One thing I might ask my grandfather, were he still around, is the evergreen question asked by late-20th-century kids everywhere: “What did you *do* before there was television, Grandpa?”
The answer is no big mystery: I have some pretty decent ideas of what he did to pass his leisure time back then. It would just be fun to hear him describe the recreational options of the 1920s and ’30s in his own words, and to see his eyes light up as he described the shows, or the movies, or the ballgames, or whatever else.
This week’s calendar entry finds my grandfather revisiting a form of entertainment that would have been quite popular in his boyhood, but was deader than the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the time he hit middle age.
I would have enjoyed the chance to watch this TV show in my grandfather’s company, just for the educational possibilities.
I know so little about vaudeville (or “vaudville,” in my grandpa’s jaunty spelling) that I tend to confuse it with burlesque, its racier cousin. As a child of the MTV age, the only “vaudville show” I’ve ever directly seen is the one that two of pop music’s biggest stars randomly, if charmingly, decided to insert as a plot point in one of their videos.
Vaudeville — which, unlike burlesque, was family-friendly — is best explained as the spiritual ancestor of the television variety shows that thrived from the 1950s to the 1970s.
When vaudeville audiences crowded into their local theaters, they could look forward to an evening of just about anything. Singers, sword swallowers, dialect comedians, dancers, animal acts, family performing troupes, magicians, one-act plays — all of those, and more, were fair game.
Before there was a Casey Kasem, vaudeville did a fair share to spread new musical compositions to nationwide audiences.
A good vaudeville show would send its audience tumbling out of the theater in a lather, off to recap the most engrossing bits to friends and family for days to come. (God only knows how many well-known stars got their first taste of performing this way, reprising their favorite skits and sketches to anyone who would listen.)
Of course, the bigger your city and the nicer your theater, the higher-quality vaudeville shows you got. The mind reels to think of how amateurish vaudeville shows probably were in really third-rate rural areas.
I imagine that my grandfather might have seen some decent-quality shows in his hometown of Springfield, Mass. — shows that perhaps helped shape his opinion of what a good evening’s entertainment should be.
Remember the post last fall about him watching the Bob Hope TV show? That combined singing, dancing and comedy. And, like most Americans between the late ’40s and the early ’70s, I am sure my grandfather watched his share of Ed Sullivan, the king of TV variety shows.
My grandfather probably didn’t get to see a lot of vaudeville, though. As early as the 1910s, the growth of movies was already crowding vaudeville aside for the American entertainment dollar. As movies became more popular, top vaudeville stars and promising up-and-comers shifted their talents more and more to film.
According to Wikipedia, it’s often said that vaudeville died in November 1932, when New York City’s Palace Theater — the country’s most prestigious vaudeville venue — converted to all movies. My grandpa would have been 22 at the time.
My father would not have seen a vaudeville show firsthand. Nor would the stars of Mac and Jack’s Vaudville Show, for that matter.
(Indeed, “Jack” would have been more likely to perform on a segregated vaudeville circuit, like the legendary “Tough On Black Asses” circuit, than to co-headline with a honky from Liverpool. But I’ve already given that video more thought than it deserves.)
Being detail-oriented as always, I checked TV listings, the Internet Movie Database, and Google to try to find out more about the vaudeville TV show my grandfather watched in 1975. Unfortunately, I was unable to turn up any details.
(I did turn up a listing for a PBS special on vaudeville from the 1990s, which is advertised on Amazon as the first TV show about vaudeville. Those who repeat the past are condemned to forget it.)
Just as Americans seem to be getting slowly fed up with the two-party political system, it would be fun to see them reach the end of their tether with $200 million blockbuster movies and endlessly vacuous “reality” TV programming.
And when that happens, what would be a better replacement for our communal entertainment than traveling companies of comedians, buck-and-wing dancers, rapid-fire banjo pickers, trapeze artists and tattooed ladies who sing selections from La boheme — all in the intimate, affordably priced comfort of a theater near you?
Say, say, say what you want … but I think I’m onto something here.