Nika Thought-werk: So, question, ladies and gents, boys and girls, and animals of every shape and size … Do you like to be entertained?
Dear friends, my name is Nika Thought-werk. Many of you know me as a little clockwork who loves mail. I am that, but I am so much more – when I remember. One of the things I am is real. In the time before now, one of the things I did was perform in a magic act in a vaudeville theater. I learned a thing or two about vaudeville during this time, and I’d like to share those things with you today.
What – is vaudeville?
Vaudeville, as we know it, is the American answer to the many of the types of theater one might find in our times. No one really knows where the name vaudeville came from. There are equal parts conjecture that it is a region in France, the works of Olivier Basselin, or something else entirely. Wherever the name came from, what we do know is that it arose from the work of one B.F. Keith. Keith was an American, originally from New Hampshire. As a young man, Mister Keith worked many of the entertainment venues of his day – from dime-museums to traveling circuses. One can only guess that his work with these venues gave him a keen appreciation of an audience and an understanding of what makes them tick. In 1885, Mister Keith took over operation of a theater in Boston known as the Bijou. The theater has never been the same. What separates vaudeville from more traditional theaters, music halls, street plays and the like? A grand many things, I wager. Here are just a few …
For starters, vaudeville theaters are continuous affairs. Unlike a playhouse, where the acts are at set times throughout the day, vaudeville theaters organized their shows in acts. I’ll talk more about these in a moment. The thing about this is though that once the show began in the morning, it would progress through the program until it reached the end. Once at the end, the program would ‘loop’, replaying the first act and restarting the program in the process. It would do this loop until the theater closed at night. There was a psychology behind this – the way the programs were arranged, and I will talk about this more near the end. What this means, for a theater-goer is that you can go into the theater at any time and stay until the program loops back to the first show you saw. Or, if you only have minutes to spare, you can wander into a theater on your lunchbreak, stay for ten minutes of a show, and wander back to work. Then, you can catch the rest of the program sometime during the week. With low ticket prices of pennies rather than more pricey ones at playhouses, there is no reason for an office worker looking for a kindly diversion not to do this.
The second difference are the ticket prices. Vaudeville tickets are much cheaper than many playhouses. Vaudeville houses are able to stay open by making sure that their programs are lively, varied, and often changed. This helped ensure that the theaters are seldom empty.
The typical vaudeville program presents a third difference. Unlike a playhouse, which might present one play a night, vaudeville theaters present programs of various acts to entertain its audience. No single act is allowed to take over thirty minutes in most theaters, and in the more successful theaters, the acts are rehearsed and drilled into their performers with military precision. Not a moment is wasted. It can’t be. Wasted time upsets the program, throws off the show, and costs money. A show program might open with a song and dance act. It might progress to a single singer doing a solo. It might then present a watered down version of a lengthier stage-play. After this, it could continue with an act to highlight exotic cultures and locales. African acts and South American performers might be brought in for this. People might see animal acts. Whatever the program, each program always ended with a real headliner – be it a play with a well-known cast, a virtuoso singer, or whatever is the best quality act the theater had on hand. The heart of vaudeville is its variety. Whatever is on the program on any given day, you know you are in for a real show. – at least more than what many other venues might offer you.
Now here … I think it best to talk about the psychology aspect …
The theaters WANTED to move you
They want to shake you
But not all at once.
Keith understood that by placing programs in a slow build … entertaining lowbrain acts … moving slowly to more upbeat fair … And ending with a real tear-jerking or comedic play, people are more likely to stay as the show progresses. The longer you stay, the fuller the house … the more successful a theater LOOKS. And in show business, APPEARANCE is everything.
What’s more, the program arrangers work with writers to manipulate the emotions of the audience down to a science. This helps nudge people to laugh and cry and be scared together … and vaudeville is a social experience if anything. With the variety, low-ticket prices, growth of a middle-class to enjoy it, few competing forms of entertainment with the mass-appeal of a well-constructed program, and so on, B.F. Keith and others that copied his style opened theater chains throughout the country. The chain-like nature of vaudeville theaters is a fourth difference. Performers might travel a circuit of theaters owned by one owner or distribution chain, performing the same act in different theaters owned by the same owner. It is a hard life, but the salaries men like Keith can pay to their performers helps keep performers under their control. In any given week, men and women spend over $1,000,000 in vaudeville ticket fees. The theaters spend in excess of $600,000 a week promoting and paying for their theaters and performers. Salaries make up a lionshare of vaudeville expenses. Still, the theater owners have more than enough left over at week’s-end to pad their own pockets.
There is a fifth difference. There is an adage in vaudeville. That adage is: “Will it play in Peoria?” The Peoria in question here is Peoria, Illinois. One might wonder why a person might care about a little corn town like Peoria. Do you? Have you been there? My ghost has. Many times. It is a little corn-town on the Mississippi River. Peoria, Illinois does have something special about it – as it relates to entertainment. That ‘thing’ is its mores and cultural sensibility. Peoria represents the character that pervades the Union. Whatever a good, Christian audience might find enjoyable in Peoria will carry well throughout the nation. Theater-chains understand this – and they wish to profit from it.
The following is a warning placed in the dressing area of one of the more popular theaters of the vaudeville circuits:
NOTICE TO PERFORMERS You are hereby warned that your act must be free from all vulgarity and suggestiveness in words, action, and costume, while playing in any of Mr.—’s houses, and all vulgar, double-meaning and profane words and songs must be cut out of your act before the first performance. If you are in doubt as to what is right or wrong, submit it to the resident all other words unfit for the ears of ladies and children, also any reference to questionable streets, resorts, localities, and barrooms, are prohibited under fine of instant discharge.
Taken from the book From Traveling Show to Vaudeville, Theatrical Spectacle in America, from 1830 – 1910.
Tepic Harlequin: Bloomin heck! an this stuff were popular? So… not like the British Music Hall then……
Nika Thought-werk: Keeping things clean made it fit for all … and fit for all meant – and means dollars. Not at all like the music halls. The theater owners police their acts vigilantly. Something they find disagreeable might lead to a stern warning – or else. Future violations might lead to performers being booted from a circuit and being blacklisted from working the circuits ever again. Understanding this, most performers happily agree to censorship. The money is too good for the performers and the theater owners to do otherwise. Not all theaters follow such strict guidelines, however. An exception of note are the theaters in San Francisco, California. San Francisco is a hive of ill-repute, and its theaters add to its disreputable character. There is a very high ratio of men to women in the city. Many of the men had money to spend. As such, prostitution, liquor, and vice are central to the city’s entertainments. Because of the relative scarcity of women, areas like the city’s Barbary Coast district allowed spaces for gay performers and theater employees to move about the audience selling liquor and themselves.
Ceejay Writer: I wonder if Seattle might have been a bit tawdry, too.
Nika Thought-werk: A bit, yes.
The police, who would crack down on this anywhere else in the country turn a blind eye due to kickbacks from the bars and the brothels and the vaudeville stage. One of the other interesting things about the vaudeville venues in San Francisco is that female impersonators might as easily find themselves on the stage as an unimpersonated female. This would probably not play in Peoria, but San Francisco doesn’t seem to mind. Here, too, the money is good. A performer, who might be expected to perform between the sheets as easily as on stage, can make up to $200 each week. On second thought, the performances in San Francisco probably WOULD play in Peoria. San Francisco is just open about it.
Now … here is where I truly step out of bounds …
Vaudeville – with its focus on money and mores … increasingly turned to keeping seats filled as movies came of age in the ‘teens and twenties. It increasingly moved to more and more exotic acts … Like dancing … and very special types of dancing.
Nika Thought-werk coughs.
And here … the American strip club was born.
BUT – moving back to the performers themselves … One of the ghost’s favorite vaudeville acts is Laurel and Hardy. A new movie chronicling the last tour of these performers is going into production. Like Chaplin, I hope it showcases a bit of the flavor of what it was like to work on the vaudeville stage.
And the Marx Brothers
And the Three Stooges
And most comedic film stars of the silent era.
These are some of the elements of vaudeville as theater. I hope you have enjoyed this talk, and I would now like to open time up for questions.
Ceejay Writer: I had no idea that the psychology aspect was so deliberate. Do you know if they hired writers with training… or simply as tools to do what they were told?
Nika Thought-werk: Tools, it seems. Keith was a master. Keith laid the blue print.
Myrtil Igaly: Did Vaudeville steal audience from the circuses?
Nika Thought-werk: It did. From practically every form of entertainment of the day. Here’s the thing though – vaudeville grew to dominate the country from 1885 – 1915, or so. Their variety never wholly replaced playhouses, circuses, or the like. They just showcased bits. If you wanted a circus – vaudeville couldn’t truly give that to you. Circuses downsized and adapted. And survived. So did playhouses. How many vaudeville theaters still operate in the US? They were general purpose affairs – and if you wanted general purpose entertainment … Movies were more cost-effective for everyone.
Tepic Harlequin: Still can’t believe they took out all the mucky bits an people still went an saw it…..