Vaudeville Theatre History: From Shimmy Dancing to Male Impersonators - Q&A with Author Anthony Slide

Vaudeville history: George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville

Vaudeville history in Anthony Slide's The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Vaudeville is now extinct – at least officially. But about a century ago and well into the '30s, vaudeville (under various names, e.g., musical hall, revues, variety shows) was a vibrant medium that attracted countless patrons each week in the United States and much of the world.

Author and film historian Anthony Slide's The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, which focuses on American vaudeville, has recently been reprinted via the University Press of Mississippi. With more than 500 entries, Slide's tome discusses the lives and careers of entertainers and behind-the-scenes personnel, in addition to vaudeville terminology, its theaters, and wide range of genres: there were “freak shows” and “shimmy” dancing (courtesy of Gilda Gray); stripping (Gypsy Rose Lee) and comedy routines (George Burns and Gracie Allen, and dozens of others); male impersonators (e.g., Kitty Doner) and female impersonators (e.g., Bert Savoy, Jay Brennan). And animal acts, too.

Unlike most encyclopedias, Slide's book also features commentaries by the vaudevillians themselves, many of whom were interviewed for the book. Those include the aforementioned Kitty Doner, in addition to Milton Berle, Block and Sully, Fifi D'Orsay, Nick Lucas, Ken Murray, Fayard Nicholas, Olga Petrova, Rose Marie, May Foy, Arthur Tracy, Virginia Sale, Joe Smith, Rudy Vallee, and future MGM star Eleanor Powell.

Anthony Slide has kindly agreed to do a Q&A (via email), discussing The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville for Alt Film Guide. See below and in the follow-up posts. [The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville University Press of Mississippi page.]

 

First of all, could you tell us what are the key differences between vaudeville and the so-called “legitimate stage”? And between vaudeville and cabaret acts?

From the mid- to late 1800s through into the early 1930s, vaudeville was America's preeminent entertainment. Before radio, before television, before even the motion picture, vaudeville was the entertainment of the masses. Admission was cheap. And it didn't matter if you were from the immigrant classes and could speak little – if any – English; you could still enjoy many of the acts on the vaudeville stage.

Vaudeville consisted of eight to ten acts, each lasting between ten or twenty minutes. If there was an act you didn't like or perhaps didn't understand, there would be another act coming along soon that, hopefully, you would enjoy.

In comparison, the legitimate stage presented plays (back then generally longer than most plays today and with two intermissions) or musical comedies. Not only was admission far more expensive, but also a higher level of intelligence or sophistication was required.

Cabaret, of course, was nightclub entertainment. To attend a nightclub, you perhaps only needed to believe you were sophisticated; but you definitely needed money – and an appropriate lifestyle. I might add that one can hardly imagine some vaudeville staples, such as animal or freak acts, playing nightclubs while the patrons were eating.

Also, I would note that while there is a fundamental difference between vaudeville and the legitimate stage, legitimate actors and actresses did appear in vaudeville. Ethel Barrymore was a favorite, and Sarah Bernhardt regularly toured vaudeville. She performed in French; audiences had no idea what she was saying, but somehow the strength of her performance came across and they loved it.

 

Did vaudeville performers also star in major Broadway plays? Or was there some sort of dividing line?

As I have already commented, stars of the legitimate stage did appear in vaudeville. And sometimes, but not very often, a vaudevillian would appear on the legitimate stage – generally in later years. For example, one thinks of vaudevillian James Barton in Tobacco Road and The Iceman Cometh.

male impersonator Kitty Doner
Male impersonator Kitty Doner

Male Impersonator Kitty Doner: Vaudeville History

Senor WencesAccording to the Encyclopedia of Vaudeville press release, you interviewed a number of vaudeville stars. Could you share a couple of anecdotes?

I had the good fortune to talk with a number of vaudevillians: Milton Berle, George Burns, Fifi D'Orsay, May Foy (of the Seven Little Foys), Nick Lucas, Ken Murray, Fayard Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers), Al Rinker (of the Rhythm Boys), Rose Marie, Virginia Sale, Joe Smith (of Smith and Dale), Arthur Tracy, Rudy Vallee, Nancy Welford, and the brilliant Senor Wences (photo).

I was really thrilled to find Kitty Doner, the most prominent American male impersonator of all time, and Block and Sully, whose act was very similar to that of their close friends, Burns and Allen. You'll have to read the book to find out all the things they had to say.

Rather than come up with specific anecdotes, I would respond that these incredibly talented, entertaining and sometimes egotistical folks brought vaudeville alive for me. I remember sitting with Milton Berle at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills and he would come up with one joke after another, telling me those that I should put in the book.

Kitty Doner talked of her relationship with Al Jolson. I got to meet Al Rinker, not because I contacted him, but he telephoned me. He knew I was close to [silent film star] Blanche Sweet and it transpired that he had had a long affair with her back in the 1920s and he wanted to know how she was. There was Ken Murray, still puffing on his trademark cigar, and telling “dirty” jokes along the lines of “Two nuns took a tramp in the woods; the tramp died.” They were unique.

Also, it is worth noting that I talked about vaudeville to some celebrities whom one does not necessarily associate with the medium. I am thinking particularly of [MGM musical star] Eleanor Powell (the loveliest of people). She recalled appearing with African-American dancer Bill Robinson at the homes of millionaires such as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. Robinson would ask for a glass of water, be given it in a crystal glass and after he had drunk, he would smash the glass. When Ellie asked why, he replied, “I know no one will drink out of that glass again.”

 

Did the former vaudevillians you spoke with discuss how they had to change their acting style – or even star personas – to adapt to the film medium?

Former vaudevillians in movies changed only as the movies changed. Some of the first vaudevillians to become stars on screen, such as Jack Benny or Frank Fay, played in what today seems a very effeminate style. That was how they acted on the vaudeville stage. Later they adapted.

 

Some of the vaudeville stars – e.g., Marie Dressler, Mae West, Jack Benny, Olga Petrova, and George Burns and Gracie Allen – went on to become movie personalities. But it seems to me that not very many former vaudevillians were successful in Hollywood. Is that correct? If so, any ideas as to why not?

Relatively few vaudevillians made the crossover to movies. And that was perhaps because they were not actors or actresses. They were performers. They performed but they did not act. Some of those performers were lucky enough to find employment as character players (Trixie Friganza, Irene Franklin, etc.) or as performers in cameo roles. One thinks of the Nicholas Brothers, who were always the highspot of any movie they were in, but who never actually acted on screen.

Eva Tanguay The I Don't Care Girl
Eva Tanguay, “The I Don't Care Girl”

Eva Tanguay & Indecency + Hollywood Threat

“The I Don't Care Girl” Eva Tanguay, “shimmy” dancer Gilda Gray, female impersonators Bert Savoy and Jay Brennan, male impersonator Kitty Doner, “freak” acts. Was vaudeville considered something “obscene” or “indecent” – or was bourgeois society receptive to such shows?

To a large extent, vaudevillians got away with whatever they could get away with. How risque one might be depended upon the vaudeville house and its owner. E.F. Albee (grandfather of Edward Albee) ran the largest vaudeville circuit (the B.F. Keith and later Keith-Albee circuit) and he insisted that vaudeville should be a respectable form of entertainment, one that families might visit without concern as to what they might see or hear. As I write in The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Albee stated, “There were to be no profanity, no vulgarity, no scanty costumes, and no improper behavior on stage.”

 

Were vaudeville shows turned into movies or television shows? If so, any examples? And how did those turn out?

I don't really think vaudeville shows became movies or television programs. I suppose one might argue that the Ziegfeld Follies, which was a revue rather than strictly a vaudeville show, was brought to the screen. And then there were attempts by former vaudevillian-turned-producer George Jessel to make filmed biographies of the stars, but they were not very good in retrospect.

[MGM released Ziegfeld Follies in 1946. At 20th Century Fox, George Jessel produced Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949), with S.Z. Sakall as Fred Fisher a.k.a. Alfred Breitenbach and June Haver as Doris Fisher, and The I Don't Care Girl (1951) with Mitzi Gaynor as Eva Tanguay.]

 

What caused the decline and eventual demise of vaudeville? Or would you say vaudeville is still with us, but in a different form?

It was the motion picture that ultimately killed vaudeville. The two sometimes worked together, with, say, six vaudeville acts supporting a motion picture. But vaudeville could not compete. And then those foolish vaudevillians made Vitaphone shorts – and thank God they did, but in so doing they destroyed their careers. Their acts were now on celluloid, shown at every movie theatre in America, and audiences didn't want to see that same act again – albeit live.

It's ironic that thanks to the revival of interest in Vitaphone shorts, and their preservation and restoration by Bob Gitt of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a whole new generation is rediscovering vaudeville acts that had been forgotten for over eighty years.

Of course, vaudeville survived initially in television when, in the early years, vaudeville – or variety programs – were the norm. But I think one might have to look long and hard for any form of vaudeville on television today. And I am sorry to have to say this, but so-called “modern” vaudeville acts or those trying to recreate vaudeville do not capture the essence of vaudeville. The individuals involved are not on a par with those talented vaudevillians of a bygone era.

Come to think of it, the best modern vaudeville act I have seen is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: four or five incredible musicians who don't just try to play the same old, tired numbers, but carry the art of the ukulele to a new level. A couple of years ago, they led an audience of a thousand amateur ukelele players in a performance of Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That was something. And so perhaps I am wrong to state that vaudeville is totally dead.

 

Male impersonator Kitty Doner, Senor Wences pictures: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.

Eva Tanguay picture: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.

Vaudeville Theatre History: From Shimmy Dancing to Male Impersonators - Q&A with Author Anthony Slide © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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2 Comments to Vaudeville Theatre History: From Shimmy Dancing to Male Impersonators - Q&A with Author Anthony Slide

  1. altfilmguide

    @H. Davis Haw

    “The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville” author suggests the following: “It is possible that Variety reviewed the act, and the inquirer should try and find a library with an internet subscription to the Variety archives and check accordingly.”

  2. H. Davis Haw

    My Dad, Harry D. Haw, tells of his participation in a vaudeville troupe named, as I remember it, “Honorable Wu (Woo?) and the All China Revue.” This might have been about 1922 to 1930.
    Is there any information on or record of this troupe or of a personality known as “Honorable Wu” in the annals of vaudeville?

    Thank you.
    H. Davis Haw