Found books 2: 'Siddown! Shut up! Take off yer hats!'
Recent speculation in the comments section about Sarah Palin's future career reminded me about vaudeville, and Trav SD's exuberant celebration No Applause, Just Throw Money. It doesn't only have what may be the best book title ever (though a forthcoming history of dance in Disney movies called Hippo in a Tutu comes very close). It's also a reminder that popular entertainment defines a nation and prods its contradictions.
No Applause traces vaudeville's song, dance, comedy and bizarro novelty. Its history of popular diversions begins in rowdy saloons where performers had to compete with booze, loose women and impromptu brawls (one musician was reputed to have beaten a man to death with his banjo during a disagreement in Texas). When managers (including playwright Edward Albee's adoptive grandfather) realised there were bigger profits in a family audience - cleaning up in order to clean up, as Trav cracks - then the cussing and liquor were banished in favour of wholesome fun.
Although it describes the showbiz aristocracy who paid their vaudeville dues (Fred Astaire, WC Fields, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson), the book is at its most gleeful when it comes to the singular acts known as 'nuts.' There's the contortionist dressed as a frog, the guy who alternated banjo and recitations from Shakespeare, men who played the xylophone with their feet and mind-boggling 'regurgitation acts', in which people would swallow stuff and then bring it right back up. Trav's villains are dismissive managers (like the guy at Schindler's in Chicago who would march up the aisle, mid-act and sack a failing act with 'You are shut!'), and inflated egos like Al Jolson, who once took out a Merry Christmas ad in Variety which harrumphed 'Everybody likes me - and those who don't are jealous.' His heart is with the stoical troupers, coping with poor transport, worse lodgings and small-town audiences who abandoned an early Marx Brothers show because a mule was doing something unusual outside in the street. He gives especial props to Sophie Tucker, a game girl when faced with a crummy theatre: 'I would borrow a hammer and nails, get a heavy cardboard to cover up the rat holes in the wall and ceiling of my dressing room.'
What does vaudeville tell us about America? Find out after the click:
Vaudeville carries its shadows - Trav drags disreputable minstrel shows into the limelight, describing Irish immigrants blacking up to pick on an ethnicity even further down the social scale. These he calls 'American show business' original sin,' and cultural difference continued to animate the acts, with artists often exaggerating their own ethnicity or guying others, producing frissons of recognition and rejection. This is, among other things, a history of America - or of the markedly diverse Americas, a nation of contradictions before mass media smoothed the edges, where performers could drag their trunks made by Herkert & Meisel from city to small town, from north to south, and what seemed almost like one country to another.
In an age before technology, vaudeville depended on the thrill of seeing an act louche and live before your very eyes. Film, recording, radio and tv drove various stakes through its heart, and the book seems to record ancient performance history; although, if the estimable Mr SD's blog is any indication, he negotiates an existence every bit as rackety as those he writes about (one entry laments loss of internet, computer and job in quick succession). Burlesque, we often hear, is back, and earlier this month, he staged the show of the book in New York, with such confederates as the Maestrocities and Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad.
Does vaudeville have anything to tell us about modern entertainment? And what other books on theatre and dance should we be reading?
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