Summer Of Vaudeville

If you’d have told me 10 years ago that the biggest hit TV show of the summer of 2006 would feature a yodeler, a master finger snapper, an acrobat who specializes in kicking himself in the head, and a guy who balances a running lawnmower on his chin, I’d have said you were crazy. And I’d have been wrong.

Vaudeville is back and NBC’s got it. America’s Got Talent regularly landed at or near the top of the weekly ratings with a pianist, a ventriloquist, a heavy-metal harmonica player, a rapping granny, quick-change artists, singers, step dancers, stomp dancers and lots, lots more. And, just like in vaudeville, if you didn’t like a particular act, something completely different followed in just a minute.

Vaudeville’s golden age stretched for 50 years between the last two decades of the 19th century until around 1930, when the talking picture and the emergence of radio began to ease it out of existence. In old school vaudeville, acrobats, jugglers, magicians, minstrels, comics, female impersonators, singers and dancers would travel from city to town performing in programs that might include as many as 20 acts. Some of those acts were every bit as strange as what we see in today’s media environment.

The legendary Cherry Sisters, for example, were singers who thought they were good, but weren’t. One critic described them as follows: “The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom.” They were a “net act,” which meant they performed behind something that would catch the produce that was gleefully tossed from the audience. The Cherry Sisters played eight sold-out weeks in a Broadway vaudeville house in 1896 at $500 a week; they made a fine living for years thereafter in smaller theaters. American Idol’s William Hung, of course, was inspired by the same muse over a century later.

“The Shooting Stars” consisted of two pretty girls out on bail after shooting a well-known socialite in the leg. They sang and danced badly, but packed New York’s Victoria Theater for as long as their crime was making headlines. Chief Sitting Bull, an enemy of the state during the Battle of Little Bighorn, ended up playing a season with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show less than a decade later.

Indeed, before the age of talk shows, vaudeville was an extension of the newspaper. In 1907, a man who’d survived being buried in a mine collapse got $2000 a week to tell his story on the stage. A principal witness in the Lindbergh kidnapping-murder case did a turn in front of the curtain, and in 1913 dancer Evelyn Nesbit’s rate climbed to $3500 a week after her husband murdered a famous architect and escaped from prison. Then there were “The Shrapnel Dodgers,” a duo missing an eye, a leg and an arm between them, who sang songs and told stories about their recent experiences in the Great War.

Many vaudevillians made the transition to the new media, including George Burns, Judy Garland and the Three Stooges, but many more did not. The emergence of television resuscitated vaudeville briefly in the new guise of the live variety show. The Ed Sullivan Show, it should be remembered, featured not just Elvis and the Beatles, but puppets and dog acts. In fact, if you’d stayed tuned after the first performance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the next act you’d have seen would have been a guy doing card tricks. As live TV declined, however, so did “vaudeo.” Sitcoms and dramas became the order of the day, and those variety shows that managed to slouch into the ’70s consisted mostly of comedy sketches and music.

There were a few encouraging moments for olde vaude: The Gong Show in the 1970s, for example, and Fox’s 2002 oddment, 30 Seconds to Fame. The first one of these had no imitators, however, and the other was gone after 15 episodes. Then American Idol, Last Comic Standing and So You Think You Can Dance began to prime the pump. When the crucial element of variety was added by America’s Got Talent, vaudeville was back.

This summer, in fact, it seems to be busting out all over. On ABC, a round of Master of Champions was won by a guy who sliced vegetables by throwing playing cards at them. It’s not just television, either. The Internet is a treasure trove of the vaudeville spirit, old school and new. Sites like YouTube and iFilm offer ever-growing libraries of variety acts. (iFilm’s break-dancing baby could have played the Palace back in the day.) You can make your own program every night and never see the same act twice. If that’s too much work, VH1’s Web Junk 20 will package it for you, complete with a host who plays the role of the old MC.

In many ways, the vaudeville aesthetic is perfect for the new century. With its ever-changing acts, vaudeville accommodated the short attention span. What could be more appropriate for a population raised on 25 years of MTV? The operators of movie theaters— threatened by Netflicks, next-day DVD releases and 55-inch TV screens—should pay attention. If stadium seating and café-style service doesn’t keep customers coming, maybe they could offer live acts before and after the feature, just like they used to do through the 1920s. I’d have gone to see Gigli if it held out the prospect that I’d be able to throw a tomato at a bad local juggler when it was over.

There’s one problem, though. In the heyday of vaudeville, thousands of troupers were making a living. At the peak of the form, a headliner could pull in $4000 a week, even more for the biggest names. Only one of the acts on America’s Got Talent is going to win a million bucks, and nearly every act on YouTube will have to keep, or get, a day job.