Blogs > HNN > Richard Canedo: Review of Trav S.D., No Applause--Just Throw Money: The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous (Faber & Faber, 2005)

Apr 9, 2006 9:41 pm

Richard Canedo: Review of Trav S.D., No Applause--Just Throw Money: The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous (Faber & Faber, 2005)

Stan Laurel had spent fifteen years in vaudeville and English music halls, partly as Charlie Chaplin's understudy in a comedy troupe, before going into the movies and becoming half of the celebrated comedy team of Laurel and Hardy. The team's tag line, delivered by Hardy, was, "Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into!"

This is a fine mess of a book. Happily, the emphasis is more on "fine" than on "mess," but both do apply, and in any case, it is fun to read. Trav S.D. (pen and stage name of D. Travis Stewart) has written a sprawling, exuberant, rambling and affectionate book on the history of vaudeville. For readers less than familiar with the subject, it is as good an introduction to vaudeville as they can read; for those who know the entertainment form well, it offers a few surprises and some sheer enjoyment.

Richard Canedo teaches history at the Lincoln School in Providence, RI, and is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Brown University. He is writing a dissertation on American vaudeville.

The book is organized chronologically, beginning with the roots — the deep, deep roots — of vaudeville and variety entertainment in general. In a sometimes fitful book, the first full chapter positively sprints from Biblical times to ancient Greece and Rome, gallops through the Middle Ages and skips across the early modern era. The theme is the (sometimes justified) suspicion and even hostility with which society and authorities regarded performers, variety entertainments and the theater in general. The breathless pace slows as the real focus of the book emerges: the immediate late nineteenth-century antecedents of vaudeville in the shabby but respectable world of circuses and dime museums (especially P.T. Barnum's), and in the rough-and-tumble, shady realm of the concert saloon.

From these unlikely predecessors came vaudeville, the carrier of a new concept in commercial entertainment: good, clean fun. That, at least, is what the advertising claimed. The degree to which it truly was "clean" does not trouble the author much, though he is correct in asserting that it was positively immaculate compared to, for instance, the concert saloon. The men who created the first vaudeville theaters and circuits were not, Trav S.D. emphasizes, public-minded do-gooders (as they liked to depict themselves). They were, instead, commercially-minded and very competitive entrepreneurs who were responding to and then cultivating market demands. The explanations are remarkably clear of sometimes complicated commercial maneuvers and decisions: the author injects life into both terms in the "show business" equation.

Appropriately, however, the show and its performers receive the most attention in the book. The heart of vaudeville was its wide range and variety of acts. Trav S.D. vividly and compellingly describes the appeal of these acts, the challenges the vaudeville format presented to them, the social, ethnic, racial and national roots of the performers, the fierce competition among performers, among theater and circuit managers, and between owners and performers. The cast of characters is, of course enormous, from the well-remembered, such as the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, George M. Cohan, and Harry Houdini, to the stars who have all but faded from popular memory, such as Nora Bayes, Jack Norworth, Weber and Fields, Julian Eltinge, Eva Tanguay, Harry Lauder, Frank Fay, and Joe Frisco. These and dozens of others are woven — sometimes smoothly, sometimes not — into the always energetic narrative. In telling his story, Trav S.D. manages to steer clear of some common clichés of popular vaudeville lore. Chief among these is the image of oppressed vaudevillians suffering terribly under the overseer-like cruelty of tyrannical vaudeville managers. He points out, rightly, that while there were great costs to the profession, like the endless grind of one-week stands (at best), strained marriages and near-constant time away from home and friends, vaudeville performers were paid extraordinarily well for working, typically and at most, an hour a day.

The book is clear and lucid in describing vaudeville's dizzying fall from entertainment dominance in the 1920s. The phonograph, nightclubs and revues, radio, movies (especially talking pictures) and finally the Great Depression all contributed to vaudeville's death — Trav S.D. compares the multiple killers to Murder on the Orient Express. The book is unmistakably unsentimental about vaudeville's demise: just as canals had been revolutionary in creating a national market in the U.S., only to be made obsolete by the railroads they had helped make possible, so too was once-innovative vaudeville made passé by its progeny. Oddly, the book ends with a strong dose of sentiment, as it considers vaudeville's immediate legacy (in sound films and in early television), and its longer-term significance. In this final section the author placing his heart firmly on his sleeve and makes an impassioned plea for the continued worth of live variety performance. This appeal is persuasive enough, but it has little to do with the entertainment form that is the book's subject. Vaudeville had great historic importance in a number of ways, and it had a great legacy, but as a distinct entertainment form organized nationally, it is indeed dead.

This is not an academic book: it is unfootnoted (sometimes frustratingly so), and written in an unpretentious, animated, and breezy style, to say the least — at times it is downright chatty. The author's background as a stage comedian influences both his writing style — no pun is left unpunned — and the work's emphases: while types of vaudeville acts such as magicians, dancers, song-and-dance solo and duo performers, female imitators, and animal acts receive their due, the comedians get the lion's share of the attention. Still, along with music, comedy was indeed king in vaudeville, so accentuating the jocular may be forgiven.

No Applause is an inheritor to other popular "insider" narratives on vaudeville, such as Douglas Gilbert's American Vaudeville (1940) and Joe Laurie, Jr.'s Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace (1953). Both of those books were written, however, for nostalgia purposes; this book seeks to situate vaudeville in a much broader sweep of entertainment history, and of American history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Trav S.D. links vaudeville's rise and fall to such themes in the era as mass immigration, the consolidation of a national economy, the crosscurrents of ethnic, religious and racial toleration and bigotry, and the way capitalism worked on both the corporate and individual levels. The author recounts dozens upon dozens of entertaining anecdotes and makes myriad wry observations about the appeal of vaudeville and the people who created it. He has carefully read every important memoir penned by vaudevillians, and many unimportant memoirs as well. In the midst of describing the incredible parade of varied acts that marched across the stages of many hundreds of vaudeville theaters from the 1890s to the 1920s, Trav S.D. paints a vivid portrait of this entertainment as not only mirroring American culture, but helping to shape it as well. While the author's reach exceeds his grasp in this regard, No Applause goes well beyond nostalgia in staking its claim for vaudeville's importance in the history of America at the turn of the twentieth century.

Trav S.D. is a master of the sharp analogies, apt comparisons and well-turned phrases. Dime museums are linked to the Elephant Man, burlesque to Forbidden Broadway, and virtually every person involved in making the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz to his or her roots in vaudeville. Tony Pastor, the "father" of vaudeville, showed others the way toward clean, family entertainment, but far more hard-headed businessmen like B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee ultimately profited the most and forced Pastor out of business. On Pastor's death, the author comments, "With him died the Mr. Fezziwig model of leadership; Scrooge now held dominion throughout the land."(p. 157) On Albee's downfall, the author comments, "Eventually, Father Time eats even the strongest of his children. I bet Albee tasted terrible." (p. 252) On the threat of movies to the huge Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit of the 1920s, Trav S.D. writes, "Yet within this Leviathan lived an equally monstrous parasite, a tapeworm made of real tape: celluloid, fed through projectors with interlocking gears and sprockets, and very soon it would strangle the life out of vaudeville."(p. 203) His description of performer Eva Tanguay's appeal is the clearest explanation in print of how an essentially talentless and homely woman came to be the highest paid performer in America.

So if ebullient writing on a lively subject makes this a fine book, where is the mess? Ironically, many of the book's strengths are its weaknesses as well. The flip side of liveliness in this book is the storyteller's penchant for hyperbole and ignoring small (and occasionally large) facts that get in the way of a good story. In the chapter on vaudeville's prehistory (the least sound in the book), the author exaggerates the degree to which theatrical entertainments were socially and culturally suspect throughout all history in all places. This narrative ignores, for example, the enormous prestige the ancient Greeks attached to theater, as well as the importance of mystery plays and morality plays in instructing the faithful — with the Church's support — in medieval times. Further, smaller errors appear with alarming frequency: the origin of the term "blue laws," writer Edwin Royle's name (not "Royce"), the state and year that the last established church was disestablished (Massachusetts in 1833, not Connecticut in 1818), the myth that in pre-modern times only Jews loaned money at interest, even the years vaudeville managers B.F. Keith and Tony Pastor died. There are many more.

While Trav S.D.'s extensive reading in memoirs and popular books on vaudeville is admirable, he sometimes falls into the trap of uncritical acceptance of the oft-repeated tale. This is where the lack of footnotes becomes problematic: did B.F. Keith really say "I never trust a man I can't buy"? Douglas Gilbert and Joe Laurie claim that he did, but their source is unclear, and it was probably Variety journalist Epes W. Sargent, who was famously hostile to Keith.

Finally, there are problems of expression, organization, and even copyediting. Occasionally, the author's puckish wit steps over a line of taste that any vaudevillian would have known not to cross, as when he describes Al Jolson's rendition of the song "Hello, My Baby" as "surely history's first recorded phone sex." (Moreover, the book implies that Jolson "introduced" it in 1909: the first time Jolson sang it may have been in 1909, but it had been a hit in 1899. And the title is "Hello, Ma Baby.") Elsewhere, many terms, such as "entrepreneur," "fared," "forbade," and "cigarettes," are simply misspelled, as are the names of authors Gunther Barth, Albert McLean, Myron Matlaw and David Nasaw.

As to organization, a section within a chapter is labeled "Monopoly — Phase One," but the reader waits in vain for "Phase Two" to arrive. Certain themes get repeated and reexamined in various places in the book, and in one case, nearly whole sentences are reiterated. The author notes on p. 132 that "If anyone embodies the spirit of vaudevillianism, of the triumph of personality, originality, and sensationalism — not only over discipline and craft but even over beauty and talent — that person was Eva Tanguay." On p. 141 while discussing publicity and "PR," he mentions Tanguays' billing, "The Girl Who Made Vaudeville Famous," (note the book's title), and comments, "If anyone embodies the spirit of vaudevillianism, of the triumph of personality, originality, and sensationalism, over craft, beauty and talent, that person was Tanguay." There are also numerous contradictions, or at least dissonances, within the text: on p. 109, after noting the singular success of black comedy team Williams and Walker in 1898, Trav S.D. says that "it would be decades before African-American would be a common sight on a vaudeville stage." On p. 176 comes the claim that "Vaudeville was a showcase for black heroes fifty years before the Dodgers hired Jackie Robinson," which would have been 1897. So was vaudeville a "showcase" for progressive racial standards, or were Williams and Walker the rare exception that proved the rule of whites?

Sloppiness of these various sorts hurt the book's credibility. This is a substantial problem, since Trav S.D. clearly wants vaudeville to be taken seriously by discerning readers. Indeed, vaudeville merits such serious consideration, even while we need to remain conscious of the energy and sprightliness that made it so popular. Like vaudeville itself, No Applause — Just Throw Money is a mixed bag of sharp insights, colorful quips, and unexpected gaffes. In the end, it tells a compelling and absolutely entertaining story. One can only hope that the mistakes will be corrected before the paperback edition comes out — and it should come out — to greet the even wider audience this spirited book deserves.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/17/2006

This sounds like a valuable book, and one I will read. You are perhaps too intolerant of the repeated anecdote or good sentence. When editing your own work it is very difficult to find things you have accidently repeated.

I'm not sure vaudeville has been "made passe by its progeny." (And that's not a bad turn of phrase, by the way). When I look at the tube or the silver screen these days I don't see much of the slapstick and lol that I can remember (vaguely) from vaudeville, and it filled a human need. Gleason and Carney may have been its last manifestation, and look how many reruns they've had! It should be back, and I think it will be, as Vera Lynn used to say, "When the lights go on again, all over the world."