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Posted November 20, 2005
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At the Edge of Respectability, a Celebration


The Masquerade That Was Vaudeville




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Photograph from Billy Rose Theater Collection/New York Public Library for The Performing Arts

A poster from 1925 "Vaudeville Nation.'

"If it wasn't for one thing, I'd call your brother a bald-faced liar," one character says.

"What's that?" asks the other.

"His whiskers."

Talk about old jokes: that is one of the "Grand New Jokes of Our Funniest Comedians," published by The New York Journal in 1898.

But the strange thing about this broadsheet, which is on display at the new exhibition "Vaudeville Nation" at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, is how familiar its "grand new jokes" remain even after more than a century. In fact, the exhibition, which is a kind of whirlwind survey of 50 years of vaudeville - from the 1880's to the 1930's - is entirely like that: an eerie familiarity peeks through its alien surface. It's like seeing a family photograph in which ancestors bear an uncanny resemblance to their living descendants.

For it was during this period that American popular culture began to take shape. And the minstrel singers, circus acts, ethnic comedians, cross-dressing entertainers, chorus line beauties and early jazz performers, who were booked in ornate theaters across the country by a new class of managers and agents, may have been superseded by 20th-century entertainments, but not before shaping the future of Broadway, radio, film and American culture.

There is also something fundamentally different about vaudeville, though, that requires more examination. But this exhibition, organized by Barbara Cohen-Stratyner and on display until April 1, does not try to probe too deeply into vaudeville's cultural significance. It succeeds, instead, by giving a concrete sense of its scope, drawing on the imposing archives of the New York Public Library, which include collections of scripts, films, recordings, stage designs, newspaper clippings, business correspondence and memorabilia. The items judiciously selected for the exhibition tell the history of vaudeville almost as if a grand variety act, mixing silliness and splendor. Evelyn Nesbit is spun through the air, chorus girls dress as elaborate flowers, Eubie Blake plays piano, and W. C. Fields and Will Rogers pose in the "Ziegfeld Follies of 1917."

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

At the exibition "Vaudeville Nation" at the performing arts Library.

Letterheads of acts, used for self-promotion, offered theater managers in 1918 the prospect of seeing Sherlock Holmes - a dog - who understands English, knows arithmetic, counts coins, "speaks simple, compound and complex words, phrases and sentences" and even "reads the human mind." That dog's accomplishments are as lost as those of Wilfrid G. Cabana, "champion strongman of the world" whose 1920 letter to the manager of the Hippodrome in New York promises a "great vaudeville act which consists of balancing an automobile on my chest."

Acts that left more indelible traces survived into the postvaudeville world. Promotional postcards show the child star Dainty June in the 1920's; the life of her sister, Gypsy Rose Lee, inspired the musical "Gypsy." And we are familiar, too, with Fannie Brice, billed in one flier here as a "typical New York gal as flip and smart and fly and fresh as they make 'em in this man's town," who got Irving Berlin to write her a song in 1909, "Sadie Salome, Go Home," and who has in modern times been incarnated as Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl" and "Funny Lady."

But listen to Brice, singing in the 1920's at the exhibition's audio station, where it's also possible to sample music ranging from George W. Johnson's turn-of-the-century Negro songs to recordings of Eddie Cantor. Illustrating one song, "I'm an Indian" (circa 1919), is a photograph of Brice dressed in costume; for another, "Becky Is Back in the Ballet" (1922), she puts on a mock German/Yiddish accent whose exaggerations were a feature of her act, in which she sounded like a lower-class immigrant Jew while posing as a social sophisticate.

There's something about this that goes to the very heart of vaudeville. Under the leadership of producers and theater owners like Tony Pastor, in the late 19th century, vaudeville transformed the raucous and ribald variety acts that had been a staple of American entertainment. Vaudeville, in its prime, made ill-repute reputable. Women and children could sometimes attend. When live performances and film were combined in the early picture palaces of the 1920's, theaters included playrooms with toy carousels.

But impulses and attitudes within vaudeville remained at the very edge of respectability. Its stock characters were representatives of particular ethnic and racial groups - blacks and immigrants - and all were presented in caricature. Blackface singers like Al Jolson were imitating the way black singers showed themselves in vaudeville's version of minstrelsy. Irish, German and Yiddish accents were part of the patois of vaudevillian comedy, the mangled sentences echoing the increasingly familiar immigrant sounds of cities like New York.

Oddly, though, these exaggerations were not generally an occasion for bigotry or hostility. There was an element of celebration in the mockery, partly because the actors were often themselves from these groups. Even stranger, ethnic actors would adopt alien ethnic identities for the sake of the comedy, making the artifice even more apparent. Blacks appeared as Chinese, Jews as Irish. It was as if, by some unspoken agreement, marginal groups had joined forces in displaying, to each other, the comic absurdity of their position.

This was not only a matter of social position and ethnicity. As the exhibition shows with photographs of Irene Franklyn or Aida Overton Walker with mock-innocent expressions, there were other forms of masquerade as well: some stars became accomplished "child imitators." Meanwhile some women performers, like Eva Tanguay, cultivated exaggerated sexual personae, jettisoning inhibition - predecessors of Mae West.

Acts in drag were also common. There is a 1907 photo here of Julian Eltinge, the era's premier female impersonator, whose image helped sell the sheet music to the song "You Can't Guess What He Wrote on My Slate." The Russell Brothers were Two Irish Maids (1901) and Karyl Norman dolled up as "the Creole Fashion Plate" (1922). So fundamental was masquerade to vaudeville, that one woman, Gertrude Hoffman, developed an entire act she called "The Borrowed Art," impersonating other vaudevillian actors.

Perhaps the vaudeville stage really was a testing ground for American aspirations, in which all forms of category and constraint could be broken down. It created a kind of democratic masquerade, in which society's costumes were so exaggerated that their artifice became apparent. As with vaudevillian circus acts in which the constrictions of gravity and natural law were dissolved, allowing aerial acrobatics and impossible stunts, here the constrictions of ethnicity or the restrictions of sexuality are dissolved in raucous laughter.

This may have even worked with forms of self-caricature. Perhaps this is why vaudevillian revues were kept alive the longest in black communities, as the exhibition points out, lasting until the 1960's at theaters like the Apollo in Harlem. The racial character of the black acts, which can now seem patently offensive (one 1927 show presented the "7-11 Watermelons"), was part of the point: it was the vaudevillian spirit at play.

The aspect of vaudeville that makes it seem alien now, in fact, is not its silliness or its old-fashioned bits of business, but this kind of playful spirit in which society's most sensitive categories were exaggerated in order to dismantle them. That spirit erupts, now and then, in comedy clubs or cable television shows. But on the whole, though we live in the world vaudeville made, about some things we are much more solemn.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, TheArts, of Saturday, November 19, 2005., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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