(I go through so much Diets Coke and Pepper that buying it by the two liter is cheaper than buying it by the six-pack. And I only swig out of my own bottles. Anything stored in public spaces gets poured into a glass in a most genteel and seemly fashion. Honest.)
I had a night of vaudeville last night and I was happy to have it. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the release of The Jazz Singer and the first feature-length "talkie", TCM played the film and then followed up with an hour and a half of ancient Vitaphone shorts from Warner Bros. The shorts, all filmed with sound around 1929, weren't actual storytelling motion pictures, but of actual vaudeville acts which performed around the country then. Wowee!
I hadn't realized there were such abundant records of vaudeville, which has since passed into legend as one of the truly great American forms of entertainment. Yes, England had its music halls which featured a variety of billed acts just like American variety theater, but there was something about the American vaudevillian's itinerant lifestyle that gave the artform a unique image almost romantic in its nostalgia: enterainers schlepping from town to town, often bringing with their entire worldly possessions in one case, performing in horribly maintaned theaters to indifferent -- or worse, hostile -- audiences, sleeping in fleabag hotels and receiving numerous bedbug bites (a bedbug often feeds in three bites clustered around the same spot on the body, which became known as "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner"), honing their act, perfecting their craft, and all the while hoping to Be Noticed and move from one of the small-time circuits to the Big Time, performing in the Keith's chain of theatres or, dare we dream, the biggest of all Big Time prizes, the sign that you'd finally Made It, playing the Palace in New York City. The Palace! The acts were wide and varied, from two-man comedy teams to singers both comic and serious to dancers to acrobats, jugglers, revue companies, and of course, trained animals.
The genre spawned its own slang. Some of the more colorful phrases are still in use today: "the big time", "second banana", "bombed", "schtick", "knocked 'em dead", "went over", "headliner" and, in the case of poor amateur acts, "getting the hook."
Ah, yes, vaudeville. Many movie and radio stars in the first part of the 20th century got their start in vaudeville: George Burns, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, the Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen, W.C. Fields; if you ever saw them mixing it up in black-and-white, chances are they started in vaudeville.
Vaudeville was already on its way out in the 1920s, being pushed out of favor by motion pictures, so it was interesting to watch the Vitaphone films capturing the vaudeville acts. And these weren't films of the superstars who broke into films and radio, no, these were films of just regular acts. People you've never heard of and probably would never hear of again. In short, the type of bill you'd have expected to see in a regular theater in a regular city. While the shorts didn't feature many of the more eclectic or straightforward acts, what we did get were the nuts and the novelty revues.
For instance, there was a piano player dressed as a cowboy (for almost no apparent reason, mind you, as he played no Western tunes) who was accompanied by a pretty young woman singing straightforward Tin Pan Alley songs. The piano had no front or top so the cowboy did a little trick playing, such as holding the lower strings to muffle them when he played, emulating more of a bass sound than a low piano note sound. In between songs, the cowboy delivered some corny patter, introducing the songs with nonsense names such as "The Cow Gave No Milk, So We Sold Him" (that one's a thinker, folks) to "A Man Can Get Oysters from Pearls, But a Girl Can Get Diamonds from Nuts" (a truly ancient line which has been attributed to Fred Allen, among others. Good one-liners from one act often found their way into other acts, either legitimately or stolen.)
There was the large contralto who performed with a large string bass ("Notice any familiarity?" she asked, turning her back to the camera whilst holding the instrument upright.) Her schtick, a common one among comedians who realized they needed something more than just patter to keep their act fresh, was to bring the instrument out for variety but not actually play it and, indeed, during one jokingly laborious song, she'd draw up and forcefully shove the bow across the strings at the end of every stanza, often reaching clear across the instrument in her overly dramatic furor.
The centerpiece of her act was a monologue involving a married woman discussing with her girlfriend the wild night she had on the town without her husband's knowledge -- only the premise was that her small son was presumably in the room, too, so she had to spell out all the N-A-U-G-H-T-Y words. Her delivery was wonderful, effortlessly blending the spelled words into her spirited and fast-paced conversation, talking about how after drinking S-C-O-T-C-H at the C-L-U-B, she and B-E-N-N-Y went to someone's F-L-A-T and got into the G-I-N and all. The punchline, of course, is that the imaginary kid could spell all along, and when she checks his schoolwork, she discovers he's written "Mummy's a souse who's running around behind Daddy's back, and I'll go tell him if you don't buy me that bike I want."
As funny (and used over and over again through the years) as it was, I instinctively went into Joke Doctor mode and said "You know, lady, the punchline would've been much funnier if you'd had the kid spell out some of the words, too: 'And I'll T-E-L-L him if you don't buy me that B-I-K-E...'" However, as I watched it nearly 80 years after it was filmed, I doubt she heard me.
Then there was the two-man act which would've been performed "in one" (that is, in front of the closed stage curtain or the olio backdrop; this allowed an act which required the full stage to set up behind them.) It was incredibly bizarre in its execution. Billed as "The Beau Brummels", it featured two men in suits and derbies -- one with a hangdog expression, the other with a crazy stage mustache and a slightly bewildered look which sort of wandered off-camera. They began with a nonsense take on an old song:
I was strolling through the park one dayThen they launched into what would've been termed a rapid-fire succession of back-and-forth jokes, only the delivery was so deadpan and mechanical that "rapid-fire", which would usually denote some kind of manic energy, really can't describe it. I likened it to how Henny Youngman (another vaudeville alum) would tell his jokes (with the non-functioning violin, no less): just spout out one-liner after one-liner, with almost no pause or punctuation in between. They never even looked at each other, except to punctuate each punchline with a slight comic take, the straight man turning slightly to glance at the other (they varied straight man/comic roles.) They also repeated one schtick throughout the act; they'd both start blabbering at the same time and then simultaneously turn to each other and go "Whaaa?" in unison. I guess it was their trademark. The jokes ranged from the corny to the incomprehensible to the truly dreadful. Imagine these lines being said, one after the other, in a monotone with almost no emotion or pacing at all:
In the merry merry month of -- June...
"Does your family have a farm?"And there are those who can't figure out why vaudeville's dead.
"Yes, we have a farm."
"How are all the animals on the farm?"
"Our animals are fine. How is your family?"
"We keep geese on our farm."
"Do you have lots of geese?"
"Yes, we have lots of geese."
"How many geese do you have?"
"We have so many geese that we have to keep them on our porch."
"Then they must be Portuguese."
"Ten people fell off a twenty-story roof, but none were hurt."
"How could that be?"
"They all died."
"blabber blabber blabber blabber whaaa?"
"When were you born and if so, If?"
(punchline take) [no, I didn't understand this one, either.]
"I was born between nine and ten."
"That's too many people in the bed."
(punchline take) [presumably a joke about tenement life?]
"Well, where were you born?"
"I wasn't born; I'm a self-made man." [I admit, I laughed at this one.]
"Is your father at home?"
"Yes, my father is at home."
"How do you know he's at home?"
"I'm wearing his shoes."
"blabber blabber blabber blabber whaaa?"
This act was made all the stranger by the fact that, due to it being filmed, there was no audience and therefore no laughter. The jokes were delivered to stone cold silence, which may have happened on occasion onstage if the audience decided to sit on their hands. On the other hand, these two zanies might have had certain houses just rolling with laughter. You never know.
The lack of audience actually presented a real problem to many stage performers during their transition to film and radio. The comic Ed Wynn, who you'll probably remember most as the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney's Alice in Wonderland and Uncle "I Love To Laugh" Albert in Mary Poppins, suffered from "mike fright" during his first live radio performance. In the middle of his performance, Wynn simply froze because he just couldn't deliver his lines without an audience response. A makeshift audience of studio technicians and cleaning ladies was hastily assembled, and only then could Wynn continue with his performance. (I believe this anecdote has been used in movies about that particular era of entertainment.)
One of the filmed acts actually addresses the problem of filming before no audience. Before singing, a comic tenor delivered a speech on just how difficult it was to perform to no response, and to show the burdens he had to face, the film cut to a shot of two camera technicians, ensconced in a soundproof booth where cameras had to be kept in the early days of the talkies lest their ratchety motors be picked up by the microphones. Underneath the camera lens window was a sign that read "THIS IS YOUR AUDIENCE."
Finally there was a full-scale revue short. Revues of this type usually featured singers, a chorus line, a comic or two, and maybe a sketch, often revolving around a loose thread of a plot. This revue was set in a courtroom, where the cast of the revue had been arrested and brought before a cranky judge.
"You stand here accused of singing saucy songs," the judge addressed one flapper. "How do you plead?"
"Not guilty!" she replied, then launched into her saucy song. The judge then ordered her "kept for further examination." Next, he accused the chorus girls of "murdering the Black Bottom" so to prove their innocence, the chorus girls came out and did the popular dance. The jury box, by the way, held the orchestra. Eventually each act was brought before the judge, accused of their particular entertainment crime, and performed it to prove their Not Guilty plea. Finally the judge asked the prosecutor when exactly did this revue take place.
"Every night at midnight," the prosecutor replied.
"Then court is adjourned!" the judge said, rising up. "I'm going to buy a ticket for tonight's show!"
This was not high art. Heck, some of it wasn't even particularly good. But you must know by now that I'm a sucker for entertainment for entertainment's sake, as well as any evidence of how generations before mine enjoyed their particular kinds of entertainment, and it was all the more fascinating to me since I realized I wasn't watching the cream of the crop. Sure, the acts I saw must've been well-known in their time; they were definitely good enough to be deemed worthy of filming, but they never broke into the new Big Time (films and radio) as far as I know. These were the acting stiffs, the very same who schlepped from city to city, performing these same routines over and over again to a new audience every few weeks. These weren't recreations or parodies of routines that we'd see years later on television; this was the real thing, baby. This was vaudeville! God, it was fascinating!
There are a few groups that are dedicated to restoring the Vitaphone shorts, some of which are available online if you know where to look, and I suggest you do. If only to see the lady with the cello suddenly stop her song and, with a crazed comic look on her face, frantically pound a maniacal boom-tiddy-boom-tiddy-boom-tiddy-boom beat on the darn thing with her bow, then continue on as if nothing had happened. She must've been a gas to hang out with on the train.