience its effects on us, and to assess our reasons for going to see a show in the first place (as audience members wanting to be entertained, but also as participants who believe in the particular world of song-and-dance routines that film musicals make possible). As with Lockwood's opening narrative, the film tells several stories simultaneously: the coming of sound to film, the story of Arthur Freed's famous production unit and its centrality to the MGM musical, the origins of popular entertainment and musical performance, the relationship between stage (Broadway) and screen (Hollywood), the rise and fall of popular entertainers (vaudeville stars, movie stars, popular singers, and dancers), and Gene Kelly's own success story (first as a performer in vaudeville and then as an actor as well as a director/choreographer). None of these stories can be seen to be in any way separate; each one relies on the other for the film to make sense to its various audiences. Coming to some sort of clear understanding of which of them is true, however, is by no means straightforward or immediately apparent, as both the film's audiences subsequently discover.

A later sequence amplifies this set of issues. With his new sound film, The Dancing Cavalier, ready for release, Lockwood describes the final scene to R. J. (played by Millard Mitchell), the head of the studio, in the projection room. "It's the story of a young hoofer who comes to New York," he begins. "First we set the stage with a song. It goes like this ..." And then he launches into Arthur Freed's 1929 song, "Broadway Melody." "Bring a frown to old Broadway, Ah, you gotta clown, on Broadway, your troubles there, they're out of style, for Broadway always wears a smile." As the camera pulls back, we see that Lockwood is no longer in the projection room with his boss, but now on a stage-screen, with a spotlight on him. The interpolation of the songs "Broadway Melody" and "Broadway Rhythm" (both songs that refer also to Freed's central role in the development of the film musical) introduces one of Kelly's signature ballet sequences, which tells the story of popular entertainment, from the street to the stage and back again.

It is the Jazz Age, and Harry the Hoofer (Kelly) steps into a crowded New York street scene, awkward and garish; he's a country hick who betrays his small-town origins with a suitcase in hand and thick-framed glasses that cause him to peer intensely at everything around him. Like everybody outside the city, he too is searching for its mythic center: Broadway. He makes his way through the wonders of the great metropolis, surrounded by many of the symbols, images, and figures of modernity, including conveyor belts, flappers, skyscrapers, and the illuminated billboards of Times Square. The accompanying overture combines the sharp, angular dissonances of late expressionism, with motifs from jazz, folk music, and popular song, and so echoes those attempts by George Antheil, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and others in the 1920s, to forge an indigenous American expressionist sound. On Seventh Avenue, he auditions a jazztap routine —"Gotta Dance"— for a series of agents, is rejected several times, but eventually finds one who will represent him. With a deal agreed, and his image improved (no glasses, no suitcase, and a smooth city-slicker gait), the doors into show business are thrown wide open to him.

After a chorus set piece, in which the theme "Gotta Dance" is used to identify him with the community of popular entertainers, he falls in love with the girlfriend of a gangster, realizes that she is only impressed by wealth and fame, and so, in an effort to win her heart, sets to work to make it in the big time. The next three shots record Harry's rise to the top as a song-and-dance man: first burlesque, then vaudeville, and, finally, the Ziegfeld Follies, each one presenting a more refined version of the same chorus-line routine than the one before it. Moreover, by the time he reaches the Follies, he is barely dancing at all, hardly moving his lips when he sings, and can just about manage a smile. Once he makes it to the top, however, Harry realizes that he has lost those things that got him there in the first place; he has forgotten what it means to be an entertainer and who his audience is. A long ballet sequence then follows, in which the possibilities of modern art appear to open up an abstract world of pure emotion, as if this might provide a solution to his problems. However, these kinds of abstractions also prove to be false. So Harry returns to the street for a large-scale Busby Berkeley–style production finale, through which he rediscovers his passion for song-and-dance, and learns once more the lessons to be had from a "Broadway Melody" routine. And, then, suddenly we find ourselves back in the studio projection room with Lockwood and R. J., who impatiently retorts: "Sounds great. But I can't quite visualize it." So, for all the effort to make us believe in the make-believe, to celebrate the values of entertainment above all else, the film consistently raises doubts that we even know what those values mean, or even why they might matter to us in the first place.

These issues are also present in one of the greatest backstage musicals of them all, The Band Wagon, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. The film is about a washed up song-and-dance man, Tony Hunter (played by Astaire), who returns to New York in order to revive his waning career. In the third scene of the film, following a journey from Los Angeles during which his fellow passengers ridicule his fading celebrity, Astaire steps off the train at Penn Station and finds himself surrounded by reporters. Thinking they are waiting for him, he begins to make a statement about his forthcoming plans, only to realize that they are in fact waiting for Ava Gardner (in a cameo), who simultaneously steps off the same train, one door up from his carriage. This scene of mistaken identity, and Astaire's subsequent solo dance along the platform singing "All by Myself" to himself, absorbed in the thought of someone who suddenly comes to the realization that he is alone in the world, is enough to convey the film's reflexive structure, at once about loss of faith and renewal of belief in the artistic value of the musical. Walking off the platform, he runs into his two friends and artistic collaborators, Lily and Lester Martin (played by Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant), who are there to meet him. They are carrying the script for a show, written especially for his comeback, and are bursting with the news that the greatest producer and director in town, Jeffrey Cordova (played by the great British comic Jack Buchanan), has agreed to do the show.


Excerpted from Vaudeville Melodies by Nicholas Gebhardt. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 That's Entertainment 7

2 There's No Business Like Show Business 21

3 Rites of Passage 36

4 Elementary Structures 49

5 Show Me the Money 62

6 On with the Show 75

7 In Search of an Audience 89

8 Vaudeville Melodies 102

9 Nothing Succeeds Like Success 114

10 Applause 127

Notes 145

Bibliography 163

Index 173

Customer Reviews