Geoffrey Hilsabeck West Virginia University Press, 2021 Library of Congress PN1968.U5H55 2021 | Dewey Decimal 792.70973
A dreamlike, evocative reckoning with a lost epoch in popular culture—and with old, weird America.
At the heart of American Vaudeville is one strange, unsettling fact: for nearly fifty years, from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, vaudeville was everywhere—then, suddenly, it was nowhere. This book tells the story of what was once the most popular form of entertainment in the country using lists, creation myths, thumbnail biographies, dreams, and obituaries. A lyric history—part social history, part song—American Vaudeville sits at the nexus between poetry, experimental nonfiction, and, because it includes historic images, art books.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s book grows out of extensive archival research. Rather than arranging that research—the remains of vaudeville—into a realistic picture or tidy narrative, Hilsabeck dreams vaudeville back into existence, drawing on photographs, letters, joke books, reviews, newspaper stories, anecdotes, and other material gathered from numerous archives, as well as from memoirs by vaudeville performers like Buster Keaton, Eva Tanguay, and Eddie Cantor. Some of this research is presented as-is, a letter from a now forgotten vaudeville performer to her booking agent, for example; some is worked up into brief scenes and biographies; and some is put to even more imaginative uses, finding new life in dialogues and prose poems.
American Vaudeville pulls the past into the present and finds in the beauty and carnivalesque grotesqueness of vaudeville a fitting image of American life today.
In this rich, imaginative survey of variety musical theater, Gillian M. Rodger masterfully chronicles the social history and class dynamics of the robust, nineteenth-century American theatrical phenomenon that gave way to twentieth-century entertainment forms such as vaudeville and comedy on radio and television. Fresh, bawdy, and unabashedly aimed at the working class, variety honed in on its audience's fascinations, emerging in the 1840s as a vehicle to accentuate class divisions and stoke curiosity about gender and sexuality. Cross-dressing acts were a regular feature of these entertainments, and Rodger profiles key male impersonators Annie Hindle and Ella Wesner while examining how both gender and sexuality gave shape to variety. By the last two decades of the nineteenth century, variety theater developed into a platform for ideas about race and whiteness.
As some in the working class moved up into the middling classes, they took their affinity for variety with them, transforming and broadening middle-class values. Champagne Charlie and Pretty Jemima places the saloon keepers, managers, male impersonators, minstrels, acrobats, singers, and dancers of the variety era within economic and social contexts by examining the business models of variety shows and their primarily white, working-class urban audiences. Rodger traces the transformation of variety from sexualized entertainment to more family-friendly fare, a domestication that mirrored efforts to regulate the industry, as well as the adoption of aspects of middle-class culture and values by the shows' performers, managers, and consumers.
An updated paperback version of the book heralded as “a new benchmark in Marx scholarship” by the Los Angeles Times
Before film made them international comedy legends, the Marx Brothers developed their comic skills on stage for twenty-five years. In Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage, Robert S. Bader offers the first comprehensive history of the foursome’s hardscrabble early years honing their act in front of live audiences.
From Groucho’s debut in 1905 to their final live performances of scenes from A Night in Casablanca in 1945, the brothers’ stage career shows how their characters and routines evolved before their arrival in Hollywood. Four of the Three Musketeers draws on an unmatched array of sources, many not referenced elsewhere. Bader’s detailed portrait of the struggling young actors both brings to vivid life a typical night on the road for the Marx Brothers and illuminates the inner workings of the vaudeville business, especially during its peak in the 1920s.
As Bader traces the origins of the characters that would later come to be beloved by filmgoers, he also skillfully scrapes away the accretion of rumors and mythology perpetuated not only by fans and writers but by the Marx Brothers themselves. Revealing, vital, and entertaining, Four of the Three Musketeers has taken its place as an essential reference for this legendary American act. Now, the updated edition adds newly discovered performances—some submitted by readers—and additional information provided by descendants of long-departed vaudevillians mentioned in the book.
Two generations of American music lovers have grown up listening with Robert Christgau, attuned to his inimitable blend of judgment, acuity, passion, erudition, wit, and caveat emptor. His writings, collected here, constitute a virtual encyclopedia of popular music over the past fifty years. Whether honoring the originators of rock and roll, celebrating established artists, or spreading the word about newer ones, the book is pure enjoyment, a pleasure that takes its cues from the sounds it chronicles.
A critical compendium of points of interest in American popular music and its far-flung diaspora, this book ranges from the 1950s singer-songwriter tradition through hip-hop, alternative, and beyond. With unfailing style and grace, Christgau negotiates the straits of great music and thorny politics, as in the cases of Public Enemy, blackface artist Emmett Miller, KRS-One, the Beastie Boys, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He illuminates legends from pop music and the beginnings of rock and roll—George Gershwin, Nat King Cole, B. B. King, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley—and looks at the subtle transition to just plain “rock” in the music of Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and others. He praises the endless vitality of Al Green, George Clinton, and Neil Young. And from the Rolling Stones to Sonic Youth to Nirvana, from Bette Midler to Michael Jackson to DJ Shadow, he shows how money calls the tune in careers that aren’t necessarily compromised by their intercourse with commerce.
Rock and punk and hip-hop, pop and world beat: this is the music of the second half of the twentieth century, skillfully framed in the work of a writer whose reach, insight, and perfect pitch make him one of the major cultural critics of our time.
Gertrude Hoffmann made her name in the early twentieth century as an imitator, copying highbrow performances staged in Europe and popularizing them for a broader American audience. Born in San Francisco, Hoffmann started working as a ballet girl in pantomime spectacles during the Gay Nineties. She performed through the heyday of vaudeville and later taught dancers and choreographed nightclub revues. After her career ended, she reflected on how vaudeville’s history was represented in film and television.
Drawn from extensive archival research, Imitation Artist shows how Hoffmann’s life intersected with those of central gures in twentieth-century popular culture and dance, including Florenz Ziegfeld, George M. Cohan, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis. Sunny Stalter-Pace discusses the ways in which Hoffmann navigated the complexities of performing gender, race, and national identity at the dawn of contemporary celebrity culture. This book is essential reading for those interested in the history of theater and dance, modernism, women’s history, and copyright.
Ed Lowry joined the vaudeville circuit in 1910 at the age of fourteen. He never achieved stardom equal to the likes of Fred Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns, Buster Keaton, or Eddie Cantor, and he never considered himself an “artiste.” Instead, he saw himself as a hoofer and comic simply trying to make a living on the vaude scene. My Life in Vaudeville recounts Lowry’s long career in entertainment from the viewpoint of a foot soldier with a big dream.
Lowry’s story begins in the heyday of vaudeville in the early twentieth century and follows its gradual decline. Unlike many of his associates, he recognized that movies and other forms of entertainment were the future, and thus branched out into other venues. He took gigs in radio in Philadelphia, Newark, New York, and Los Angeles; explored revues, cabarets, burlesque, and film; and organized USO road shows. With wit and perception, he reveals his stage roots as an entertainer playing to his audience, and editor Paul M. Levitt’s introduction beautifully sets the stage for Lowry’s gags-to-riches tale, providing much-needed historical perspective.
My Life in Vaudeville is an unpretentious record of a time when thousands of young people went into show business to escape the boredom of daily life, and Lowry’s story is a view of vaudeville not often encountered. Lowry does much more than recall the daily life of a working actor, musician, and comedian. His story brings vaudeville to life and places it within the larger narratives of popular culture and popular entertainment of the twentieth century.
"In this highly readable book, Kathleen Casey makes an important intervention into the study of early-twentieth-century American vaudeville and some of its most infamous stars. She pinpoints the blind spot in current scholarship by demonstrating how race as much as gender charges the meanings in vaudeville performance.”
—Linda Mizejewski, author of Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics and Ziegfeld Girl
From the 1890s through the 1920s, vaudeville reigned as one of the most popular entertainment forms in urban America. Through drama, humor, and satire, it invited its socially, economically, and ethnically diverse audiences to turn a self-conscious eye upon themselves and their culture, which was being rapidly transformed by such forces as immigration, racial discord, and new conceptions of gender roles. It was no coincidence that acts featuring cross-dressing performers and racial impersonators were among vaudeville’s biggest attractions.
In this lively and enlightening study, Kathleen B. Casey explores the ways in which the gender- and race-bending spectacles of vaudeville dramatized the economic, technological, social, and cultural upheaval that gripped the United States in the early twentieth century. She focuses on four key performers. Eva Tanguay, known as “The I Don’t Care Girl,” was loved for her defiance of Victorian decorum, linking white womanliness to animalistic savagery at a time when racial and gender ideologies were undergoing significant reconstruction. In contrast, Julian Eltinge, the era’s foremost female impersonator, used race to exaggerate notions of manliness
and femininity in a way that reinforced traditional norms more than it undermined them. Lillyn Brown, a biracial woman who portrayed a cosmopolitan black male dandy while singing about an antebellum southern past, offered her audiences, black and white, starkly different visual and aural messages about race and gender. Finally, Sophie Tucker, who often performed in blackface during the early years of her long and heralded career, strategically played with prevailing
ideologies by alternately portraying herself as white, Jewish, black, manly, and womanly, while managing, remarkably, to convince audiences that these identities could coexist within one body.
Analyzing a wide assortment of primary materials—advertisements, recordings, lyrics, sheet music, costumes, photographs, reviews, and press accounts from the era—Casey looks not only at gender and racial impersonation but also at how spectators reacted to these performances.
Kathleen B. Casey is an assistant professor of history at Virginia Wesleyan College.
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.