Friday, February 22, 2013
VAUDEVILLE....Just remembering and writing down some about a bunch of performers from the age of Vaudeville..Part 4
This last posting I want to do on this topic, at least for now. I wanted to talk about a few more people and events that were important to vaudeville.
Performers like Bob Hope and his brother who was often drunk were involved in vaudeville . I learned this from Eddie Bracken who told me that Bob Hope's brother was the best man at his wedding. But he was drunk and did not make it. Bob Hope was popular monologist and he would make it into radio, TV, movies, and of course entertaining the troops.
But I learned something from Eddie Bracken when I interviewed him that during WW2, Bob Hope and every other major performer was out and about entertaining the troops. When the war was over, the person who received the massive award as the greatest entertainer for the troops was Eddie Bracken. I saw the massive award. It was nearly 4 feet in length.
He told me that after he received this award, Bob Hope hated him.
Bracken was in vaudeville in his early days and became a major performer in radio, TV, movies and had issues during the McCarthy hearings, pretty much ending a lot of his career. But when he was on radio he was delighted to learn that Al Jolson was a big fan, and that was rare for Jolson to say such things.
Milton Berle was in show business from womb practically. His mother was his biggest fan and promoter. He was in silent films, vaudeville, radio, a pioneer in TV and movies that talked. He was a major force in theater. He was one of the saviors of the Friars Club during its dark days. He would live and entertain till the dawn of the 21st century. He had joined the Friars Club in 1920 and got to meet John L Sullivan, Enrico Caruso, George M Cohan, Victor Herbert, and countless others in the early days of the entertainment industry.
Victor Herbert wrote songs for the Friars and the Lambs. These clubs were a haven for the actor as he would be in the company of not just other actors, but agents as well.
It must have been interesting to be at a function at one of these clubs and see Victor Herbert, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin at a table. What stories have been lost to us.
Fanny Brice was also a big name in the industry. Her voice, comedic personality, and looks made her the perfect comedian. She would reign in vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies. In later years she was on radio and for a little bit on TV. But she never made it.
George Jessel was a friend of Al Jolson which was one of his problems. Jessel made his mark all over in vaudeville, movies (he was almost in the first talking picture), TV and radio. His last years were quite sad as he would perform anyplace they would take him. That was not many places. He was at one time one of the kings, but he lived longer than his popularity. He died the same day as another unique former vaudevillian. That was Rosa Ponselle.
Rosa and her sister Carmela worked in vaudeville and sang slightly operatic duets. They were both excellent singers. One night Enrico Caruso heard her sing and met her with her afterwards.. He felt she had a great voice for opera. Then he gave her the frightening complement that she looked like him.
He was right, not about that she looked like him, but that she was a great singer. In fact she would be one of the greatest sopranos in the operatic world in the 20th century. Her debut was opposite Caruso in Forza. I used to listen to her on the radio when I was a boy as she would tell time and time again how she was discovered by the great Caruso.
Not too many opera singers did vaudeville, but many who were on the end of their careers sometimes were.
Many acts were just awful. Many animal acts were problematic. Cause often the animal would do it's act on stage and that was not exactly expected, but would bring down the curtain and often end the act.
There were a few acts that were so bad that they would perform behind a net, cause things were thrown at them. Not every act was golden, some were not much better than plated tin. But many a great vaudevillian would hone his craft after each theater they would be thrown out of. They would often change their name as they came to each theater.
It was an adventure I am sure. But knowing what it was like to tour with a show for 3 months, I can only imagine what it was like for 3 years. I did it for 3 months and was worn out. These people were troopers.
Another great vaudevillian and perhaps one of the greatest was Will Rogers. He was known as the Oklahoma Philosopher and would hold a high place in the circuit. He would often star in the Zeigfield Follies. he would also make phonograph records, do radio, movies and would have done more if he did not join Wiley Post, a one eyed aviator who crashed in Alaska with Rogers on board.
Now there was vocal quartets who would work in vaudeville and do comedy as well. Such as the Avon Comedy Four. Which did contain Smith and Dale as well. I remember when I spoke to Joe Smith, we went to his room and there he had a Victrola and we listened to some recordings that he and his friends had made. I mentioned that he was in the Avon Comedy Four. He said to me, "Kid, no one has said that to me in 50 years". He told me about many of his friends at the Victor Company, which was the company he mainly recorded for. He said they had to sing in the tube.
One group from the Victor talking Machine Company that toured with Vaudeville was "The Eight Great Victor Artists" which was a group of the leading performers at Victor. Performers like Monroe Silver, Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, Frankie Banta, and few others who would change now and then.
I have mentioned Jack Benny here and there but he was a fellow who started by playing the violin, discovered he could be funny, dropped the violin, became the greatest comedian of the time, and in later life discovered he loved the violin and started playing again in his 60's. He would star in, radio, TV, movies, and of course in his later years playing solos he raised over 7 million dollars to help symphonic orchestras and was very helpful in raising money to save Carnegie Hall.
What started to kill vaudeville was first radio, then talking pictures, and finally the depression. By the later 1930's it was pretty much over. It was pretty dead.
Vaudeville was a wonderful period of time. Every town had their theater. Entertainment was always around. Today we do not have anything like it. It is too our loss I think. Oh how I wish it never left us.
I need to write a lot more about this era, hopefully I will and add to this blog. Cause I have just touched the surface. There were so many performers and I will never talk about perhaps 99% of them. Cause you do have to remember that every vaudeville theater in the country was filled with acts. That would count in the 10's of thousands. Just like anything there were a few who really made it, others were there for a while and vanished. It was an age where theater flourished as it had never done before and will never again.
The age of Vaudeville......