They appear as brightly colored ghosts to a certain generation, raised on the last vestiges of the variety show on 1970s television: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, maybe even Jimmy Durante, gussied up in striped blazers with straw hats and canes, doing the old soft shoe in front of some studio-recreated backdrop. These were headliners of vaudeville, strutting their stuff and reprising material more than a half-century old for the benefit of those in the television audience old enough to remember—and enjoy—their triumphs in what was, in its day, the most popular form of entertainment in America. The tradition of vaudeville would vanish with them within a decade, but the cult of personality established by such comedians in vaudeville, as well as many of its odd, patchwork forms, survive to the present-day.
Vaudeville was the next logical extension of the music hall, a popular form of urban entertainment in the mid-19th Century, which provided for a variety of acts to perform in front of an all-male audience, while it enjoyed a beer or two. Music hall (or variety, as it was also called) was basically a theater with a saloon attached. One of the great pioneers of vaudeville was producer Tony Pastor, who opened his eponymous theater off New York’s Union Square in 1881, with the provision that there be no liquor in the audience and that the material on-stage be fit for middle-class audiences; this subsequently opened the doors for women to attend and vaudeville soon achieved massive, nationwide popularity. The roots of its name are shrouded in legend (voix de ville, or French for “voice of the city” sounds pretty reasonable), but Americans in nearly every city—by 1900, there were 2,000 vaudeville houses, half of all theaters in the country—understood that vaudeville meant the best, or at least the most energetic, form of live entertainment.
Shows in vaudeville featured almost a dozen different artists, or acts, at a time, performing all kinds of material—songs, comedy routines, magic, acrobatics, novelty acts, dramatic readings–on what were called “bills.” The performers repeated their acts (which lasted around ten minutes) at least twice a day for a week, and then moved on to the next town (or in big cities, the next theaters). By the turn of the century, vaudeville was such a big business that it needed a monopoly to come in and manage its bookings and presentations. E.F. Albee and B. F. Keith joined forces to create the largest network (or circuit) of theaters and artists in the country; their business means involved a 5% charge to each performer and their strict regulation of conduct, salaries, and material (the phrase “blue material” supposedly comes from the blue envelopes in which Keith managers would send back censored gags) made them detested figures in the eyes of performers. Still, their management of family-friendly acts, railway logistics, and “continuous” vaudeville (non-stop shows from lunchtime to after-dinner) created a system that drew thousands of performers to devote their whole lives to breaking into the “Big Time”—the best theaters on the best circuits—a vaudeville phrase that, like many others, has entered the American lexicon.
To develop one’s act in vaudeville was often a career-long endeavor. A performer had to define and refine his or her skills in a hotly competitive world and come up with something that no one else could do—or at least no one could do as well. For a comedian, this was a particular challenge. A dog act or a magician required little from an audience other than sheer amazement; a comedian had to land a gag whether he or she was in Sheboygan or Brooklyn or Fort Worth, Texas. It was in the latter town that a young Bob Hope flopped with his audience, using material that had scored elsewhere.
A vaudeville manager came backstage and told him, “Why don’t you slow down and give them a chance? These people aren’t going anywhere. They came in here to be happy. It’s summertime. It’s hot. This is Texas. Let them understand you. Why make it a contest to keep up with your material? Relax and you’ll be all right.” Hope took the advice—grudgingly—and within the week he was all right. Texas seemed a particularly tough state for urban acts: when an early incarnation of the Marx Brothers were playing Nagodoches, someone burst into the theater in the middle of their act and announced that there was a runaway mule on the main street. The audience quickly filed out to catch that event, leaving Groucho to remark, “Nagodoches—is full of roaches.”
Comedians also had to suffer through the easy transmission of their material. Fred Allen, who stumbled up the ladder as a comic juggler recalled:
Comedy acts were always the target of pirates. For many years performers had no way to protect their gags, parodies or bits of business. . . and good gags spread like bad news. There was a young comedian whose father regularly attended the opening show at the Palace. If any of the acts had new lines, jokes, or song titles, the father copied them down and wired them to his son. The act continued convulsing the Palace audience in New York, little dreaming that its best jokes were being told in Omaha, San Francisco, or wherever the son happened to be playing.
There was little remedy for such deviousness. Some comedians even made it part of their act; Milton Berle was so open about his larceny that he was dubbed by Walter Winchell as “The Thief of Bad Gags.”
Vaudeville was tough on anyone working their way up the ladder; the pay was poor, the conditions were terrible, the billing was never big enough. Still, performers kept at it, even if they had little to offer. The young George Burns, ne Nathan Birnbaum, was so lousy that “after playing a theater, I would have to change my name. The booker who booked me would never give me another job if he knew who I was. It never crossed my mind that there was any reason to change the act, so I changed my name instead.” Among Burns’ more than two dozen noms de guerre were Jimmy Ferguson, Jimmy Delight, even a member of the team of “Links and Burns”—although he was “Links.” Go figure. What vaudeville did offer was an unparalleled training ground for comedians to refine their personalities into something so special it was money in the bank. It also created a variety of performance styles that still exist to this day: genial hosts with witty banter (Frank Fay, Milton Berle), double-acts (Smith and Dale, Burns and Allen), triple acts (Durante, Clayton, and Jackson; the Three Stooges), even quadruple acts (the Marx Brothers). Even the impressionist act—extremely popular up until the early 1980s—was created in vaudeville. What comedians really had to learn was economy, speed, and variety—it often helped if, like Eddie Cantor or Jimmy Durante, you could tell jokes, sing, dance, and play a musical instrument. “I got a million of ‘em!” rasped Durante about his jokes—and he wasn’t exaggerating, either.
Much has been made about the sudden death of vaudeville. It wasn’t all that sudden. The Broadway revue siphoned off stars, as did radio by the mid-1920s. Vaudeville might have drifted away without the rivalry from technology or more upscale entertainments; it was an exhausting grind, with a pretty low ceiling for success; once it turned into a stepping stone for other, more lucrative and more relaxing professions, its days were numbered. Sound film provided the final resting place for vaudeville; many historians claim May 7, 1932 as the funeral date, when the Palace, New York’s most prestigious vaudeville house switched from two-a-day shows to the lower rent four-a-day shows, interspersed with short films. A few months later, they began to screen feature films exclusively; ironically, the first one was The Kid from Spain, starring Eddie Cantor, one of the Palace’s greatest headliners.
Perhaps, at least at the beginning of vaudeville’s demise, Broadway inflicted more wounds than did the motion pictures. Broadway revues were becoming increasingly upscale after World War I, and more competitive with each other. (Variety magazine added a category called “Legit” to distinguish these classier productions from “Vaude.”) One way for a revue producer to rise above the crowd was to import a vaudeville superstar, or, even better (and cheaper), to create a Broadway superstar from the rank-and-file. No one was better at this than Florenz Ziegfeld and his stable of comedians—Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor, among many others—was legendary. But tastes changed somewhat in the mid-1920s and audiences demanded narrative shows and, thus, the musical comedy was born: a trifle, to be sure, but at least a trifle with the pretensions of a plot. This proved to be a boon for a successful comedian—the first “crossover” in popular entertainment. A comedian could now go from touring in vaudeville to being one of several bananas in a Broadway revue to holding down an entire musical comedy vehicle that showcased his talents exclusively. Cantor was the most successful of these crossover comedians, but Fanny Brice, the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Willie and Eugene Howard, Ed Wynn, Clark and McCullough, Bert Lahr, and Bob Hope eventually followed suit and created brand-new audiences for themselves.
At the same time Broadway comedies were beginning to find their own unique voices, with or without crossover comedians. Before the 1920s, native comedies were skimpy and formulaic: scrappy boy meets scrappy girl, he loses her, he gets her and they live scrappily ever after. But these plays said little about who we were as a culture, and confronted few, if any, of the issues that preoccupied the rapacious and, well, scrappy Americans who emerged after World War I. That soon changed with the emergence of playwright George S. Kaufman who, along with collaborators such as Marc Connelly and Edna Ferber, created the first full-fledged American satires, such as the silent-film spoof, Merton of the Movies and the show business comedy of manners The Royal Family. With the Gershwin brothers, Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind were the first playwrights to poke fun at American government and the presidency in musicals like Of Thee I Sing and Kaufman even took on the unenviable task of corralling the Marx Brothers into their first legitimate musical comedy, The Cocoanuts. Following in Kaufman’s rat-a-tat-tat, wise-cracking satirical style were other gifted playwrights like Moss Hart (a frequent Kaufman collaborator), George Abbott, Mae West, Philip Barry (more genteel), and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, whose blissfully anarchic The Front Page and Twentieth Century would both go on to have major Hollywood legacies.
The Golden Age of American stage comedy would be further diluted by the advent of sound film as many idiosyncratic stage comedians and Broadway writers went West. With the exception of zany, free-wheeling Hellzapoppin in 1938 and a few classics, such as Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, the “take-no-prisoners” style of 1930s comic anarchy no longer seemed appropriate during the Second World War. Serious minded musicals, created either by or in the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein mode, precluded outsized comedians and the successful comedies of the 1940s, such as Harvey and Arsenic and Old Lace were comparatively benign. In the 1950s, stage comedies were forced to compete with television and did so with the only weapon available to them: mild doses of suggestive sexuality. The best of the breed was George Axelrod’s The Seven-Year-Itch (a more interesting play than movie, despite the appearance of Marilyn Monroe), but more typical was Never Too Late by Sumner Arthur Long, in which a man in his fifties discovers that he has impregnated his wife.
Ironically, just as sound films gave vaudeville stars a new immortality by capturing their work forever, television managed to reinvigorate Broadway comedy in the 1960s, especially musical comedy. Five veterans of the writing staff of Your Show of Shows turned their hands to writing successful musical comedy librettos: Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Neil Simon (Little Me; Promises, Promises), Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly!), Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), and Mel Brooks (actually, his 1960s musicals were flops—but wait until The Producers). They were joined by such veterans as Abe Burrows and Betty Comden and Adolph Green in creating a new era of joyously silly musical comedies—shows for the proverbial “tired businessman.” A new generation of Broadway clowns invigorated the proceedings, almost all of whom originally started on stage, but were now television stars eager to spread their wings, bring their comic talents to a starring role in a narrative musical, and, not coincidentally, grab a huge percentage of the weekly gross. They included Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett. Among these buoyant musical comedies, pride of place must be given to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), written by Gelbart, Burt Shevelove, and Stephen Sondheim, an homage to burlesque reset in Ancient Rome. Forum maintains its low comic genius and, over the years, in revivals, tours, and a film version, has provided a happy home for such varied comics as Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Mickey Rooney, Buster Keaton, Nathan Lane, and Whoopi Goldberg.
The last three decades have not been kind to stage comedy. Clearly television and the movies have swallowed up not only writers, but the performers whose finely crafted and often manic personas inspired decades of comic writers. But, Broadway has recently seen a rebirth of the musical comedy, after about a two-decade preponderance of ponderous pop operas. Led largely by Mel Brooks’ The Producers in 2001, there has been a march of shows conceived almost exclusively to tickle the funny bone in song and dance: Hairspray, Avenue Q, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Xanadu, and Young Frankenstein. Such hijinks would have been inconceivable in the 1990s, when Broadway was mired in the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Co. But the theater has always embraced certain stars as their own, comedians who both ennoble and energize a live event with their presence: Beatrice Lillie, Carol Channing, Sam Levene, Robert Morse, Zero Mostel, and Nathan Lane (and Lane often succeeded in some of Mostel’s great parts). Alas, these comedians were not always able to make successful transitions into film or television—something about them being larger-than-life.
But, “larger-than-life” is what a comedy audience demands, whether it knows it or not. Vaudeville and Broadway have given center stage to a special kind of performer who can connect with a spectator across the footlights all the way to the back row in the balcony. When you bought a ticket to see them, in person, cavorting around a stage, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event; it was the stuff of legend.