by Charles Marowitz
Slide, Anthony: New York City Vaudeville, Arcadia Publishing (Images of America), July 2006, ISBN 0-7385-4562-7, 128 pages.
(Swans - March 10, 2008) Imagine an auditorium comprised of a public that includes Dutch, German, Russian, Italian, Irish, Oriental, Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Russian Orthodox and Jewish -- intermingled with Americans, both rich and poor -- all crowded into a space in which the variety of the entertainment speaks directly to every individual there assembled. If you can picture such an assemblage, you may have some small idea of the heterogeneous public that flocked to American vaudeville between the end of the l9th century and the late 1930s.
In cities such as New York where the ethnic mix was enormous and the class differences clearly demarcated, it took a very special kind of entertainment to distract, amuse, and enthuse the millions of spectators who flocked to the vaudeville houses. All we hear about today is that "Vaudeville," which officially expired some seventy years ago "is dead" but we hear very little of the period in which it prospered as the "people's entertainment" in small and large cities throughout the USA. In the 1950s, there were several celebratory biopics that spuriously depicted the lives of vaudeville headliners such as Nora Bayes, Fannie Brice, Eva Tanguay, Vesta Tilly, Ruth Etting, George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, but they were all Hollywoodized out of all recognition; their lives fictionalized, their talents demeaned by "imitators" who possessed none of the charisma that radiated from the artists they were portraying.
In New York, where the Palace Theatre was the acknowledged Mecca, it was largely an audience made up of immigrants, most of them poor, many of them from small towns and villages who, consequently, felt alienated in the hubbub of a large metropolitan city; outsiders who were often looked down upon because of their illiteracy, the retention of foreign customs which appeared -- then as now -- as being un-American. But all of these ethnic differences were banished in one swoop once the "foreigners" entered the vaudeville theatre. There, amidst volleys of laughter and energetically-provoked audience participation, they experienced the blissful unity that good theatre sometimes magically imposes on disparate members of an audience -- making many into one.
Being foreigners, their manners, occupations and dialects were guiltlessly lampooned. The satire was indiscriminately inflicted upon the krauts, the coons, the micks, the dagos, the chinks, the toffs, the inebriated gallery-goers and the sober middle-class burghers seated in the stalls. Astoundingly, between the l880s and l930s, virtually no offense was taken. The immigrants had odd customs and peculiarities of speech but when they were guyed on the vaudeville stage, rather than taking offense, their identities were joyfully reaffirmed. The immigrants of that period unselfconsciously used, what today we would call racial epithets, amongst themselves -- breezily and without rancor. They were nicknames, not racial slurs. By the 1940s, all of that began to change and, in the l960s with the rise of the civil rights movement, it transformed entirely. Eventually, a new pride established itself in scores of naturalized Americans and the old "nicknames" were considered disparaging and prejudicial. Of course, they still exist, and sensitivity in regard to them remains volatile. Roseanne Barr was recently hauled over the coals for mocking Chinese with some made-up Chinese gibberish and God help the white politician who lets the word "nigger" drop from his lips in regard to African-Americans or the word "kike" applied to members of the Jewish faith. His career would be more devastated than a cruising homosexual caught in an air terminal lavatory and the opprobrium would come from all echelons of society.
Anthony Slide's compact and handsomely turned-out book New York City Vaudeville is a pictorial chronicle of the acts -- big and small -- that played the Palace when that mighty edifice on Broadway and 47th Street truly conferred regal status to those artists fortunate enough to be included on the bill. If you played the Palace, there was no longer any question about your showbiz status. You had received the ultimate coronation ceremony; you were "A Headliner," which in show business is the equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Slide's photos of the artists are accompanied by short, tart but highly informative details about their lives. The pictures themselves are so pellucid it almost brings these performers to life.
The book catalogues the comics, singers, dancers, acrobats, and magicians of Palace headliners from 1911 to l932 when the theatre was given over to films -- although there was a brief reincarnation in the early 1950s when artists such as Judy Garland and Danny Kaye tried to rekindle the flame. But by the start of World War II the tombstone was solidly in place. Slide includes a section on African American performers such as Bert Williams, Bill Robinson, Buck & Bubbles, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker as well as mythical female impersonators Kitty Doner, Ella Shields, Kathleen Clifford, Ella Shields and her shadow subaltern, Ella Fields.
Anthony Slide has become a recognized maven of the vanished Vaudeville world. In addition, he has produced more than sixty volumes on the history of popular entertainment with a strong emphasis on vaudeville and film. (Lillian Gish called him "our preemninet historian of the silent film.") In New York Vaudeville, his photos and captions vividly bring to life an era that is chock-full of some of the most bizarre and enthralling entertainers that ever trod the boards. You can almost hear the corny jokes, visualize the eccentric dances, and recoil from the bizarre tastelessness which often invaded the two-a-days. Vaudeville itself may be dead, but its phantoms hop, skip, and jump with ectoplasmic vivacity in Slide's valentine to a lost art.
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