Thursday, February 21, 2013

VAUDEVILLE....Just remembering and writing down some about a bunch of performers from the age of Vaudeville. Part 1

When one thinks of the first 30 years of the 20th century. It is very much a part of the age of vaudeville. There was a theater in nearly every town. It was at these theaters you would get to see all kinds of acts from around the country and at times from around the world.  Some of these old timers made careers that would last till the end of the 20th century and in a few cases, into the 21st!

I was born long after vaudeville, but through TV was able to see many of the old timers, doing acts they had done for well over a half century. There was a great thing about Vaudeville. You never needed to change your act for years. Cause you would travel all over the country and play in every little hamlet, town or city. It was not an easy life.

Vaudeville did not just inhabit the stage, it also made its ways in restaurants, amusement parks, phonograph records, and of course in time radio and TV.

Some of the great actors or music hall performers found their way into early movies and were also doing a vaudeville tour advertising themselves.

The great days of vaudeville made their ways from the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In the first 20 years or so of vaudeville, the minstrel was still a power to be reckoned with.   Great performers and minstrel troupe creators like Lew Dockstader were very popular and even made phonograph recordings in the first ten years of the 20th century.

But vaudeville would have a very different pull on society and it grew up with motion pictures, or flickers as they called them. Another industry was the recording industry and that was also where many a vaudevillian would leave their mark.

I think of the some of the more unknown vaudevillians like Archie Leach.  He was a stilt walker, acrobat and hoofer who worked mainly in Coney Island. On a side line he also painted ties. He was given a break by Fatty Arbuckle, who was a king in the world of motion pictures and sadly today is remembered just for a phony scandal in the early 1920's. But he gave a Archie a break and soon that stilt walker was performing on stage and soon the movies. But with another name, Cary Grant.

Some of the other acts were not so remembered. One of the biggest performers of the day in 1913 was Nat M. Wills. He was known as the Hobo comedian and did great comedy and songs. He was so popular many of the recordings he made were big sellers. The combined sales of his records were well over a million. But who knows of Wills? He is forgotten save for a few who still recall his wonderful story called "No news. or what killed the dog ?"   That bit was performed on stages, dinner speeches, and recorded several times on record.  Wills was so popular he played the Palace in NYC for a few weeks. In fact he was only the second person given the honor. Remember the old saying, "You haven't made it, till you play the Palace" The great Palace theater was the high altar of vaudeville.

Many performers spend a good deal of their lives hoping to play the Palace. It opened in 1913 and the person who was the first to appear was Ed Wynn. Followed by Nat M. Wills. Two major names in theater in those days. Wynn would survive to appear in film, radio, and TV. In fact 50 years after he was headlining at the Palace in 1913, he was filming for Disney a role in Mary Poppin's. He would play the old crazy uncle who would fly when he laughed. His song called "I love to laugh" is pretty much what his career was. Save for a few dark years in the 1950's.

Sadly for Wills it was not the same. He was wildly popular on stage and record. But had a dark personal life of several marriages, divorces, and through them massive financial difficulties. He was living for a while in a rented room in the Lamb's Club on 44th Street. Soon he remarried again and seemed happy. But one day in 1917, he went into his garage with his Ford model T, closed the door and started the car.  He was found dead a few hours later at the door of the garage. Sadly, no one knows for sure what he was trying to do. But it seems that this great clown was ready to make an exit.

There are so many in vaudeville that only a few I can talk about. But just think of the dog acts, seal acts, penguin acts, donkey acts, horse acts, spinning dishes acts, operatic acts, monologist acts, patter song acts, dramatic acts, bad acts, local acts that would always remain so, and of course the stars now and then.

But think of the stars who would travel the country. Entertainers like Eddie Cantor would was not a great dancer or singer. But he would do it all so fast and in such a wild style you could never tell. He would have a career for 50 years and do it all from vaudeville to TV, radio and movies. He found his home in comedy and would stay there for all those years.

Sophie Tucker who to the older among us will recall the name. She was known as the "Last of the red hot momas" She had a voice that would carry into another state when she sang. She spent a lifetime singing a song called "Some of these days" and would play the role that she was least likely to play. A sexy powerful woman who would in later years influence Bette Midler.  Midler would use many of the jokes of Tucker to a new audience and they took on a new life of their own.

 In Tuckers early days she was looked on as shocking and vulgar in some circles. But no one sang like she did. In the early days of her recording career for Edison starting around 1906, she was referred to as a "coon shouter"  She was still making recordings fifty years later.

Blanch Ring was a popular performer in early vaudeville and in theater. Her song "I've got rings on my fingers and bells on my toes" was a hit in many musical reviews and in vaudeville. Today that song is lost in the memory of but a few.

William Claude Dunkerfield was a wonderful and well trained juggler. He shortened his name to W. C. Fields and worked all over the country. later he would do movies and one would never know that he was a remarkable juggler. but he also had a great ability in comedy.  He had that sense right to the end. When he was dying in 1946, he was found looking at a bible. When asked why he replied..." Looking for loopholes" ..

Nora Bayes and her partner Jack Norworth made many an appearance in vaudeville houses around the country. In later years she would even have as a partner, Jack Benny. In later years she lost pretty much career and health and today rests in an unmarked grave in NY.

One more person to mention in this first installment of vaudeville was the counter tenor, Will Oakland. He was very famous and made many recordings. He was not very famous in his later days. He used to hang out in Livingston, New Jersey at a bar called English's. In fact he was on his way to Livingston, when he died on a bus en route. Perhaps the poem, " the face on the bar room floor" would fit for Oakland in his later years.

End of part 1